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Cambria County Jail reopens as a museum

Sunday, January 06, 2002

By Tom Gibb, Post-Gazette Staff Writer

EBENSBURG, Pa. -- In October 1884, the day before he was to be hanged for killing a Johnstown man, Michael "Smitty" Smith pretty much evaporated from the Cambria County Jail.

Cambria County Jail was built in 1872 and housed prisoners until 1997. It became the Cambria County records depository in January 1999. Since then, a museum has been added by the Cambria County Historical Society. (V.W.H. Campbell Jr, Post-Gazette)

His cell was a locked cage of iron bars inside a concrete room two sizes up from a clothespress.

The stone walls separating the jail yard outside from freedom were 22 feet high.

Small matter. On his mattress, Smith left a farewell note to the warden. Then he vanished for good.

In case you're still out there on the run, Smitty, two words of advice: Lay low. They're starting to talk about you again around the old jailhouse. They're poking around your old cell.

Of course, a lot of people poked around there during the 125 years when this fortress of a jail squeezed in prisoners and hanged nine of them from its courtyard gallows.

Four years ago, though, the last of them was bused two miles to a new county lockup with a lot more room and a lot less steely personality.

The old jailhouse was empty.

But like Smith, it wouldn't die.

Nineteen days ago, a stretch that holds 28 cells, including Smith's last known address, was resurrected as the Old Cambria County Jail, a museum recounting Smith, hangings, hard time and the days when correctional institutions were hoosegows.

"An old building like that has an important story to tell," said Susan Whisler, Ebensburg's former Main Street manager and head of a committee that weighed ideas for reincarnating the building.

"These old jail buildings have such impact, such presence in a town," said Patrick Foltz, executive director of Preservation Pennsylvania, a nonprofit advocate for historic sites. "They built them to be imposing, a reminder that no bad deed goes unpunished."

And they built this one -- a "Welsh castle," critics in nearby Johnstown scoffed, swiping at Ebensburg's Welsh roots -- as a severe-looking sandstone citadel sprawling across a half block. It was muscled up with bars and walls, decorated with turrets and had a stone-encased tower looking down 70 feet onto a main street a block from the center of town.

An exhibit of the jail cell of Michael Smith, "Smitty," who vanished the night before he was to die on the gallows in October 1884. (V.W.H. Campbell Jr, Post-Gazette)

The place was designed by Edward Haviland, both son of the designer of Philadelphia's landmark Eastern Penitentiary and a Philadelphia architect whose curriculum vitae included schools, churches and jails in Clearfield, Potter, Berks, Lycoming and Carbon counties.

And his Cambria County project probably was overbuilt more than a little for "a staggering $73,000," the county historical society reported.

Little Ebensburg, it seems, was thumbing its nose at detractors 17 miles away in metropolitan Johnstown, home to a failed, decades-long crusade to wrest away the title of county seat.

"That still grates on Johnstown," said Richard Burkert, executive director of the Johnstown Area Heritage Association.

Not that a prison wasn't warranted.

It replaced another lockup that was only a scant improvement over a predecessor that placed a courtroom above a cellblock. In that original jail, then-Judge Robert Johnson recounted, one inmate "in his daily devotion, sang the psalms so loudly while confined in jail, that the Court, in the room above, had to adjourn because of the noise."

The newly renovated prison started life in 1872 with 34 cells.

In 1911, it got an addition and another 52 cells.

Almost from the start, though, it was overbooked. And in 1997, when inmates were shuttled out to new quarters and the old prison was locked down for the last time, the county faced a dilemma. How do you recycle a used jailhouse?

That's not a new quandary for small counties with outmoded prisons, Foltz said. For one thing, old prisons don't go gentle into oblivion.

"There's hundreds of thousands of tons of stone and steel," he said. "Prisons can be incredibly tough ... incredibly expensive to tear down."

Even if they scrape together the cash, counties have trouble mustering the will. Leveling a century-old edifice is like wheeling Aunt Matilda's heirloom baby grand out with the trash.

David Huber, executive board member of the historical society, is framed by the noose that was made for the execution of Michael Smith. The noose was never used. This and other nooses that were used in executions are on display at the former prison. Nooses were never reused. A new one was made for each execution. (V.W.H. Campbell Jr, Post-Gazette)

Franklin County, for instance, opted for turning its old jail into a museum and genealogical center rather than see it flattened into a parking lot. Three months ago, after a failed try at letting artisans sell wares from its empty jail in Williamsport, Lycoming County saw the lockup dance back to life as a night spot dubbed The Cellblock.

In 1999, Cambria County went the way many counties go with abandoned prisons. First, it did a $266,700 roof repair for which the Pennsylvania Historical and Museum Commission kicked in $80,000. Then it moved a burgeoning store of county records -- boxes and filing cabinets -- into the four-level cage of cells in the jail's 1911 addition.

What with the access and a new climate-control system, "You couldn't ask for a better place to put papers," said Frances Borlie, a keeper of the archive.

At one point, there had been talk of a shopping mall, but it seemed too hoity-toity for a place that was once home to guys like Jacob Hauser, hanged 95 years ago for using a machete to dispatch his wife and mother-in-law.

So along came the idea of a jail museum, open weekdays from 9 a.m. to 4 p.m., to fill part of the space that the county archives don't.

The last time the county jail drew more than captive audiences was at hangings when, for instance, at least 400 people got tickets for a double feature involving Hauser and another killer.

This time, the draw is storytelling, done in the 100-by-18-foot hallway of the original cellblock, a place left painted drab, flat brown and yellow.

There are three levels of walkways here, reaching 60 feet toward a skylight obscured by plastic. The place is lined by tiny cells with tiny doorways and heavy, barred doors. And on a winter day, the temperature dips to the high 50s, making this piece of jailhouse a bona fide cooler.

The attraction is the jailhouse culture on display. A main draw is a 7-by-7-foot glass box built by inmates and containing artifacts ranging from huge jailhouse ledgers to weapons fashioned by prisoners to the nooses used in hangings.

The display was transplanted from the lobby of the county's new prison, said David Huber, a Cambria County Historical Society board member and coordinator for the museum project; it tended to unnerve the populace there.

Much of the glimpse of jail life that visitors get is culled from copious records kept by Warden Knee, a 52-year career man at the prison before retiring in 1947. He had such a gift for detail that, on demand, he correctly jotted down the names and backgrounds of 28 recently convicted inmates, The Johnstown Weekly Tribune reported in 1911.

In all of Knee's detail, there is no suggestion that inmates were treated anything but humanely.

But the jail wasn't much of a bet to win a Holiday Inn franchise, either.

"There have been as high as 16 hoboes confined to one cell at a time," a 1904 Johnstown Tribune reported.

In the dark below the cellblock is a room dubbed the dungeon, a lockup reserved for what the prison classified as "delirious and unruly inmates," most likely out-of-control, mentally ill prisoners, Huber guessed.

"In today's terms," he said, "I guess you'd call it a time-out room."

Nor was what was meted out at the prison necessarily justice.

When he was convicted of killing another man during a fight at a Johnstown home, 20-year-old Charles Carter, who was black, told of being ushered into his 1889 murder trial without so much as a lawyer.

"I was absolutely ignorant of what was required of me," he told a local newspaper.

A legal bagatelle, apparently.

Three months later, Carter was led to the scaffold.

Not that Cambria County incarceration was repugnant to all.

At the forerunner to the 1872 prison, the Ebensburg Sky reported in 1834, the cells had been emptied of all but one inmate who seemed to take a shine to the place.

So the jailer coaxed the inmate outside, the Sky reported.

Then the jailer "immediately locked the door and refused him admittance."



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