This old “railroad jail” at the Kern County Museum in Bakersfield, California, is an example of stacked two-by-four construction. Old Prisons photo by Claudia Elliott

By J. M. Moynahan

One of the early buildings in many western towns was the jail. These structures appeared with the advent of law and order.

Most of these early buildings were small and usually contained one to four cells. Exceptions were the larger county facilities constructed in rapidly growing population areas.

This article deals with some of the characteristics of jails found in the Western states that are still standing and were built prior to 1920. The author will review the materials used to build these structures and intersperse anecdotes about some of the jails.

Surviving history

These structures are forerunners to the facilities we have today. Their study and preservation is important to jail history. Information about these buildings is a significant legacy for the 21st-century jail officer. 

These buildings represent the surviving history of the field of jailology.

Materials varied

Materials used in the construction of jails in the Old West varied greatly. Much depended upon what was available locally and how much the community was willing to spend on the facility.

In forested areas most of the jails were built of wood. In areas where stone was readily available they were built of concrete and stone. If a brick producer was nearby, then bricks may have been the material of choice. Interior construction materials also varied. Usually the inside was constructed of the same general material as the exterior.

Since many of the towns had major fires, very often the wood structures burned and had to be replaced. Many jails perished in these horrific town fires and were quickly rebuilt of more substantial products.

Simple buildings

The majority of jails were not elaborate structures. They were generally built along utilitarian lines with spartan interiors. Most had no indoor plumbing and relied on slop buckets. With exceptions here and there plumbing was mainly a product of the 20th century, as was electricity. Although there were some exceptions, electricity was not commonly used until early in the 1900s.

Cells were sometimes brought to the community and the jail was constructed around them. In other instances, the cells were built into the jail as it was constructed.

Door construction

The entrance and cell doors varied from jail to jail. Some doors were made of wood, usually two-by-fours or two-by-sixes. Sometimes these doors were faced with some sort of metal such as tin. Other doors were made of metal and were in the form of barred doors, strap steel doors or solid steel doors.

Locals made most of the doors, although in some instances doors were made elsewhere and purchased by the contractors. These were primarily the steel and strap steel doors. Occasionally these were made locally by talented smiths. There were some doors made of a combination of materials. They may have been made locally with the collaboration of a carpenter and smith.

This old door on the jail at Hornitos, California, is believed to have been made in England and shipped to the Gold Rush town. Photo by Tanyaboza, Flickr

Shipped around the Horn

The Hornitos, California jail door so far holds the record for the longest distance traveled. The facility was built in the early 1860s to replace a guardhouse. It is said that the outside 76-inch by 30-inch steel door was purchased in England and shipped round the Horn to Hornitos (a California Gold Rush town). That is a long trip for a door.

Early records for most surviving jails have disappeared so it is not known who actually constructed them. It is a safe bet that most of the jails were built by the same local people who built other structures in their town.

In most instances, these contractors drew up the original plans for the building. Some of these early facilities were well-built while others were of marginal quality.

An old jail in Troy, Montana, is an example of excellent workmanship. By Richard Bauer – Troy MontanaUploaded by Magicpiano, CC BY 2.0


Outstanding workmanship can still be seen in many of the jails.

The 1918 jail in Troy, Montana, shows excellent workmanship. This jail was built after the town’s wooden jail was burned down by a prisoner.

It seems the prisoner set his bunk on fire, but the fire got out of control and instead of escaping he was incinerated. The town moved the jail location across the tracks and had a fine three-cell structure built of concrete. According to the application to add the structure to the National Register of Historic Places, the City of Troy continued to use the old jail until the 1950s. Incidentally, this jail was built next door to an active town brothel. You can find jails just about everywhere!

Windows and roofing

Jail windows also varied. Some windows had bars, others had heavy mesh screens. Windows were also made of steel plate with holes drilled in them. Many windows were a combination of materials and occasionally glass was sandwiched in-between.

Window sizes differed from jail to jail. Some cells did not have windows and relied on light coming through the cell door or a window in the door. Needless to say some of the cells are very dark.

Many different roofing materials were used, including metal (tin) sheeting, wood shakes or shingles, concrete slabs and wood planking.

The Hell Raisin’ Gulch jail (at The World Museum of Mining in Butte, Montana) is an example of log construction. Photo by Carroll Van West, Montana Historical Landscape

Log jails

As indicated above, the exterior construction material of these early jails varied from region to region. Wood was one of the most commonly used materials and it was used in several different ways.

In log jails, the logs were notched and fitted and put together like the surrounding cabins, homes, stores, etc. If the community wanted to get the jail up quickly logs were easy to work with. The Hell Roarin’ Gulch jail in Butte, Montana (The World Museum of Mining) is a good example of a log jail.

Sometimes a jail was constructed of hand-hewn logs. An ax was used to remove bark from the log and cut it. These logs were fitted together with dovetail ends such as those found in the Pierce, Idaho, courthouse and jail.

The first Umatilla County Jail (in Oregon),  is a good example of the use of milled logs. These logs are cut flat on four sides by a saw. A notch is added to the end and the wood is then fitted together. Notches may be square, vee, half, etc. Today this old jail is located in Fort Henrietta Park in the City of Echo, Oregon.

Milled lumber

Jails were also constructed of two-by-fours and two-by-sixes. The dimension milled lumber was stacked to form walls and partitions. The Prescott, Washington jail is a good example of stacked two-by-sixes.

Some jails made this way were left with the two-by-fours or two-by-sixes exposed both outside and inside. In other jails, they were covered with some form of exterior or interior siding, usually batt and board or lap. The Rupert, Idaho jail is unusual in that the exterior has a layer of sheet metal over the two-by-four construction.

Editor’s note: An old “railroad jail” at the Kern County Museum in Bakersfield, California, was transported by rail to be used where needed. It is also a good example of stacked two-by-four construction.

Frame buildings

In Orofino, Idaho, we find a totally different construction technique. This jail is frame construction with lap siding. It looks like the houses in town. It has now been converted to a residence and retains no characteristics of its former life as a jail. In fact, most people in town do not know that it was once a jail.

The 1875 Challis, Idaho, jail is also frame construction. Rather than lap siding, it has board and batt. Some of the houses in the town were also made with board and batt.

Rock, brick and concrete

Other materials were used to make the old jails. Rock was the main building component in many areas. The Twin Bridges, Montana jail is a prime example. This small jail looks as sturdy as the day it was built. The rock used to construct this building came from the local area.

Another material used in the early jails was brick. Many of the early towns had brickyards nearby that supplied bricks for various buildings in town. Bricks were often used after fires burned down many of the wooden buildings. Many towns passed ordinances after a fire, requiring that businesses and public buildings be constructed of brick. In Palouse, Washington, the jail with the town hall above it was constructed of locally produced brick.

Concrete was also used for jail construction. There are more old concrete jails still in existence than one would imagine. The Rhyolite, Nevada, jail is a sturdy example. This building has been around for about 100 years and shows little wear except for some discoloration.

If concrete is mixed and poured correctly it should last a long time. Unfortunately, the second jail in Helix, Oregon (the first was wood), was made of concrete but after several years it started to crumble and fall apart. It soon became useless as a jail. This was probably the result of the improper mixing of the concrete.

After the unfortunate experience with concrete Helix built a third jail, which was again made of wood. This jail was constructed of two-by-fours and provided good service while in use. It was later purchased by the local doctor and moved to his house, where it served as a woodshed.

Stucco jails

Stucco has been used on the exterior and interior of some jails. If properly mixed and applied it too is a very durable product. Jerome, Arizona’s famous traveling jail has a stucco exterior.

Jerome was a mining town on a hill with miles of tunnels under it. Underground dynamiting created a fault line and the town began to destabilize. While many of the streets and buildings began to sink and fall apart the jail started traveling downhill.

At first, a path was built to the door. Then the jail moved further and was deemed unsafe and abandoned. It ended up in the middle of the next street and the road was diverted around it. But its travels weren’t finished until it came to rest on the side of the road. Now it seems to be permanently situated. It has become famous as America’s only self-propelled jail.

A strap-iron cage jail at Martinsdale, Montana. Photo

Steel cells and cages

Lastly, there are some old jails made of steel. Sometimes these were steel cages such as the one found in Martinsdale, Montana. This cage is primarily strap steel. Apparently the Martinsdale jail was brought to town on a railroad car and off-loaded next to the tracks. From there it was dragged about 200 yards to its present location. It served the town well.

A variation of a jail made of steel bars is one constructed of sheets of steel. The Avery, Idaho, jail is just such a facility. This jail was also offloaded and moved a short distance from the tracks.

Both the Avery and Martinsdale jail were purchased “out east” and transported to the towns via railroad. They may not have been intended as a jail per se but rather as cells inside a jail building.

Incidentally, prisoners were held in them regardless of the weather. Needless to say, there were no jail standards in those days.

Old jail in Washtucna, Washington. Photo, 2017, by Jimmy Emerson, Flickr

Mixed materials

A few jails were constructed of a combination of materials. Examples include South Pass City, Wyoming, which has a combination of two-by-sixes and squared timbers and the Washtucna, Washington, jail,  which is built with stacked two-by-fours covered with lap siding. The Columbia, California, jail is of stone and brick construction as is the Park City, Utah, facility.

No typical jails

Regardless of the impression made by western cowboy movies, there were no typical jails. They varied in materials, size and appearance. Their only commonality was that they were intended to confine a person.

The operative word is intended. Many of the early jails were not secure. There were numerous escapes even from those deemed escape-proof. Prisoners often used their own ingenuity to escape. In other instances, they received help from the outside.


One prisoner sawed his way out of a wooden jail. His absence was not noted until the following day. The marshal or person in charge rarely stayed in the building overnight. Prisoners were locked up; the jailer went home and they were not tended to until the next day.

When a group of Montana cowboys lost one of their numbers to an arresting peace officer the “boys” decided to spring their companion. They waited until the town quieted down and the officer had gone home. The boys then went to the two-by-four jail and lifted one end up while their friend crawled out. They were long gone by the time anyone was the wiser.

Speaking of escapes, some of the local ranchers got very upset if any of their cowboys were kept in jail. Mr. Sullivan of Montana’s Sullivan Cattle Outfit was probably fairly typical of Montana, Wyoming and other cattle areas.

He flatly told law enforcement that he refused to have any of his “Saturday night” cain-raising range crew housed in the Square Butte, Montana, jail. If this happened he promised to take his boys and tear the place down.

Apparently his threat carried quite an impact. Findings indicate that none of his boys spent time in the jail. Incidentally, the granite jail is still standing and in excellent health!

J.M. MOYNAHAN is Professor Emeritus in Sociology and Criminal Justice, Eastern Washington University.

About the author

J. M. Moynahan is a retired professor of Criminal Justice from Eastern Washington University. He first became interested in jails in 1961 when he was appointed Town Marshall of Palouse, Washington. (The Palouse jail, built c. 1890, held up to two prisoners.) Obtaining his education from Washington State University and the University of Montana, he went on to become professor and chair of the Criminal Justice Department at Eastern Washington University. He served as a consultant to the Jail Division, Spokane County Sheriff’s Office, and the Washington State Criminal Justice Training Commission (where he designed basic jail officer training courses.) Moynahan co-authored the book The American Jail with Earle K. Stewart and has written many articles for American Jails magazine.