Wyoming Frontier Prison Museum – Rawlins, Wyoming - Atlas Obscura
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Wyoming Frontier Prison Museum

Rawlins, Wyoming

This prison-turned-museum is a remnant of the Old West's grizzly, violent past. 

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Post-Civil War Wyoming was one of the wildest of the wild west states. Its endless canyons were an asylum for outlaws, its untouched plains a playground for the law averse.

Anxiously awaiting statehood, Wyoming chose Rawlins as the prime location for its new prison. The Cowboy State, as it was to become known, no longer intended to act as a haven for criminals. The Wyoming Frontier Prison was going to enforce the territories intention to be a law-abiding member of the union.

Opening in 1901, the prison consisted of 104 cell blocks, and in the beginning was absent of running water or electricity. Women were housed in the prison until 1909, until the last woman was transferred to Colorado. In the 80 years that the prison operated, general advancements were made on the facilities, and due to the apparent popularity of the institution, many expansions were made. 

The prison used various methods of discipline for the people incarcerated there, many of which are considered inhumane today. Methods including a dungeon, solitary confinement, and a “punishment pole” to which men were handcuffed and whipped. It was the setting of prison riots and daring escapes. Train robbers, horse thieves, and murderers made up the bulk of the population over the years—when it closed its doors in 1981, the prison had held at least 13,500 people within its walls, and executed 14.

The Wyoming Frontier Prison reopened as a museum in 1988. It now offers three-hour tours, guiding you through the cafeteria, the grounds, three of the former cell blocks, and of course the Death House, where 14 men were executed for their transgressions: nine by hanging and five in the still-present gas chamber.

Historical artifacts from prison life, fascinating inmate profiles, and an exhibit dedicated to the prison’s film debut in the 1987 Viggo Mortensen film Prison are some of the most standout attractions, and the spooky, misery-soaked grounds are an obvious favorite for ghost hunters hoping to spot a tortured soul forever trapped within the prison walls. The weather in these parts can be unforgiving—make sure to call ahead even on scheduled operating days as the museum closes when roads get too treacherous to receive visitors responsibly. 

 

Know Before You Go

I-80 East: First exit into Rawlins which will put you on Cedar Street. Stay on Cedar until you get to 5th Street and turn Right. You will see us on the top of 5th Street. I-80 West: First exit into Rawlins which will put you on Spruce Street. Stay on Spruce until you get to 5th Street and turn Left. You will see us on the top of 5th Street. 287 North: Go straight into Rawlins on 287 (which will turn into 3rd St.). Turn right onto Walnut St.