In order to tame the Wild West, territorial governments needed hard-as-nails lawmen and impenetrable prisons to keep society’s worst from impeding progress.
The Wyoming Territorial Prison was built outside Laramie in 1872, just three years after Wyoming was declared a territory and nearly 20 years before Wyoming earned its statehood. The solid-stone structure is one of three remaining federally constructed territorial penitentiaries in the western U.S.
Although the site served the state in several capacities, the prison was opened to the public in 1991, and today, Wyoming State Parks and Cultural Resources manages the property as one of Albany County’s several historic museums.
“I think what makes this building special is it evolved with the history of the state of Wyoming,” said Deborah Cease, Wyoming Territorial Prison State Historic Site superintendent. “It started as a federal prison, then became the state pen and served as an agricultural experiment station for (the University of Wyoming) before its current purpose as an education center for the community.”
With several buildings spread over nine acres, the prison hosts events throughout the year including one of Laramie’s most impressive Christmas light shows.
“Our vision of this site is to be a national destination, a premier historic site and an integral part of the community,” Cease explained. “Education is a strong component of our program here.”
True to its name, however, the historic site wasn’t always a center for community engagement.
As a penitentiary, the structure housed more than 1,000 criminals between 1872-1903, including the infamous Butch Cassidy.
“These prisoners were people who committed crimes in Wyoming or were transferred by the federal government from the surrounding area,” Cease said. “Today’s audience hardly even knows who Butch Cassidy is.”
While incarcerated, prisoners were slated for mandatory work schedules growing potatoes, cutting ice blocks from the Laramie River and manufacturing brooms. Visitors can stop in the Prison Industries, or “Broom Factory,” building to learn about the tools and techniques the imprisoned used to furnish Wyoming with sweeping utensils.
Starting in 2018, the historic site opened year round with reduced hours in the winter season.
“I’ve always wanted to start a winter season,” Cease said. “The staff is here in the winter time working on new exhibits, reprogramming and repairing buildings. Because there is such a need for things to do in town during the winter when the city hosts conferences, sporting events and other activities, I really wanted to give visitors something to do in their down time.”