Canon City, Colorado: Prisons and Paddling

gas chamberYou know how when you’re driving out in the middle of nowhere, and you see those signs warning you not to pick up hitchhikers because you’re passing a correctional facility?

Because, you know, it totally makes sense to locate prisons in isolated areas. Because, for most towns, being home to a prison isn’t usually a tourism selling point – especially if they’re already touted as a tourist destination for other reasons, like outdoor recreation.

That’s why Cañon City (inexplicably pronounced “Can-yun, despite the nya over the “n”) was such a surprise when I was there last week … researching a story on one of its correctional facilities (there are nine state and four federal). It’s a little-known fact that when I’m not writing for Gadling, I’m doing things like visiting inmates and writing magazine features on agricultural and animal-assisted correctional industries programs.

Located 45 miles southwest of Colorado Springs (which as I type, is on fire…PLEASE DON’T MAKE OPEN FIRES OR TOSS YOUR CIGARETTE BUTTS IF YOU’RE VISITING COLORADO RIGHT NOW, I BEG OF YOU), Cañon City is one of the state’s historic “Gold Belt” towns, which connects Cripple Creek and Victor Mining District, site of the world’s largest gold rush. It’s an isolated, high-desert region of ochre-colored rock, scrub and pines, at once beautiful and forbidding.

So there I was at the East Cañon City Correctional Complex in 105-degree heat, touring its goat and water buffalo dairies for a magazine feature. I’m a big supporter of these programs, but I also find the psychological aspects of criminology fascinating, as I’ve alluded to in previous posts. If mayhem, murder and madness are involved, I’m interested. But I also knew that the region is famed for the Royal Gorge (the “Grand Canyon of the Arkansas River“), which is home to the world’s second highest suspension bridge at 1,053 feet above water level, a scenic railroad and some of the nation’s most epic whitewater.

I’d planned to run the Class IV/V Royal gorge on day two of my visit, but the lack of snowpack has resulted in a less-than-stellar whitewater season, so, with time to kill (that is not a prison pun), I wandered historic downtown Cañon city, and discovered the Museum of Colorado Prisons.

%Gallery-159440%prison museumsOne of the many things I love about Colorado is that it’s not ashamed of its rowdy past. Cañon City is the epicenter of that heritage, as it’s the location of the Colorado Territorial Correctional Center, established in 1871. The Prison Museum, which is housed next door in the former Women’s Correctional Facility, celebrated its Silver Anniversary last week, so what better way to celebrate that fact than by sharing the wonders within with you?

The first thing I noticed upon entering the museum grounds was the gas chamber housed beside the parking lot. I took a lot of photos because it’s soothing, pale mint color is just the shade I’ve been longing to paint my office.

Once in the museum proper, I met Mary LaPerriere, the cheerful curator and a DOC (Department of Corrections) employee for over 20 years. She obligingly took me on a tour (audio tours are available for the general public) and answered my many questions before leaving me to explore on my own. I was touched when she brought me a biography on Alfred Packer, the notorious Colorado cannibal who served time in the penitentiary next door, after I mentioned my interest in him.

Among the displays and artifacts housed in the prison, you’ll find weapons made from all manner of everyday objects (toothbrush shiv, anyone?); photos depicting prison life; clippings and information about famous inmates such as Edna Vanausdoll, falsely accused of murdering her husband in the early 1960s; exhibits dedicated to the region’s K-9 programs; and beautiful saddles and other leatherwork crafted by inmates in correctional industry programs (Explained Mary, “The cowboy, the horse, and the dog have been part of the history of Colorado’s state penitentiary system from 1871 to the present.”). Other oddities, to quote the museum website, include:
chain gang

  • The hangman’s noose used for the last execution by hanging in Colorado
  • Displays of disciplinary paraphernalia used from 1871 to the present
  • Federal Bureau of Prisons display
  • Inmate Arts and Crafts
  • Gift Shop
  • And much more!

What is not to love? I should add that Mary’s office is also a former cell used to house inmate trustees employed in the kitchen, and still retains the original barred door.

So the next time you find yourself with time on your hands in Colorado (as long as you’re not serving time, yuk yuk), pay a visit to Cañon City. Even if the weather or water levels aren’t cooperating, there’s plenty to see. Visitors should note that there’s a $25 fee to cross the Royal Gorge Bridge. Click here for information and tickets.

Museum of Colorado Prisons, open May 15-Labor day, 8:30 a.m.-6 p.m. daily; Labor Day-mid-October 10 a.m.- 5 p.m. daily; Mid-October-May 14 10 a.m.- p.m., Weds-Sun.

[Photo credits: Laurel Miller]