Going Straight to Jail in 1900s Colorado

This is a multi-museum post, based on the title theme. I found that touring several museums in a region was like collecting words that formed a complete sentence. Each museum added a piece to the bigger picture.

My first encounter with a jail cell was at the San Juan County Historical Museum in Silverton. The County Jail is housed in a three-story fireproof brick building adjacent to the museum. It was Silverton’s third jail, built in 1902, after prisoners kept breaking out of the log cabin style predecessors. I was pretty surprised with what I found there.

This jail housed both prisoners and the jailer’s family. There were bedrooms with dressing tables and the usual furnishings, and a case of clothing and accessories including hats, hairpins and combs. The family’s parlor included a pump organ which the placard cited as typical for homes of this period. There was a kit in the china hutch, purchased “to add fine art designs to elsewise plain white china.” Women of the home used the kits (which I assume came with templates as well as paint and brushes) to apply designs onto their china, which made their dishes unique and allowed for some artistic expression. There were also crystal pieces in the hutch that were gifts from clients of Mrs. Johnson, who was a working girl on Blair Street. I am not clear if Mrs. Johnson’s second career was as the jailer’s wife…

Prisoners were served three meals a day that were cooked by the jailor’s wife. Her kitchen was considered modern for its day, with running water through faucets at an enamel sink, an ice box and a wood stove with a bread warmer.

Prisoners deemed insane were kept in a separate cell that looked more like a regular bedroom. Beyond the cage door was an iron bed with rope spring, feather mattress and quilt. There was also a dresser, lamps, and chairs. It adjoined the kitchen and there was a pass-through for meal delivery. The placard said that this block was also used by the jailor’s wife to deliver her baby.

Insane room
PHOTOGRAPH BY Heather Daveno

I climbed up a metal staircase to the holding cells. There was a cell set up at one end for an operating room for inmates that required medical treatment. The wicker object in the right corner struck me as being a paupers’ coffin.

Medical cell
PHOTOGRAPH BY Heather Daveno

An adjacent cell was used for bathing and toileting, but was removed when the building became a poorhouse in the 1930s, housing elderly miners and wards of the county.

There were architects’ blueprints on the wall, which were both interesting and unexpected. It showed two 6’ x 6’ cells that were about 8’ high and marked “tool proof”. A corridor separated the men from the women. Beds were hammocks strung from end to end and these cells could hold up to 6 inmantes. The blueprint showed a separate bathing and toileting cell for the women, which was also removed during the 1930s.

The cages were built by the Pauly Family, who were steamboat blacksmiths on the Mississippi, and shipped to Silverton by train. The Pauly Jail Building Company set the industry standard for jail cell construction at the time and remains a prominent manufacturer. All cells were riveted metal boxes, including the floor and the ceiling, with a cage door and a meal pass through that was about 3” x 8”. I found Casanova’s jail cell in Florence, Italy to be less oppressive.

The jail cell at the Museum of the Mountain West was much less claustrophobic. It was a single cell inside the sheriff’s office (pictured at top) which was originally located in the mining town of Ouray. I forgot to ask the date of this building. (The chains you see in this photo were for modern day crowd control and not original jail equipment.)

The cell was wood construction with a riveted metal floor and ceiling, and a cage door. There was a rudimentary toilet and bathing facility in the cell, and four bunks with rope springs and a blanket for a mattress. The docent told us that the saying “Sleep tight and don’t let the bedbugs bite” referred to how tightly the ropes were strung as the bed spring.

Jail bunks
PHOTOGRAPH BY Heather Daveno

I asked about the key-looking pieces on the cage door, and was told those were hooks for additional beds. I imagine this cell could probably hold eight in bunks. I don’t know if there was a separate cell located elsewhere for juveniles or women.

Bed hooks
PHOTOGRAPH BY Heather Daveno

I couldn’t see from my vantage point, but I wouldn’t be at all surprised if this was one of the Wanted posters pinned to the wall at the sheriff’s desk… taken of me as I made my daring escape from Durango, disguised as a barkeep on the northbound steam train…

Wanted poster
PHOTOGRAPH BY The Silverton-Durango Train Photographer

The San Juan County Historical Museum in Silverton is located at the end of Greene Street (the main thoroughfare) and is open from the end of May though mid-October from 10 AM – 4:30 PM. It is within easy walking distance from all of the downtown hotels. Admission is $10 for adults, $3 for kids 5-12. The Mining Heritage Center is downstairs. The brick building in front is the County Jail and is included in the museum admission. There is an elevator in the back of the museum, I do not recall seeing one in the jail. Plan to spend a couple of hours here.


The Museum of the Mountain West in Montrose is located at 68169 E. Miami Road and has onsite parking. Summer hours are Mon-Sat 8:30-4:30. Admission is $12.50 but you want to pay $15 for the docent-guided tour. Allow 2-4 hours depending on how much the docent has to say that day. This site is not fully ADA accessible.


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Heather Daveno

Heather Daveno hails from Seattle, Washington, where she works as an office manager by day and a self taught textile artisan by night. In her spare time she is a “hobby historian” and is currently researching the female side of her family history for a book she plans to write, titled: “The Matriarch Diaries.”

You can see her current textile projects at August Phoenix Mercantile and her travels at Daveno Travels.