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In 1866, citizens of Virginia City petitioned for the release of a convicted criminal. Apparently, the prohibitive expenses of confinement overshadowed the heavily burdened taxpayer's sense of justice. The lack of a prison in Helena forced the U.S. Marshall to handcuff prisoners to his own bedpost at night.

On December 7, 1866, John N. Rogers introduced House Bill Memorial No. 7. The bill sought Federal "appropriations for a territorial prison," and passed easily, 19-0. Congress limited the sum set aside for the Montana Penitentiary to no more than $40,000.00.

On the very day the appropriation became law, the Territorial Legislative Assembly introduced C. S. Ream and William Sturgis "to locate and fix the site for said penitentiary." Ream and Sturgis enthusiastically endorsed Argenta, Montana, as the ideal location for a Territorial Prison. But, the Territorial government overruled their recommendation for reasons unknown.

Within a month the legislature's chairman of Federal relations endorsed a bill that urged the location of the penitentiary of Montana should be located in Deer Lodge City, Deer Lodge County, Montana. By a narrow margin of 4-3, the committee chose Deer Lodge over Argenta as a desirable site for the prison.

But insufficient funding, petty annoyances and other factors delayed prison construction. The troublesome task of constructing a penitentiary without the necessary funds fell on the shoulders of Armistead Hughes Mitchell, Superintendent of Construction and Building. On February 23, 1869, A.H. Mitchell assumed his designated responsibilities.

In 1870, after consulting a variety of contractors, Mitchell employed George McBurney and William Lenior to construct the new prison. By mid-April, McBurney and Lenior began "making active preparations," and despite Lenior's sudden death on April 24, McBurney laid the cornerstone of the North Wing at 3 p.m., Thursday afternoon, June 2, 1870.

"The cornerstone--a fine block of granite--was prepared," according to a newspaper account, "with a cavity for the reception of...articles...until destruction unlocks the casket to other generations."


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