Old Nevada Prison and former inmate-run casino seeks historic recognition

The state of Nevada is teeming with antiquated stories of long, long ago. Being a gateway to the historic gold mines of California, one can just imagine the level of criminal activity that went on here, well before the infamous mobsters of New York spearheaded the casino movement in Las Vegas in the early days of the 20th century. In 1862, Carson City became the destination of what was, up until two years ago, the oldest running territorial prison in the nation.

The Nevada State Prison, much of which was built from quarrying the sandstone that surrounds it – the same sandstone quarried to build the state capitol in 1869-71 – was buzzing with activity for 150 years. But now, the only sounds that resonate from the structure are the shrieks of rusty hinges on the gates and the low howl of the wind that flows volubly through the framework.Closed in January of 2012, the structure contains a great deal of history. For example, where else but Nevada would penitentiary officials allow their inmates to run a casino, complete with table games like craps and blackjack? That went on here for over 30 years, from 1931, the same year gambling was legalized in Nevada, to 1967.In 1973, a young man by the name of Glen Whorton became an employee of the Nevada State Prison, where he worked his way up to an official position with the Nevada Corrections Department. Now retired, Whorton is spearheading a group that seeks to preserve the site, the Nevada State Prison Preservation Society.

Whorton was present for a recent tour, where he recalled numerous features no longer visible to visitors. He told of the lush green grass and vibrant flowerbeds that once graced a section of the prison grounds, lovingly planted and cared for by the inmates who resided there. Whorton now envisages a day when those flowers can bloom once more, but it will take approval and funding from the state to turn the now defunct structure into a museum.

Glen Whorton said the prison’s history goes well beyond the days of an inmate-run casino and pivotal sandstone quarry. “The state of Nevada, from an administrative standpoint, essentially started out here with the Warm Springs Hotel,” explained Whorton. “The prison was the first state agency.”

Around 1860, the Warm Springs Hotel was established on the site by the founding father of Carson City, Abraham Curry, who would, interestingly enough, go on to become the first warden of the Nevada State Prison. The Territorial Legislator was formed in 1861, using the hotel as its meeting place. One year later, the Nevada Territory leased the building to house prisoners.

A fire devastated the hotel/prison in 1867, leaving behind a single artifact – a wood-carved eagle that is now displayed in Carson City’s Fraternal Order of the Eagles. Another fire in 1870 destroyed a large portion of the prison, which was rebuilt by the employment of inmate labor via the on-site quarry. While mining for stone, numerous archeological discoveries were made, including the fossilized tracks of animals dating back to the prehistoric era; another facet of the historic site Whorton hopes to one day be on display in the museum.

The biggest problem standing in the way of the NSPPS is funding. “This is a long game in the sense that cost is going to be an issue,” said Whorton. Ironically, the prison was closed in 2012 to save the state money. But he has big plans, including the relocation of state offices to the old prison site and even using it for training purposes. The NSPPS has applied to have the prison listed on the National Register for Historic Places, and a draft bill for funding is already in the works, to be presented in 2015.