Jail museum opens cell doors for season
Lawrence Parrish of Glenshire has lived at Lake Tahoe and in the Truckee area for nearly four decades.
But until Saturday, the general contractor had never visited one of the North Tahoe area’s lesser-known historical assets ” the Old Jail Museum on Truckee’s Jibboom Street.
A descendent of a Donner Party survivor, Parrish escorted his 5-year old son, Preston, through the jail’s two floors. Parrish and Preston, a Glenshire Elementary student, paused at exhibits that showcased such early Truckee industries as the transcontinental railroad, ice harvesting, timber extraction, winter sports and Hollywood filmmaking.
Operated by the Truckee-Donner Historical Society, the museum is housed in the jail that Truckee town leaders built in 1875. The walls of the original first story are 30 inches thick and built of stone and mortar. The town added a second floor with a brick exterior in 1903.
The cost in 1875 to build the jail was $500, which local citizens viewed as a cost-saving investment. According to an 1874 newspaper article, Truckee could house and feed minor criminals with a typical sentence of 25 days for less than the $40 it cost to transport a suspect to the county seat of Nevada City.
“If we had a suitable jail in Truckee this cost of transportation in all cases of minor offenses could be saved,” D.B. Frank wrote in the Truckee Republican.
Located at the start of Truckee’s notorious red-light district, the jail remained in continuous service for 86 years, until a deputy state fire marshall visited the facility in 1961 and realized an accidental fire from the jail’s oil heater would block the jail’s only exit. Nevada County ultimately donated the building to the historical society for use as a free public museum.
Historical Society members installed a number of exhibits, with informational displays, vintage photographs and artifacts from Truckee’s earliest years. The society also offers for sale a selection of Truckee-Tahoe historical books and photographs.
Physically, the building remains in much the same state as when it closed. Downstairs, latticed iron doors on two small cells still clang shut with a metallic clunk. Visitors can see 50-year-old graffiti scratched into the pale-green walls by prisoners.
The museum is an annual stop for several local groups, as well as Truckee schoolchildren. Every year, local third-graders study Truckee history, and the jail museum is an important field trip. Four Glenshire classes toured the facility in May, and seven Truckee Elementary classes in June.
On Saturday, docent Carmen LeBlanc of Truckee showed visitors around the old stone jail, still chilly in the afternoon despite a warm sun outside.
“I enjoy meeting the people,” LeBlanc said of her volunteer shifts.
Society member Don Colclough said he also enjoys meeting visitors from around the world at the jail museum.
“I love being here, and I enjoy history,” Colclough said. “To me, being a docent is very, very rewarding.
Those interested in volunteering with the society should contact Chelsea Walterscheid at 587-1855.
Beginning On Memorial Weekend, society members staff the museum on Saturday and Sunday. Current hours are noon to 3 p.m., but the hours should expand to 11 a.m. to 4 p.m. as the summer continues.
For the second year, the society will also open the museum on one afternoon each week. This year, the Old Jail Museum will be open from 4 to 6 p.m. on Truckee Thursdays, when merchants on Commercial Row keep their shops open into the evening.