Jefferson City, MO and the old Missouri State Penitentiary
N 38° 34.416 W 092° 09.733
15S E 572979 N 4269792
Quick Description: The old Missouri State Pen. was decommissioned in 2004. It had been the USA's oldest operating prison west of the Mississippi River. A new book by internationally acclaimed author Hampton Sides may be helping its status as a tourist attraction.
Location: Missouri, United States
Date Posted: 5/9/2010 5:39:37 PM
Waymark Code: WM8T3Y
Jefferson City's Missouri State Penitentiary's limestone walls and its early buildings are hewn from local native limestone. Work started here in 1838. Up until it was decommissioned in 2004, it was the nation's oldest continuously operating prison west of the Mississippi River.
In May,2010 popular author Hampton Sides drew attention to the old prison site with his new book "Hellhounds on His Trail" and also with his commentary in the American Experience series video on PBS entitled "Roads to Memphis" that also aired in early May.
In 2000 plans for a new mid-Missouri correctional facility were ongoing and plans for redevelopment of the old facility known as MSP began.
MSP prison labor was an important part of this building process, especially in the early years. Prison labor was also important to industries that started up inside the walls of the facility. Along Capitol Avenue many entrepreneurs built fine houses not far from the prison.
In 2004 the prison population were smoothly transferred to the new modern correctional facility about 10 miles east of the city near the Missouri National Guard Headquarters and the Algoa Correctional facilites.
The prison site is on some prime real estate overlooking the Missouri River. Some of the prison property has seen new buildings such as the Department of Natural Resources "Lewis & Clark" building, which has a great vista of the old prison complex, and the Missouri River from its 4th floor atrium windows. I also did a WAYMARK on that LEER energy efficient building.
An open house to the public immediately after the prison decommissioning in 2004 turned out to be extremely popular. An estimated 30,000 visitors showed up at the prison entrance for the weekend open house that was free to the public.
Also at that time local Jefferson City resident and deputy warden Mark Schreiber and Laura Burkhart Moellner wrote an MSP prison history entitled "Somewhere in Time."
So, in 2009 the Jefferson City Convention and Visitors Bureau in cooperation with the state prison redevelopment commission and the office of administration began promoting and scheduling their first tours for the public. In 2010 they have expanded this to include a very nice website for these hard hat tours. Several newspaper and magazine articles across the nation have intensified interest in the prison tour scheduling. If you plan to go, schedule it well in advance before your arrival date.
Why all this interest in a campus of very old buildings on a rocky landscape overlooking the Missouri River? James Earl Ray, the man who escaped MSP in a bread truck and then became infamous for assassinating Dr. Martin Luther King might be one of the reasons.
It is interesting to note that new information on Ray is contained in the book "Hellhound on His Trail" by Hampton Sides. The well written book is #6 on the New York Times non-fiction list in its first week on the list.(May 7, 2010)
I grew up in Jefferson City and remember vividly two events at the prison in my youth. They prompted me to go on that initial open house in 2004, and then in June,2009 I got to tour MSP with my high school classmates attending our 50th class reunion.
One of our classmates who is now from San Francisco, CA was particularly impressed with the MSP tour. His lighting firm in the early 1990s had done some consulting work with the National Park Service about lighting Alcatraz for a special celebration or filming there on that San Francisco Bay island. He remarked that the MSP site has a lot of potential as a tourist attraction.
Vivid in my memory of old MSP was the dual execution of Carl Hall and Bonnie Brown Heady on December 18, 1953. I also remember the evening of the September 22, 1954 when a big prison riot lit up the night sky in Jeffeson City. That night was scary for a lot of city residents.
Some of the former residents of the penitentiary were also of interest to me: Sonny Liston, the heavyweight champion boxer; Pretty Boy Floyd the depression era gangster; and James Earl Ray.
In September 2005 for my birthday, I decided to take an excursion flight in an old Ford Tri-motor aircraft that flew low over Jefferson City. That day I got several good aerial photos of the city with my new digital camera. In this aerial Waymark photo you can see the new DNR building where the women's prison was located(right foreground). You can also see where the lower wall of the prison had already been breached for a state parking lot and shuttle bus stop. Also if you look very closely at the photo,you can see the small rectangular rock gas chamber execution facility with its tall white exhaust pipe near the lower wall. (a little to right of center in the foreground)
In December,1953 on a cold winter evening, the dual execution of Hall and Heady took place. That night an inversion layer weather pattern made the venting of the toxic gas a serious problem, as I read in the newspaper coverage of the event.
So getting to see that small little facility, and knowing the rest of the story, made that high school reunion visit there in 2009 particularly interesting. My classmate from San Francisco and his wife posed in the gas chamber metal seats just as Hall and Heady did for real in December 1953. My friend's moment "in the chairs" was recorded with still photos for the reunion's DVD.
In the plans are better access roads to the prison redevelopment site and the new Federal Courthouse scheduled to be completed in 2011.
Did I know anyone who was ever a resident at MSP? The answer is yes. He was a junior in high school when I was a senior. After high school he went to college in southwest Missouri. In the early 1980s he got life for killing his mother and rolling her up in a rug and then dumping her body somewhere across the Missouri River in Callaway County.
He was found guilty. Drugs and an inheritance played a part in this human tragedy. He was incarcerated at MSP. He is, I was told by our tour guide, still serving time in another of Missouri's correctional facilities.
An so it goes. The prison redevelopment plans continue. Some of the building and a part of the limestone walls will be coming down, and new buildings will rise. It is a bit of a tourist attraction today, but I am hoping its fame as a tourist attraction will grow, and perhaps a good prison movie will be filmed here. I am thinking maybe that new book by Hampton Sides, "Hellhound on His Trail" might make an excellent movie in a few years from now.
The "Official Tourism" URL link to the attraction: [Web Link]
The attraction’s own URL: [Web Link]
Hours of Operation:
Visit either of the above Websites for scheduling tours. They each have toll-free phone numbers.
Check with each of the above websites for current tour prices. I believe I heard $12.00 per person as of today (May 9,2010) This also includes insurance.
Approximate amount of time needed to fully experience the attraction: Half of a day (2-5 hours)
Transportation options to the attraction: Personal Vehicle or Public Transportation
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