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Truckee jail stone-walled attempted escapes

GUY H. COATES

The town of Truckee began in 1868 when the Central Pacific Railroad was built through this area as part of the transcontinental railroad. From its very beginning, it was a rough and stubborn railroad town which had 173 buildings, 25 of which were saloons. It also had what was then known as the “second largest Chinatown” on the Pacific Coast.

Most of Truckee’s saloons, dance halls and gambling houses were concentrated in the single block of Front Street. Behind these buildings, along Jibboom Street, stood one of the most notorious “red light” districts in the Sierra.

One only had to stumble out the back door of any tavern and there was Jibboom Street. It was a series of ramshackle houses where anything could be purchased for a price and was a natural haven for rowdies, ruffians and other lawless elements.

Undesireables in Truckee

Not unlike the towns of Bodie and Virginia City, a continual procession of vandals, hoodlums, pimps, gamblers and con men drifted through town looking for a place to apply their unseemly trade.

Within weeks, Truckee’s first murder had taken place and the townspeople cried out for some form of moral and peace keeping vigilance.

The cry for law and order was answered by Jacob Teeter, who proved himself to be one of Truckee’s most brave, capable and, at times, unorthodox constables. Although proficient with firearms, Teeter preferred to carry a pick handle which he boasted was “never apt to misfire.”

Despite Constable Teeter’s valiant efforts, the town was continually beset by a nebulous, changing swarm of transients. Shootouts, stabbings and brawls occurred in the saloons on Front Street with alarming frequency.

A group of men, considered Truckee’s leading citizens, met in secret one evening and formed a vigilante committee, calling themselves the 601, patterned after a similar group which had been effective in Virginia City. Their goal was to rid the town of “undesirable elements.”

Throughout his career, Constable Teeter was opposed to vigilantism. He worked day and night to maintain law and order, even keeping prisoners locked up in his own home.

Jail becomes necessity

The need for a jail in Truckee was proposed in August 1873. The area was, at that time, sending an average of one prisoner a day to the facilities at Nevada City. Nineteen citizens donated $25 each toward the jail. The contract price was $1,235, exclusive of iron work. The building began going up Aug. 11, 1875, and was ready for occupancy Sept. 22 of that year. The original building consisted of just the lower level, constructed of native stone with the walls being 30 inches thick.

The jail served the town well throughout the remaining years of the 19th century, but its prisoners were sometimes removed by members of the 601 and taken to Hooligan Rocks, east of town, where they were tarred and feathered and placed on a train headed out of town.

Constable Teeter was proud of the fact that in over 30 years experience, he had never allowed the 601 to take a prisoner from his charge. He became increasingly unpopular among the supporters of the 601 who threw their support behind another constable named James Reed.

Feud between lawmen

A feud developed between the two men which resulted in a final showdown between in the Capitol Saloon on the evening of Nov. 6, 1892. Teeter was gunned down by Reed in a hail of gunfire and died the next day. The true circumstances of the shooting remain a source of dispute among historians to this day.

By 1900, the jail was in a state of disrepair. The town petitioned the Nevada County Board of Supervisors for money to pay for improvements and, in 1903, they were successful.

The jail was reinforced with steel-lined rooms downstairs and an upper story made of brick was added. Since 1904, very few changes have been made to the inside of the jail.

Through the years, the old Bastille has held some of the Old West’s most notorious characters, including “Baby Face” Nelson, “Ma” Spinelli and her gang. Old-timers say that “Machine Gun” Kelly spent a night in the “slammer” after being caught shoplifting in the Truckee Variety Store.

One of the West’s oldest jails, it was in continuous use until 1964 when the new Nevada County Sheriff’s substation was constructed. It survived the many fires which frequently consumed the entire town.

Tough to break out

With walls nearly three feet thick, the jail has been impervious to most break attempts. Only two prisoners were known to have escaped, reportedly by climbing out under the roof and fleeing to Squaw Valley. The cold got to them, though, and they turned themselves in to the local constable.

In 1970 plans were made to restore the building. In 1974 the long awaited restoration began. The Truckee-Donner Historical Society asked for and received permission from Nevada County to convert the building into a town museum.

On July 4, 1976, the fully restored jail was dedicated by historical society President Roy Baker along with Truckee’s last constable, Tom Dolley, who served as a lawman for 30 years.

The building is currently registered as an official Point of Historical Interest (Nevada 004) with the Nevada County Historical Landmark Commission.

(Editor’s note: In conjunction with Truckee-Donner Chamber of Commerce’s Windows on History promotion in May, the Old Truckee Jail will open a month early on Saturday, May 3, and remain open each weekend 11 a.m. to 4 p.m. through Labor Day weekend. Group tours are available during the week with advanced reservations at a cost of $2 per person.

For information, call the Truckee-Donner Historical Society at 582-0893.)


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