(ODD)yssey, Blog Post

A visit to the ruins of Alabama’s first penitentiary

A 1940s postcard of the Alabama State Penitentiary in Wetumpka, Ala. (Troy University Libraries)

Not long ago, when Sweetums was doing a presentation at the Elmore County Museum in Wetumpka, Ala., we decided to see what remained of Alabama’s first prison, opened in 1842. Known as Wetumpka State Penitentiary or Alabama State Penitentiary, it operated for 100 years on the east bank of the Coosa River

It was unusual for a prison. The main building looked more like a Victorian manor with lots of gingerbread trim, a white picket fence and large, airy porches. The buildings behind it were more utilitarian. The facility was so impressive that people had outings to see the prison and sometimes picnicked there, photos show. Postcards of the main building were sold to tourists.

A postcard from the 1920s of the Alabama State Penitentiary, known as “The Walls” (Troy University Libraries)

In early years, the prison housed men and women, who lived in separate wings. In 1922, the prison began housing only women, according to the Alabama Department of Archives and History.

It was closed in 1942 when Tutwiler Prison for Women was built nearby.

We headed to the site near the intersection of U.S. Highway 231 across from Elmore County Hospital. We knew there were no buildings remaining at the site, but no one could tell us if there were any ruins or artifacts. We arrived to find a large open field. After walking around, we were surprised to find four massive brick pillars still existing beneath mounds of kudzu, along with some kind of tank. The pillars were about two stories high. We couldn’t determine which building they were from. It’s possible there’s more out there but the brush is too deep to see.

Ruins at the site of Alabama’s first state penitentiary in Wetumpka, Ala. (Kelly Kazek)

There is a historic marker at the site, which is partially enclosed by a chain link fence.

Ruins at the site of Alabama’s first state penitentiary in Wetumpka, Ala. (Kelly Kazek)

The marker reads:

The Wetumpka State Penitentiary (WSP), originally known as the Alabama State Penitentiary, was the first state prison established in Alabama. Built on the east bank of the Coosa River in Wetumpka, Alabama, it was nicknamed the “Walls of Alabama” or “Walls”. For much of its existence the prison housed both men and women in separate quarters. The historic site was added to the National Register of Historic Places on May 8, 1973.

On January 26, 1839, the Alabama Legislature, under Governor of Alabama Arthur P. Bagby, enacted a criminal code that authorized the creation of the first prison in Alabama. On August 21 of that year the state purchased a site along the Coosa River in Wetumpka, as the site was centrally located within the state. Bagby placed the first cornerstone of the prison in October of that year. By 1841 the $84,889 prison was completed. It had 208 cells and was surrounded by 25-foot (760 cm) walls. The first prisoner entered the prison in 1842. In 1922 Wetumpka became a women’s prison.

A fire destroyed a portion of the Wetumpka prison on January 23, 1931; within 40 days after the fire the facility was completely functional. After a fire at the Speigner prison on November 28, 1932, Wetumpka housed the convicts from Speigner until December 26, 1932, after temporary buildings at Speigner opened. In 1941 the prison was renamed to the Julia Tutwiler Prison; at that point it was mostly used for female prisoners. In December 1942 a new Julia Tutwiler Prison for Women opened, built less than a mile north of the Wetumpka State Penitentiary. The previous Wetumpka prison’s usage decreased, and beginning in 1945 the State of Alabama began selling small parcels of the old prison land. Several buildings survived to the last decades of the 20th century, but have since been demolished.

The site was listed on the National Register of Historic Places in 1973.

Historical marker at the site of Alabama’s first state penitentiary in Wetumpka, Ala. (Kelly Kazek)
Ruins at the site of Alabama’s first state penitentiary in Wetumpka, Ala. (Kelly Kazek)

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