Old Montana Prison

Saturday June 24th 2017

Today I went to the Old Prison Museums on Main Street in Deer Lodge Montana. This is a complex of museums centered around the Old Montana Prison. The additional museums are the Montana Auto Museum, Yesterday’s Playthings, Frontier Montana, WWII Exhibit, Cottonwood City and the Powell County Museum. I concentrated on the Old Prison and Auto Museum today. I may go back and see some of the others tomorrow.


Outside prison wall and guard tower.

The old prison started life as an attempt to tame the “wild west” in 1871. It was built as a territorial prison that transition to the state when Montana became a state in 1889. It continued to operate as a prison until 1979, when a new prison site four miles west of town opened. During its life as a prison it had two major riots. One in 1908 and another in 1959. During each riot lives were lost.


Cell block building inside the outer wall.


Four levels of cells.


Example of a cell. I’m not sure I believe the wood wardrobe is really part of a real cell.

The museum is full of contrasts. The cell blocks and confinement areas tell the story of a harsh uncomfortable life. The seasonal temperature extremes added to the discomfort the prisoners had to live with. On the flip side an area of the museum was dedicated to “prison life”. It focused on inmate athletics, participation in blood drives, Toys for Tots and graduating high school via GEDs. There was a family with young children on the self guided tour with me. The kids were more impressed with the positive prison life display than the cell blocks. I heard the father remind the kids several times that they didn’t want to go to prison to be able to do the things described.

I had to laugh at my own confusion. I couldn’t figure out what the 1935 building called the Tag/Hospital was all about. I got the hospital part but what was the significance of the word “Tag”. I finally found a description that identified the Tag Plant as a facility for making license plates. I’d like to think if it wasn’t in the same building as the hospital I wouldn’t have been confused, but “tag” isn’t my first choice of vocabulary for the identification placed on a motor vehicle.


Some of the early cars.


1931 Ford Model A, 1928 Chevrolet Roadster and 1920 Desoto Deluxe


s1955, 56 and 57 Chevrolet Bel Airs

Next to the Old Prison Museum is the Montana Auto Museum. It contains around 150 automobiles arranged in chronological order. The first vehicle was an 1880 Ladies Sporting Cart and the most recent a 1978 Corvette Limited Edition. I really enjoyed walking through the collection.


Electric Engine used on the Milwaukee Road railroad through the Montana and Idaho mountains.



Outside the museum some of the rolling stock of the old Milwaukee Road railroad is on display. Included in the display is a big electric engine. It was interesting to learn that they ran electric engines between Harlowton, MT and Avery, ID from 1917 to 1974.

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