The Powell County Museum and Arts Foundation is a local non-profit membership organization which operates the Old Montana Prison as a Museum. As the Old Prison Complex contains buildings located on three blocks outside the Old Prison walls, other collections have been brought in to fill four museums.
PCMAF has a 99 year lease on the Old Prison from the State of Montana, but operates without any state or federal funding. The principal source of funding is through gate receipts and fundraisers such as the classic car raffle.
Our Mission: To preserve, protect and present elements of local and regional history and culture.
To be a repository for the history and life of Deer Lodge, Powell County and the State of Montana including but not exclusive to, historic buildings, photographic records, and/or artifacts for preservation, representing the past, present, and future.
To present and educate the members and the public to the significance of the items and artifacts in the repository of the Powell County Museum and Arts Foundation, and to advance this and other educational programs.
Prelude: The mining heritage is rich in Gold West Country, but the area around Deer Lodge was settled by ranchers. As the fur trade was dying out in the 1840s, an active livestock trade was founded along the Oregon Trail near here and led to the settlement of the Deer Lodge valley. The first territorial prison was eventually built in Deer Lodge where Montana’s worst criminals were sent on a permanent vacation. Today, Deer Lodge has a plentiful supply of unusual historic attractions from the prison museums to the only U.S. National Historic Site that is also a working cattle ranch at the other end of town.
Montana Territorial Prison, surrounded by a wooden fence, opened July 2, 1871 for the first prisoner. Warden Frank Conley (1890-1921) instituted extensive inmate labor projects including construction of the existing prison buildings and walls, as well as various state and community projects like road building, logging and ranching.
The Old Prison wall, built by convict labor in 1893, resembles a castle with its locally quarried granite walls and towers. The brick cellblock was constructed in 1912.
Historically plagued with overcrowding, insufficient funds and antiquated facilities, the prison erupted in violence in April 1959 during which Deputy Warden Ted Rothe was killed and 26 staff and inmates were taken hostage. After 36 terrifying hours, 200 National Guardsmen and Highway Patrol officers quelled the uprising that was the turning point in Montana corrections operations.
The Old Montana Territorial Prison today anchors the south end of Main Street as a museum complex with exhibits that highlight not only the prison life of male inmates, but also the women and law enforcement, evolution of the automobile, Milwaukee Railroad, childhood toys and memorabilia, artifacts of the American Cowboy, Native Tribes, frontiersmen, ranchers and women, re-creation of Cottonwood City, local history, mining, family life and local art. Paranormal activity in the prison attracts researchers and others interested in the ghostly.