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Wyoming Frontier Prison

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Address: 500 W Walnut St, Rawlins, WY 82301-4768
Phone Number: +1 307-324-4422
8:00 am - 5:00 pm
Open now
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Sun - Sat 8:00 am - 5:00 pm
Recommended length of visit: 1-2 hours

The eighty year history of Wyoming’s first state penitentiary, now known as...

The eighty year history of Wyoming’s first state penitentiary, now known as the Wyoming Frontier Prison, is as colorful and elaborate as the plot of a classic western movie. The cornerstone of the prison was laid in 1888, but due to funding issues and Wyoming’s notorious weather, the doors wouldn’t open for thirteen years. In December of 1901, the prison opened and consisted of 104 cells (Cell Block A), no electricity or running water, and very inadequate heating.

Throughout the prison’s operation, approximately 13,500 people were incarcerated, including eleven women. Overcrowding was an almost constant concern, and the first of several additions to the penitentiary was completed in 1904, adding 32 cells to the west end of the original cell block (Cell Block A). Women were housed in the prison until 1909, until the last woman was transferred to Colorado. The addition of the second cell block (Cell Block B) in 1950 temporarily relieved the overcrowding, and also included solitary confinement cells, a much more efficient heating system, and hot running water which wouldn’t be installed in the original cell block for another twenty-eight years. A maximum security addition (Cell Block C) was completed in 1966, but the addition only included thirty-six cells and was reserved for serious discipline cases.

The prison was equipped with several different means of disciplining inmates throughout its operation, including a dungeon, several variations of solitary confinement and a “punishment pole” to which men were handcuffed and whipped with rubber hoses.

The prison also used different execution methods.. The first two executions were carried out using the “traveling” Julien Gallows which were used to hang Tom Horn in Cheyenne in 1903. In 1916, the penitentiary completed the addition of a “death house” which consisted of six cells to house inmates on death row, and a unique indoor version of the Julien Gallows. The building also housed the gas chamber when it was chosen to replace hanging as Wyoming’s execution method of choice in 1936. Ultimately 14 death sentences were carried out; nine men were hanged, and five were executed in the gas chamber by the use of hydrocyanic acid gas.

The Wyoming Frontier Prison is a remnant of the grizzly past of the old west, but not every aspect of prison life was so off-putting. Over the 80-year operation, the prison produced goods to meet demands of four major industries. From 1901 through 1917 the prison had a broom factory, but inmates burned it down during a riot. The factory was rebuilt and operated as a shirt factory which brought in twice the revenue to the state. In 1934, a federal law was passed to prohibit the sale and transportation of prison manufactured goods from one state to another, which resulted in the loss of significant revenue when the factory closed. In 1935, the factory began operating as a woolen mill which won the “Navy E” in 1942 for the superior quality blankets produced by the prison for the military during World War II. In 1949 the prison changed production one last time, producing license plates until the penitentiary closed in 1981.

After serving the state for eighty years, the prison closed its doors, and sat abandoned until 1987 when a low budget movie titled “Prison” was filmed on location. The movie was one of Viggo Mortensen’s first and featured several other well known actors. Significant damage was done to the prison grounds during filming because it had yet to be considered a historic site. In 1988, a joint powers board assumed ownership of the penitentiary, dubbed it The Wyoming Frontier Prison, and established it as a museum. The Wyoming Frontier Prison has since been listed on The National Registry of Historic Places, and offers tours to approximately 15,000 visitors annually.

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TripAdvisor Reviewer Highlights

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    Very good
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Really interesting

I don't know how many times over the years we driven past Rawlins going somewhere else, but this time we decided to take time and visit the old penitentiary. So glad we did. The... read more

5 of 5 starsReviewed yesterday
Julie C
Kemmerer, Wyoming
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162 Reviews from our TripAdvisor Community

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Kemmerer, Wyoming
Level Contributor
20 reviews
5 attraction reviews
common_n_attraction_reviews_1bd8 1 helpful vote
5 of 5 stars Reviewed yesterday NEW

I don't know how many times over the years we driven past Rawlins going somewhere else, but this time we decided to take time and visit the old penitentiary. So glad we did. The staff was so friendly and welcoming. The tours are every hour on the half hour and,since we got there on the hour, we had time to... More 

Thank Julie C
Level Contributor
177 reviews
63 attraction reviews
common_n_attraction_reviews_1bd8 62 helpful votes
5 of 5 stars Reviewed 3 days ago NEW via mobile

Really interesting tour of a former penitentiary. The tour guide was very knowledgable, had great stories about the place and answered all our questions. The gallows and hanging demo were outstanding. Many colorful tales about prisoners, wardens and the facility. Worth every minute.

Thank CCW60
Colorado Springs, Colorado
Level Contributor
20 reviews
11 attraction reviews
common_n_attraction_reviews_1bd8 4 helpful votes
4 of 5 stars Reviewed 5 days ago NEW

One of the planned places to visit on our trip. We took the tour, and the presenter was an interesting speaker. The tour was fun and educational. Got to go inside cells, different cell blocks, the kitchen and eating area.

Thank Sharron M
san diego
Level Contributor
15 reviews
5 attraction reviews
common_n_attraction_reviews_1bd8 12 helpful votes
4 of 5 stars Reviewed 6 days ago NEW

Just happened upon this during our summer road trip. Luckily was able to tour thru. It was the favorite stop for our 12 and 13 year olds. Very fascinating tour - even got to sit in the gas chamber and walk over the hanging gallows! Lots of interesting artifacts in the museum. Probably not good for young children. Lots of... More 

Thank socaltraveler09
Waldport, Oregon, United States
Level Contributor
16 reviews
9 attraction reviews
5 of 5 stars Reviewed 1 week ago

This was a planned stop on our recent road trip and it met all of my expectations! I thought the admission price was a little high, but I was relieved when I found out that we would have a guided tour of the facility. It was very interesting and our guide was well informed.

Thank Connie C
Rawlins, Wyoming
Level Contributor
10 reviews
4 attraction reviews
common_n_attraction_reviews_1bd8 2 helpful votes
4 of 5 stars Reviewed 2 weeks ago via mobile

Interesting tour led by students. Good demonstration of how hangings were conducted. Able to sit in chair in gas chamber! Great stories about former residents.

Thank wysped
A TripAdvisor Member
4 of 5 stars Reviewed 2 weeks ago via mobile

This was a great place to visit! I really liked the reenacted hanging. I will never go to prison after visiting this prison.

Thank A TripAdvisor Member
Level Contributor
36 reviews
8 attraction reviews
common_n_attraction_reviews_1bd8 47 helpful votes
5 of 5 stars Reviewed 3 weeks ago

On our way back from Yellowstone, we stayed in Rawlins and had some time to KILL. Pun intended. This prison has a nice short tour revealing a local Wyoming history and shared stores from long ago but not too long ago as well, since it just closed 35 years ago. They do a re-creation of a hanging that gives you... More 

1 Thank mapail
Level Contributor
95 reviews
29 attraction reviews
common_n_attraction_reviews_1bd8 31 helpful votes
4 of 5 stars Reviewed 3 weeks ago

So glad we arrived in time for the last tour of the day. Our guide was informative and shared some interesting history.

Thank Jossey
Signal Mountain, Tennessee
Level Contributor
3 reviews
common_n_attraction_reviews_1bd8 3 helpful votes
5 of 5 stars Reviewed 3 weeks ago

We have always been interested in prisons as well as frontier life. It was eerie to see a prison that housed inmates during those times and how the conditions adapted/improved as the years passed. Our guide was informative and answered many questions.

2 Thank Kim K

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