The long-awaited dream of turning our historic Nevada State Prison into a historic tourism attraction is about to become a reality thanks to the dedication of past and current committed volunteers of the Nevada State Preservation Society (NSPPS) who have stayed the course and not let politics, naysayers, or any other setbacks dampen their enthusiasm.
As the Beatles sang, “it’s been a long and winding road” to get to this point. There were so many curves in the road that less committed volunteers would have thrown in the towel a long time ago. And some did, but not Glen Whorton who once ran the state prison system and spent 32 years climbing the ladder within the Department of Corrections. He knows the unique history of this fabled prison and didn’t want the story to be lost. Today, he serves as the NSP historian giving lectures to whomever asks.
The prison started off as the Warm Springs Hotel built in 1860 by Abe Curry, founding father of Carson City, of sandstone quarried on the property. The hotel was turned into the territorial prison in 1862 and was in continuous operation until closing in 2012. You can just imagine the tales Whorton can share that took place over the 150 years of operation.
The timeline of turning this historic Nevada site into a museum began in 2011 by Douglas County resident and former history teacher Myron Carpenter and a group of like-minded activists to form a 501 (C) 3 nonprofit to preserve the prison so no further historic buildings, such as was the case with the V&T Roundhouse, would be destroyed within our historic Carson City.
Because the prison is part of state inventory, in 2013, Assemblyman Pete Livermore introduced Assembly Bill 356 to give the newly formed nonprofit two years to develop a plan to turn what was once the historic Warm Springs Hotel and home of the territorial legislature into a museum. In 2015 session, he introduced a funding bill that was not funded. In this session, a bill draft has been introduced by Assemblyman P.K. O’Neill to gain funding to assist with the proposed opening of the museum slated sometime this spring.
So many volunteers have spent countless hours to clean up, repair, and maintain the prison grounds and have personally installed the required ramps to make the facility as handicapped accessible as a building built in 1862 could be. The only portion not accessible will be the second story gas chamber; however, according to current Nevada State Prison Preservation Society Chair Jim Wells, the plan is to set up a video screen on the ground floor allowing those not able or wishing not to climb the stairs a view of the storied room where the first execution took place in 1924.
The site could be used for concerts and special events. The Chamber held their 70th Anniversary and concert in the Yard in 2015, the first major event held in many years. Currently, paranormal tours are being scheduled.
“We are so excited to have come to the point where we can offer tours to locals and visitors and thank the state Public Works Board, the Department of Corrections and the Nevada State Historic Preservation Office for helping us come to this point,” said Whorton.
He cites the challenge of being the first non-profit organization to take over a state building for preservation and tourism purposes and is pleased to have been able to work through the challenges and retain the history. He is most grateful NSPPS received some sizeable grants and individual donations to purchase ADA ramps and make necessary repairs to get to this point.
Today the NSPPS board is diligently working to put together a plan of action that would attract volunteers to function like the Friends of the V&T or the Friends of the Nevada State Museum and the Nevada State Railroad Museum. These volunteer organizations raise monies and provide docents to regale the fascinating history to those who purchase a ticket. It is hoped there are those in the community who would enjoy being trained to give tours and serve in some capacity to make this newest historical attraction another reason for visitors to remain longer.
The Nevada State Prison would be the fourth historic museum in our superfecta: Nevada State Museum, Nevada State Railroad Museum, and the Stewart Indian School Museum, all giving us a glimpse into our city where the history of Nevada began even before statehood.
Even the pandemic could not keep Carpenter’s dream from being realized and that is good news for locals who can be further proud of all the Nevada history made right in their backyard.
We salute the dedicated volunteers as they work out the last minute details to ready the prison for visitors and future special events. You can be a part of the excitement by joining the Prison Preservation Society by logging on to https://www.facebook.com/search/top?q=nspps. There’s much yet to accomplish as the prison is made ready for visitors. Be a part of the excitement.
Ronni Hannaman is the executive director of the Carson City Chamber and a signer on the NSPPS Articles of Incorporation.