Deer Lodge, MT
We are staying in Deer Lodge for a layover while on the way to Glacier National Park. While we chose to stop here because it is half way between Yellowstone and Glacier, we did find a tourist stop in town. As it turns out, Deer Lodge is home to the original Montana State Prison. The prison served as the Montana Territorial Prison from its creation in 1871 until Montana achieved statehood in 1889, then continued as the primary prison for the State of Montana until 1979. Throughout the prison’s history, the prison was plagued with constant overcrowding, insufficient funds, and antiquated facilities. In 1979 a new prison was completed five miles west of the town and the old prison was purchased by the town. It is now a museum open for self-guided tours.
When the school where John was principal was expanded, he included a “time-out” room for students who needed a little “me time” to regain the proper perspective of their educational experience. He was envious of the time out room available at the prison.
Perhaps the most interesting story was about a prisoner named Paul Eitner. Convicted of murder in 1918 and sentenced to life in prison, Paul Eitner, also known as “Turkey Pete,” was the first and only person to occupy his cell in the lifetime of the prison. During his stay, he went a little mad and “sold” the entire flock of the prison’s turkeys to an inmate for twenty-five cents per bird. The other inmates liked Pete, as did the officials, so they were allowed to print “money” from the prison’s press to barter with him. After a while, he amassed so much of the bogus dough that he was allowed to “buy” the prison and run it from his cell. Using his version of money and checks, he “paid” all the prison expenses and guards, and was regarded as a loveable old kook by everyone within the walls. When he died in 1967, his was the only funeral ever paid for and held by the prison system. His cell was retired and turned into a barber shop.
The prison is famous for two riots, one in 1902 during which the deputy warden was killed, and the warden severely cut. Two of the rioting inmates where sentenced to be hanged. The men were hanged using the upright jerker method, which used a 300 lb. weight to jerk the sentenced man from his feet. This method was supposed to snap the neck, but it failed in both instances. and the men took over ten minutes to choke to death. The hangings took place within the prison walls, in sight of some of the cells. The gallows used was portable and used across the state. It is now housed in the prison.
The second major riot occurred in 1959 when inmates took control of the prison for thirty-six hours. The National Guard was called out and stormed the facility in the middle of the night, an attack that began with the Guard firing a bazooka at the main cellblock. The damage still evident on the side of the building.
The tour of the prison was very interesting. The prison is the largest employer in the town and it’s effect on the town is evident in name of the local high school.
Thus ends our brief stay in Deer Lodge. Tomorrow we head northwest to Glacier National Park. More on that later . . .