The Clinton Herald, Clinton, Iowa

AP story section

December 21, 2013

At Iowa prison, grim history may lure visitors

FORT MADISON (AP) — The Iowa State Penitentiary stands like an ancient stone fortress on a bluff over the Mississippi River, ringed by castle-like guard towers and sheathed in chain link and razor wire. Built in 1839, seven years before Iowa became a state, the buff-colored compound is the oldest operating prison west of the Mississippi, and as unwelcoming a place as you can imagine.

But soon, a place people have long wanted to avoid may try to become the opposite: an attraction for visitors. After Iowa’s most dangerous criminals leave next spring, some local officials hope that history buffs, ghost hunters and the plain curious will show up to replace them.

Around the country, state prisons built in the 19th and 20th centuries are closing due to rising maintenance costs, security concerns and general obsolescence. But cities eager to fill the economic gap believe they can capitalize on something that most tourist sites lack: a morbid past.

“Forts historically were built to keep people out. Now we want to swing the tide on that and let people in to see what’s gone on for so many years behind these walls,” said Iowa State Penitentiary Warden Nick Ludwick.

The closed Missouri State Penitentiary was on track to draw a record 20,000 visitors this year until mold discovered in September forced a temporary cancellation of tours, which take guests to the old gas chamber where 40 inmates were put to death. Storytelling tours exploit the history of Cellblock 7 at Michigan State Prison, where doctor Jack Kevorkian once stayed. The Ohio State Reformatory offers a nighttime, 45-minute tour that promises a “haunted prison experience.”

These attractions can’t match Alcatraz, where nearly 1.5 million visitors annually take cruises to see the famous island garrison in San Francisco Bay where Al Capone and Machine Gun Kelly served time. But they offer something distinctly different than the Victorian houses, old grain mills and museums that are historical sites in many tourism-hungry towns.

Text Only
AP story section
  • Iraq violence threatens OPEC's precarious balance NEW YORK (AP) -- The oil market has balanced out quite nicely for OPEC in recent years. Now, upheaval in Iraq shows that balance may be more precarious than it has seemed. Dramatic changes in oil production around the globe have offset each other ins

    June 13, 2014

  • Board of Trade Grain mixed, livestock mostly higher CHICAGO (AP) -- Grain futures were mixed Thursday in early trading on the Chicago Board of Trade. Wheat for July delivery was 1 cent higher at $5.9025 a bushel; July corn was 1.25 cents lower at $4.4075 a bushel; July oats were unchanged at $3.4625 a

    June 13, 2014

  • Health campaign among nation's costliest CHICAGO -- President Barack Obama's home state agreed to spend $33 million in federal money promoting his health care law, hiring a high-priced public relations firm for work that initially was mocked and spending far more per enrollee on television

    June 13, 2014

  • Some states roll back teacher tenure protections WASHINGTON (AP) -- Even before a judge's scathing ruling against California's teacher tenure policies, the once-sacred protections that make it harder to fire teachers already had been weakened in many states -- and even removed altogether in some pl

    June 13, 2014

  • Tigers' Scherzer outduels Sale CHICAGO -- Max Scherzer already has a Cy Young Award. Now he has a complete game. Scherzer tossed a three-hitter in his 179th career start for his first complete game and Victor Martinez hit his 16th homer to lead the Detroit Tigers to a 4-0 win over

    June 13, 2014

  • $40M casino for rural Iowa approved BURLINGTON (AP) -- The Iowa Racing and Gaming Commission has voted 3-2 to grant a license for a $40 million casino development that would be located in rural central Iowa. Supporters of the Jefferson casino burst into applause during a meeting in Bur

    June 13, 2014

  • Principal case leads to two hearings RED OAK -- Two hearings are planned related to a southwest Iowa school district's plan to fire a high school principal. The Council Bluffs Daily Nonpareil reported the effort to fire Red Oak High School Principal Jedd Sherman will be the subject of a

    June 13, 2014

  • U.S. split outgrows voting booth WASHINGTON (AP) -- Political polarization in America has broken out of the voting booth. A new survey from the Pew Research Center finds Americans are divided by ideology and partisanship not only when they cast ballots, but also in choosing where to

    June 13, 2014

  • Cubs' offense no help for Samardzija PITTSBURGH -- Jeff Samardzija has some advice his pitching brethren when it comes to facing streaking Andrew McCutchen. Don't. The way the Chicago Cubs' ace looks at it, trying to get the Pittsburgh Pirates' star out at the moment only opens yourself

    June 13, 2014

  • State to reopen Juvenile Home DES MOINES -- A district court judge on Wednesday ordered the state to reopen the Iowa Juvenile Home, telling Gov. Terry Branstad he cannot unilaterally change a law approved by the state Legislature. Judge Scott Rosenberg said the home in Toledo was

    February 6, 2014

AP Video
Facebook
National News