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After 150 years, a Carson City landmark closes its doors. New Images of America book captures its intriguing history.
Photo: Nevada State Library and Archives
The following is an excerpt from the Introduction of the recently released book, Nevada State Prison.
As a maximum-security facility, the Nevada State Prison was home to some of the state’s worst offenders. However, the prison actually began its existence as a hotel, established by Carson City founder Abraham Curry. An entrepreneur from New York, Curry first came to Nevada in 1858 with the intent of opening a general store. Finding land too expensive in his target area of Genoa, he moved his venture to the sparsely populated Eagle Valley, where he and his investment partners purchased the Eagle Ranch. By 1858, Curry had the ranch land surveyed and platted. The eastern boundary of the ranch became known as Warm Springs, and the western portion of the ranch became Carson City. Curry became the sole owner of Warm Springs, a choice tract of land thanks to its plentiful water and large sandstone outcrop that could easily be quarried. He then established the Warm Springs Hotel, meeting place of the first session of the Nevada territorial government. The legislators quickly realized that the newly formed territory needed a prison. With the government lacking enough resources to build a prison, Curry offered to house convicts in his hotel. The hotel became the territorial prison in 1862, with Curry as its first warden. Curry later sold the hotel, 20 acres of surrounding land, the sandstone quarry adjacent to the hotel, and other property to the territory for $80,000.
With the Nevada State Prison well established, in 1901, the legislature passed a law stating that all death sentences must be carried out at NSP, thereby adding a new element to the prison population. Given the nature of some of the inmates, maintaining discipline within the prison was always a primary concern. Methods employed to control the convicts were, in the beginning, rather interesting. For instance, solitary confinement consisted of placing an inmate in “the hole,” a tunnel quarried into the prison sidewall and into which a person was left for an indeterminate amount of time. However, despite those of a nefarious disposition, the prison has also been home to some truly heroic inmates. During the summer of 1926, a massive fire broke out in Carson City. Water supply lines needed to quell the fire were compromised, and the city called for help. Several prisoners volunteered to aid the fight, and, in the words of then warden W.J. Maxwell, “went willingly to the most dangerous sections of the fire area. They fought valiantly along with the townspeople, and there was no distinction between prisoner and free man.” In the end, five people died due to severe burns received while attempting to stave off the inferno—two were convicts.
The 1926 fire is an extreme example of the contribution some Nevada State Prison inmates have made to Carson City.
Others are more subtly woven into the background of the city and require looking at the group as a whole, instead of as individuals. The collective group of inmates was responsible for working the sandstone quarry originally established by Curry. Stone from the quarry was used to construct many of Carson City’s oldest buildings, including the U.S. Mint (now the Nevada State Museum) and various capital buildings. Thus, even today visitors to Carson City can see the fruits of inmate labor. While the prison industries grew and became formalized into things such as license-plate production and mattress making, the idea of work being a reward persisted.
After a hard day of working, relaxing with a bit of prison-sanctioned entertainment must have been a treat. In a move that one sees as being uniquely Nevada-like in nature, NSP had a legal, prisoner-operated casino within its boundaries. Beginning in 1932, prisoners could gamble on card games and dominos. Inmates made poker chips out of discarded records, and some talented individuals hand-painted cards with which to play. The prison even had its own currency known as “prison brass.” Eventually, the casino expanded to include table games and sports betting. In addition to gambling, the prison had baseball, basketball, and boxing teams. There was even a prison band called The Boys in Blue, which performed at charitable events and was featured on a weekly radio program.
In 1921, Nevada became the first state in the Union to promulgate that capital sentences be carried out by means of lethal gas. The nation’s first gas chamber was imperfect, to say the least. Without a model to follow, prison warden Denver Dickerson and those around him had to invent a chamber as they went. They chose to convert an old prison yard building originally constructed in 1888 and at the time being used as the barbershop. Obviously, the building needed to be airtight, so using prison labor, they sealed all of the windows and doors. A cell was installed inside the building as was a pump to move the gas and a chair to hold the condemned. The idea was that the entire building would fill with the deadly gas; the gas would dispatch the prisoner and would then be vented out of the building through the roof. According to Nevada law, witnesses had to be present during the execution (see photo above, courtesy of the Nevada Historical Society). Given the gas chamber design, the only way to accommodate witnesses was to have them stand outside the building and peer in through the windows to watch the condemned die. While it had its supporters, many people were shocked and horrified by the gas chamber. Nonetheless, 11 other states eventually followed Nevada’s lead and adopted the lethal gas method as a means of executing prisoners.
While the gas chamber is a rather macabre moment in the Nevada State Prison story, overall, the institution has played an important role in Carson City and Nevada. Its history is full of strange events, and it has housed some of Nevada’s more interesting criminals. A.J. “Jack” Davis called the prison home after he spearheaded the first Nevada train robbery. Ben Kulh committed the last stage robbery and not only ended up being a resident of NSP but also set a legal precedent. As he was robbing the stage, Kulh murdered the driver and, in the process, left behind a bloody palm print. Fingerprint evidence was in current use and accepted by the courts; palm print evidence, however, was brand new. A large portion of Kulh’s trial was dedicated to arguments over the admissibility of the new type of evidence. The case went to the Nevada Supreme Court, where the justices ruled in favor of the prosecution and thus set a legal precedent for the nation.
Thousands of convicts have passed through the doors of the Nevada State Prison, some to be redeemed, some to meet their end, and others to spend a lifetime in prison. Now, after 150 years, the prison’s story is coming to a close. In 2011, Nevada’s government officials decided to shut down the prison, citing reports that claimed NSP was more expensive to operate than other facilities and that the prison needed structural upgrades that were too costly to justify. Now, the prison is emptied of its charges—what happens to NSP, only the future knows.
ORDER YOUR COPY
With more than 200 vintage photographs and captions, Nevada State Prison (Arcadia Publishing, 2012) offers readers a glimpse into the fascinating history of the prison and its most notorious inmates. For 20% off and free shipping, visit arcadiapublishing.com and enter NVMAG at checkout. Offer ends June 30, 2012.