Old jail the scene of many escapes | SierraSun.com

Old jail the scene of many escapes

Gordon Richards
Photo courtesy Truckee Donner Historical SocietyThe Truckee Jail
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The current Truckee Old Jail Museum on Jibboom Street was originally constructed in 1875, but the ease of escape and poor crowded conditions of the interior led to several additions and improvements after 1900.

The one-story stone jail was adequate in 1875, but by 1900 the building was in need of improvements and expansion. Several escapes had occurred over the first 25 years of its construction, but around 1900 the frequency increased and Nevada County was petitioned to solve the problem.

Waves of tramps and hobos traveling the railroad throughout the West were frequently turned loose due to lack of jail space. This was termed “floated”; when the Constable made an arrest, but only held the criminals for a few hours, he consulted with the justice of the peace, then released the culprits without a trial. They were warned not to return to Truckee or their stay in the jail would be much longer. Most complied immediately.

The dirt floors were a health problem, and the town needed more space to keep indigent sick people who could not be taken to the county hospital in Nevada City. So in 1901 the Nevada County Board of Supervisors inspected the jail and agreed to fund the improvements.

By July construction was underway by contractor John Duncliffe on the second story and concrete floors. The iron for the floors came from the old Nevada County Courthouse doors in Nevada City. A layer of dirt was placed on the ceiling of the second floor to suffocate any fire that might be set by inmates. Based on last year’s June earthquake, we believe the dirt layer is still there.

Fearing the improvements would make the jail inescapable, inmates increasingly tried to escape during the construction. On July 24 an outside accomplice took a wagon axle and pried the lock off the jail door and released the two prisoners inside. As the men were in on petty crime, there was very little effort to find the escapees.

Improvements continued and the work was completed in September. The lower story was made into one large cell, holding more prisoners. The upper story was set up as one large room, to be used as an infirmary, or for extra space for prisoners.

During mid-1902 a pneumonia epidemic swept Truckee, and many of the ill patients, mostly men down on their luck were housed and treated there. “Whistling Dick” Emory and Thomas Keenan were two of the men who died in the upstairs sick ward. Later Buck McCabe, who was very familiar with the Truckee Jail and the main jail in Nevada City, also died upstairs the effects of long term alcohol use and pneumonia.

Even with the improvements, escapes were not impossible. In July of 1902 two men took a sturdy wire from a bucket and managed to unlock the inner door. They then unscrewed the hinges on the outer door and they set foot out into the sunlight and freedom. Constable I.F. Harvey walked up right then and escorted them back inside and warned them not to try to escape again.

In August another man was found missing when the constables made their morning rounds, but no effort was made to discover how the door was opened. Highwayman Robert Burns, wanted in Reno, but captured near Truckee, referred to the jail as a “very flimsy affair,” and fought extradition to Reno, hoping that his Truckee friends would help him break out of jail.

In 1903 one Marron Miller, in jail on forgery charges, broke the iron bars on the window and found freedom. In July 1904 George Rogers disappeared in the middle of the night, infuriating Constable William McDougald.

McDougald then had his deputies lock him in the jail, and had them wait outside. In two minutes, McDougald was standing outside with them, without using his keys or making any noise. So the jail was widely known to be an easy mark for escapees.

McDougald and 5th District County Supervisor John Fay persuaded the rest of the Board of Supervisors to invest in more improvements to make the jail escape proof. An 8-foot-by-8-foot cage made of angle iron was built inside the stone walls in 1904.

The first prisoner in the new steel tank was Frank Curtis, arrested for getting free drinks at Truckee saloons and getting free merchandise by impersonating a railroad official.

In 1905, a very thin man named John Ray traveled from New York City in a drunken stupor, arriving in Truckee a few days later. While sobering up he screamed profanities at everybody he accosted, and ended up in the “Bastille.”

Constable August Schlumpf brought blacksmith Joe Kirchner into the jail for repairs, unaware of the prisoner in the cell. They struck a match and were astounded to see nothing but a head sticking out of the sewer pipe. They thought they were seeing a ghost and the match went out.

Schlumpf pulled his gun and yelled “don’t drop,” A faint voice replied “Don’t shoot.” Ray didn’t know where he was or how got there, but he wanted out of the “stone jug” as the jail was also known. Ray thought he could fit down the sewer pipe, float down the line to the Truckee River and make his escape.

To get Ray out, the 8-inch thick concrete floor had to be broken up and removed, then the sewer pipe removed in pieces. It took more than two hours to extricate the skinny body of John Ray, who continued verbal abuse on his rescuers as they worked. Ray was sent to the County Jail in Nevada City for his escape attempt.

Even with the steel cell installed, escapes were not stopped. In February of 1907 two desperate characters, W.E. LeClair and Charles Beard, being held for trial in jail, succeeded in tunneling out of the stone and mortar wall. They asked the guard to fetch them some newspapers, and when the guard returned about 15 minutes later, the pair were gone.

Another prisoner had remained behind, unwilling to attempt an escape, and filled in the details. The missing pair had broken one of the steel bars off of the cage and used it to break the rock and mortar loose and open a hole up during the afternoon.

When the jailer came on duty in the evening, he didn’t notice the hole, and was soon on the errand they requested. The pair only had a 10-minute lead, were tracked down river to Verdi, where the trail was lost. The hole in the wall was repaired with concrete and stone, and prisoners were back inside the next day.

Though extremely proud of the jail, Constable Gus Schlumpf knew that it still needed more work, so in early 1908 he started a town petition to add further security measures.

Before the petition could be completed, another escape attempt occurred. Hotel burglar Tom Cregen, was being held, but left out of the steel cells. He too saw that the easy way out was by tunneling out through the stone and soft mortar walls.

Cregen was within a few minutes of freedom when Deputy Constable Bud Temple arrived, making his rounds. Temple locked Cregen in one of the steel cells, and posted a guard over him until repairs again could be made.

This was the last straw for the Truckee lawmen and the community. They filed a formal petition with the Nevada County Supervisors to give the town a secure jail.

In May 1908, the work was underway, adding the current quarter-inch thick steel liners, replacing much of the mortar around the stones with concrete, adding bars to the upstairs windows, and converting the upstairs into a drunk tank. The drunk tank was needed more than the infirmary was.

The new jail was sufficient to help the constables keep law and order in Truckee. The criminals had a lot more respect for the jail and the crime rate in Truckee dropped significantly.

Today the jail is Truckee’s Historical Museum, containing displays and artifacts of many different subjects. The jail building is a historical landmark that reflects Truckee’s wild West era.