This old strap-iron jail was once used as a community fundraiser during the Elks Club’s “Helldorado Days” in Las Vegas, Nevada, during the 1930s and 1940s. Now it is on display at the Clark County Museum in Henderson, Nevada. Photo by David Galloway

Old Prisons

Exactly where this old strap-iron jail cell originated is not known, but it spent some time in Las Vegas and today it is located nearby at the Clark County Museum in Henderson, Nevada.

According to Mark Hall-Patton, administrator of the county’s museum system, the old lock-up was used as a “fundraising jail” as part of nearby Las Vegas’ wild and wooly “Helldorado Days” celebrations during the 1930s and 1940s.

Many towns in the American West have a similar strategy for fund-raising during community events. In the case of “Helldorado Days,” men in Las Vegas were encouraged to enter a beard-growing contest. But if they came to town without a beard, they had to buy a “Whiskerino” badge from the sponsoring Elks Club. Find yourself in Vegas during “Helldorado Days” with no beard and no badge and you were liable to end up locked up and had better hope that some friends might come by to bail you out.

It was all in good fun, of course. 

During “Helldorado Days,” there was also a “Kangaroo Court” (sometimes spelled “Kort”) and folks were liable to end up locked up for any number of reasons — or no reason at all except to raise money for the Elks Club, which did many good things with the bail money.

‘Helldorado Village’

According to an article posted on Facebook by the Museum of Gaming History of Las Vegas, in 1939, volunteers helped the expansion of the celebration by building a new “Helldorado Village” at Fifth and Linden streets. The old iron portable jail used was said to be similar to the jail used to house prisoners in the early days of Las Vegas (see Early Clark County Jail below). 

Some old photos of  Las Vegas’ “Helldorado Days” show fundraising using a different jail, so it’s possible that over the years there different jails were used.

In recent years events associated with the Las Vegas Helldorado Parade and rodeo have become known as Las Vegas Days.

Strap-Iron Cell

This old cell is typical of what is called a strap-iron jail or strap-iron jail. Basically a cage, these jails were used in the United States during the mid-to-late 1800s. 

The construction of this jail is very similar to one in the ghost town of Kelso, California, located about 95 miles southwest of Las Vegas. It’s also quite a lot like one on display near the gallows at Tombstone, Arizona.

Former Clark County Sheriff Sam Gay. Las Vegas Historical Society

Compassionate deputy

There is a story about an early Clark County, Nevada, jail in Las Vegas that was described as a metal cage inside a framework constructed of railroads ties (and inside another jail).

In 1909 or 1910, a Deputy Sheriff named Sam Gay decided it was way too hot to keep prisoners in the cage and he took them to an area near Las Vegas Creek where there was some shade. For security, he chained them to some cottonwood trees. Summer temperatures in Las Vegas have climbed as high as 117 F, so undoubtedly the prisoners were thankful for Deputy Gay’s consideration.

Unfortunately for Gay, Sheriff C.C. Corkhill didn’t think that was such a good idea and fired the Deputy. Unfortunately for Sheriff Corkhill, Gay beat him in the next election and went on to serve as the Sheriff of Clark County until 1930.

The Clark County Jail in Las Vegas, Nevada, circa 1910. The jail was located on Carson Street, between Second and Third Streets, and used until the 1930s. Las Vegas Historical Society

Early Clark County jail

Sheriff Corkhill’s metal cage may have been inside the old Clark County Jail (circa 1910), built a year or two after the new county was created from southern Lincoln County, Nevada.

The small jail was used until the 1930s, according to the Las Vegas Historical Society.

Is it possible that the old iron cell made its way from the jail to use for “Helldorado Days?”

Clark County Museum

The Clark County Museum is a 30-acre county-owned site in Henderson, a Nevada city that shares borders with Las Vegas. The museum brings to life a timeline of southern Nevada from prehistoric to modern times.

Part of the museum is dedicated to a collection of restored buildings depicting life during different decades in Las Vegas, Henderson, and other nearby communities of Southern Nevada, including Boulder City and Goldfield.

The old “Helldorado Days” jail can be found next to the old Tuscarora Jail (which made it’s way about 500 miles to end up at the museum — but that’s another story!)

Visit the museum at 1830 S. Boulder Highway, Henderson, Nevada. More information is available online or by calling (702) 455-7955.