Echoes From The Past: Truckee’s historic jail has a vivid past
Truckee’s historic jail museum is one of only a few surviving 19th century jailhouses in the West and one of the few remaining original buildings in Truckee.
The old Bastille was used continuously from 1875 until May 1964, and ably withstood the many fires that swept the town in its early days.
Although jails are usually sturdy, Truckee’s is a virtual strongbox. The original building consisted of just the lower level, constructed of native stone. The walls are 32 inches thick at the lower level, with no windows unless one counts the small vents for each cell, which are set with irregular rows of two-inch steel bars. The ceilings are plate steel, insulated with dirt, and lined with narrow gauge railroad tracks. All doors are riveted steel, weighing an estimated 200 pounds each.
The need for a jail in Truckee was proposed in August 1873. At the time the only place to hold prisoners was a calaboose in the center of Brickelltown that proved inadequate to house the number of rowdy “guests” consigned there by local lawmen.
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 construction of the jail and the contract was awarded to James Stewart, Truckee’s premier stonemason, at bid price of $1,235, exclusive of ironwork. The building began going up Aug. 11, 1875, and was ready for occupancy Sept. 22 of that year.
The first prisoner was named William Hart, who got himself involved in a nasty brawl on Jibboom Street and was subsequently arrested by Constable Jake Teeter on Sept. 22, 1875. Six days later a friend paid his bail and he was released, only to return a month later after starting another free-for-all in one of the local saloons.
By 1900 through continuous use, the jail had fallen into a state of disrepair. In 1901 the jail was given the addition of a second floor, which served as both a hospital ward and a holding place for female prisoners.
In 1904 two desperados escaped by making a saw from a case knife and removing one of the bars, which they used to pound a hole through the 32-inch wall of the larger room. It was no mean feat and called attention again to the need for reinforcement.
For years the town’s peace officers vainly petitioned the Nevada County Board of Supervisors for money to pay for improvements. In 1908, through the efforts of Constable Augustus Schlumpf, they were successful. The jail was reinforced with quarter-inch steel-lined rooms downstairs, and an upper story made of brick was added. Further improvements were made in 1909 by adding a second set of reinforced steel-grated entry doors.
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.
Today, the Old Truckee Jail serves a new class of visitors. In 1970 plans were made to restore the building and 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, Historical Society President Roy Baker, along with Truckee’s last official constable, Tom Dolley, who served as a lawman for 30 years, dedicated the fully restored jail. The building is presently registered as an official Point of Historical Interest with the State of California (Nevada 004).
The Truckee-Donner Historical Society offers an interesting tour and has a wide variety of local historical artifacts and photographs on display.
The Museum is open each weekend from 11 a.m. to 4 p.m. all summer, until Labor Day. Stop by and see for yourself what a jail from the old west is really like.
You will see relics from other important industries including lumbering, box manufacturing and ice harvesting. Other exhibits pay tribute to the film industry, which thrived in Truckee during the 1920s along with gambling and bootlegging.
Also exhibited are artifacts from Truckee’s early winter sports era, including early skiing equipment and many historical photographs.
The Old Jail museum is truly the gem in the crown of Truckee’s historic district and should not be missed by anyone with a love of history. You can even bring a picnic lunch to enjoy in the recently dedicated memorial garden behind the jail. The always friendly and often entertaining volunteer docents are always happy to answer any questions you might have.
Anyone interested in becoming a docent at the jail museum can do so by contacting Don Colclough at 587-1343 or the Truckee-Donner Historical Society office at 582-0893.
“Echoes From The Past” appears every other week in the Sierra Sun. Guy Coates is vice president and research historian for the Truckee-Donner Historical Society. He can be reached through the Society at 582-0893 or by E-mail at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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