by Nancy Christofferson
WALSENBURG — In April of 1944, the county commissioners determined that the Huerfano County Jail would undergo a remodeling and rearranging project.
This was not exactly a surprise move. For decades, the old building might as well have had a revolving door for the exit of its occupants, and the conditions were far from sanitary.
The first county jail burned down in January 1881, and was either rebuilt or replaced – accounts differ. Too, back in the day, the city and county often shared the premises, so when an account appeared of the city jail receiving improvements, this could easily have referred to the county jail.
After the 1881 fire, the newspaper reported A.R. Campbell had won a contract to repair the structure for $400. A few months later the same paper said a La Veta man, F.R. Hill, was building the new county jail in Walsenburg.
Another conundrum is a photo showing the old stone, windowless, flat-roofed building with a caption explaining the plaque on it listed the 1878 county commissioners. Did the plaque really survive a fire?
The location is another moot point. Different people placed it at Third and Hendren, Fourth and Hendren, and on Main Street. An account of the Italian Massacre in 1895, in which two imprisoned Italians were murdered inside the jail by unknown assailants, was accompanied by a map showing the jail due north of the courthouse and just north of the railroad tracks, and the text of the article stated it stood in the middle of Fourth Street. This site is a long way from Hendren.
The Main Street location is also confused. In 1937, it was said Ben Smith was using the old stone building for his Capitol Hill Grocery. Another story told of an impoverished woman using it as a residence. Most accounts place it “across from the Methodist [now United] Church” and at “Main and First streets”. One man remembered it had “huge steel cells” while another recalled prisoners were put into a 10 by 12 foot cellar under the stone structure, accessible by trap door and ladder. And, while all other accounts say it was made of stone, at least one says it was adobe.
Then there is the 1908 article explaining the old jail was being converted into a gymnasium. Many people say this was the city jail on Main, but several reminiscences place County Sheriff O’Malley presiding over the premises. Ah well.
It may have been that 1895 Italian massacre that prompted the county to approve the construction of a new jail, and it was completed by the end of the following year. This is the historic structure we know as “the old jail” and the current Walsenburg Mining Museum.
The county commissioners’ 1944 project was said to be the first remodeling of the building since it was erected in 1896, and, though it wasn’t, it may have been the first major remodeling. The project was to include replacing the floor, electricity and plumbing, rearranging the cells, and painting the interior. Just three years before, the county had approved the construction of a new jail, and had gone so far as to have an architect draw up plans. And five years before, in 1939, the jail had finally received a heating system when it was connected by pipeline to the Walsenburg Creamery just north across the railroad tracks. That’s when the courthouse got its first heating system as well.
The 1925 version of the jail’s “heating” system had proved inadequate, with “box car tourists and floaters” complaining about the cold.
And the escapes! The old stone/adobe jail had numerous prisoners digging through the walls with a metal bar and other sharp objects, so the new one was considered relatively escape-proof. The all-improved 1896 model, however, proved not much more secure.
Shortly after the turn of the 20th century, inmates started walking out on their own. In a few months in 1905 alone, four prisoners dug through the wall with a “common stove poker”, and then four months later four more went through, presumably in a different spot since one assumes the first hole was repaired.
With Prohibition, prisoners in the jail often suffered terribly with overcrowding after a good federal raid would net dozens of bootleggers and other liquor offenders. One group of three offenders not only escaped, but took $150 from the jail safe along with them.
In 1931, five escaped when an outside helper removed a large stone slab from the outside of the building. This indicates the authorities were shoring up their soft-stone walls with more rock around the exterior. One inventive sort hauled himself up out of his cell and escaped through the ceiling over the bullpen. Others found it not so difficult to pull up the floor and after three men did just this in 1938, the commissioners had the floor ripped up and replaced, along with the plumbing.
The jail contained eight cells in 1936; by 1948 it contained an office, two cells for men and one for women, and a 27 by 28 foot bull pen with six steel cages and a corridor to separate them. Another description tells us there were two cells outside of the bullpen and separated from it by a door. These two cells were for women and juveniles. Women were also housed, at different times, in a makeshift cell in the basement of the courthouse, which was also used by the city.
Many improvement projects were undertaken in the 1950s and ‘60s, but the jail was condemned by the Colorado Board of Health in the early 1970s. In 1973 the building was placed on the National Register of Historic Places, so it still looked good, it just wasn’t secure or safe.
The building was condemned again in 1974, and in 1975 the health department allowed 30 days for a fire alarm to be installed, the cracks and holes in the walls to be repaired, the showerheads, sinks and toilets replaced. The board also demanded another door, more windows and adequate ventilation. The sheriff’s office was prohibited from holding prisoners in the building for more than 72 hours.
Repairs were made, but the building was still nearly 80 years old and had seen a hard life with all those guys digging into (and through) the walls.
In 1978, there were no fewer than three escapes – well, five, if you count the one murder suspect who escaped three separate times. This caused Deputy District Attorney Garrett Sheldon to remark, “We have the only jail in the world made out of Swiss cheese.”
In the summer of 1979 county officials had had it, and a $15,000 grant was obtained to bring the jail “up to state standards.. Even in 1979, $15,000 didn’t spread very far, so while enough repairs and improvements were made to prevent wholesale escapes, the jail remained substandard. It was condemned more several times, the prisoners threatened lawsuits, and the building was finally replaced when the new Huerfano County Law Enforcement Center was opened on Friday the 13th of October 1989.