State prison played key role in city's history

In December 1861 there were many criminals in the Territory of Nevada. The first Territorial Legislature thought it was time to provide for some way of keeping order, and they created a Board of State Prison Commissioners.

Abe Curry had built a place at Warm Springs (now E. 5th Street in Carson City), and offered it for a meeting place of the first Territorial Legislature.

The Nevada Legislature was duly elected from a population of miners, cowboys, adventurers and ranchers, but they couldn't find a place to hold their meetings. Carson City had no intention of giving a hall, rent free, or even renting one on the cuff to a legislature with no money behind it. Abe Curry jumped to the rescue and offered the free use of his hotel for legislative meetings. He even built a horse-drawn railway to convey the solons from Carson City to his hotel, a distance of two miles. It was slow, but better than walking ... His business enjoyed a great upswing and the legislators found the atmosphere and the dining room and the bar much to their liking ... It happened one night that they all met in the Warm Springs bar after a particularly heated session for a gay evening that grew rosier as the hours passed by. Along toward morning somebody made a remark. Words were heated and insults filled the air, and soon a bottle-smashing, chair-throwing brawl was in full swing. A big mirror crashed to the floor, breaking bar glasses as it fell, and table legs snapped like toothpicks. When it was over a very indignant Mr. Curry stood amid the wreckage of his hotel and demanded full restitution ..."

To make up for their rowdy activities, they bought the property for a prison site. They hurried to Carson City, met in quick session, voted that the Territory buy some of the old Warm Springs Hotel buildings and an old stone quarry for a territorial prison, raided the treasury to the tune of $80,000 leaving one thin dime on which the Territory had to operate for the rest of the year and elected Abe Curry warden (Nevada State Journal, Nov. 14, 1954).

On Feb. 20, 1864, an Act was approved and said: The Board of Commissioners, consisting of the Secretary of the Territory, Territorial Auditor and Territorial Treasurer, shall, on or before the first day of March, 1864, contract with Abram Curry for the purchase of the building now occupied for a Territorial Prison, together with twenty acres of land including the stone quarry, with all improvements, implements, arms and mechanic's tools or now used for the labor and security of the prisoners ... and upon the proper execution thereof the Territorial Auditor shall ... issue bonds to said Curry to the amount of $80,000 bearing interest at the rate of ten per centum per annum for the purchase of said property (History of Nevada 1881, Thompson and West).

In 1864, Robert M. Howland was made warden. Bob had then the same reputation for levity that he now enjoys, and when he became Warden the prisoners thought they would have an easy time of it, but were disappointed ... not a prisoner escaped during his term of office. George Kirk, a notorious character, was sentenced in 1864 to imprisonment for highway robbery. The first morning of his stay in the penitentiary he refused to come out of his cell and "fall in line" with the other prisoners. This is how Howland subdued Kirk: The Warden quietly ordered his cell door closed, and the other prisoners were marched "left hand on next mans shoulder" to breakfast. Kirk, in the meantime, was raving, and loudly cursing, and defying the Warden ... The Warden quietly went to the blacksmith shop, procured a bar of steel about twelve feet long and had it heated for about four feet on one end to a red heat, and as quietly came back with it to cell No 5. He again ordered Kirk to come out and "fall in," and was met with the former refusal and violent abuse. The Warden closed the grated door of the cell, and shoved the bar of steel, hot end foremost through the bars ... Kirk howled with mingled rage and torture ... At last he [Kirk] realized the helplessness of his position and begged for mercy." (History of Nevada 1881, Thompson and West).

In an article by Phillip Earl, March 28, 1976, entitled " Early Nevada prison wardens were tough" he talks about Bob Howland and says he "... was nobody to fool with. A friend of Territorial Governor James Warren Nye, Holland had migrated to Nevada in 1861. For a time he was Samuel Clemens' partner and cabin mate at Aurora before the latter gave up mining and began a literary career under the name of Mark Twain."

There were 120 prisoners at the time of the fire in 1867. Governor Slingerland reported on the treatment of inmates: In the system adopted, I have not proposed to consume precious time in trying to make an unmitigated rascal an honest man. I have no "trustees," they all stand on equal footing, one with another; yet among them there are good men, who, if restored to liberty, would make good citizens and become worthy members of society. They are all cleanly clothed and well fed, each one is dressed in prison uniform, made of woolen cloth with stripes black and white. They all labor faithfully each day in the prison yard, and at meals get for Breakfast: beefsteak, potatoes, bread, hot or cold. Dinner: roast beef or stew. Baked beans on Mondays, Wednesdays and Saturdays. Mush and molasses, or pudding, on Tuesdays, Thursdays and Fridays. Soup on Tuesdays. Bread and potatoes each day. Supper: cold meat, hash, potatoes and bread, stewed peaches or apples every other day ...

In the election of 1868, Frank Denver was chosen lieutenant governor. At that time the lieutenant governor's job was to be warden of the prison. During his tenure, stone was quarried for the state capitol. In 1873 a bill was passed in the Legislature "to provide for the erection of a State Prison," authorizing $100,000 and use of prison land or to purchase land and erect buildings. They purchased 206 acres of land on the banks of the Truckee River, a mile east of Reno. (History of Nevada 1881, Thompson and West).

The Morning Appeal reports on the Legislative Session on Feb 21, 1881, that ... a lively debate ensued ..." after the State's Prison bill came up. The bill was introduced by Westerfield, and appropriated $80,000 for the erection of a State's Prison at Reno. Haines was the first to get on his feet, and ridiculed the idea that manufacturing could be made profitable by Nevada convict labor when competing with California convict labor. Meder thought the bill would simply result in a large expenditure of money to no purpose. He believed it would be just as well to house the prisoners in the Palace Hotel." Further debate continued, "... Farrell spoke against the bill. He believed that the people wanted expenses cut down. No public building had ever been put up for the original appropriation. Furthermore, $80,000 would not build this Reno prison.

The prison remained in Carson City and to this day there is still a prison here.

There have been many wardens, many stories of the criminals incarcerated there over the years and struggles over budget issues have come up in each legislative session since 1861. But, after serving Nevada for about 145 years, this is the first time that closure has come close to a reality. The Nevada State Prison will always be an important part of Carson City and Nevada's history. Let's not forget.

We can learn from history how past generations thought and acted, how they responded to the demands of their time and how they solved their problems. We can learn by analogy, not by example, for our circumstances will always be different than theirs were. The main thing history can teach us is that human actions have consequences and that certain choices, once made, cannot be undone ... (Gerda Lerner)

• Sue Ballew is the daughter of Bill Dolan, who wrote the Past Pages column for the Nevada Appeal from 1947 until his death in 2006. She is past president of the Carson City Historical Society.


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