History of Jails

MEDFORD, Ore. -- Possibly the oldest existing city jail in southern Oregon is at the 125 year old Jacksonville city hall. A plaque on the wall says it was built in 1880 for 25-hundred dollars and included

Posted: Mar 27, 2015 3:03 PM
Updated: Oct 19, 2017 1:38 PM

MEDFORD, Ore. -- Possibly the oldest existing city jail in southern Oregon is at the 125 year old Jacksonville city hall. A plaque on the wall says it was built in 1880 for 25-hundred dollars and included two jail cells in addition to a clerk’s office, fire station and council meeting room, still in use today. This was before the county jail was built. About 25 years before that, Kerbyville was the new county seat of the newly formed Josephine county. That county’s first jail was a wooden two story structure built on land donated by the local doctor. It had four cells on the ground floor and two upstairs.

Historian Dennis Strayer says, “The jail was opened in 1858, and it was in use, actually after the county seat moved to Grants Pass. In 1883 it was still actually the jail. And then in 1893 it was finally torn down. And ironically when they were tearing it down they found–they actually found what was called a dirk, like a handmade knife out of a nail or some piece of metal– from the blacksmith that probably somebody smuggled into one of the prisoners.”

Strayer says the sheriff was in Waldo, so a small office was built next to the jail to give him a more central location. A door from that old Kerby jail house is on display at the museum.  It was in the late 1880’s that the county seat moved to Grants Pass and a new courthouse was built with the jail behind the courthouse, which is where the current courthouse stands.

The city of Grants Pass had its own jail when the city hall was in the Golden Rule building now on Sixth Street. You can still see the bars and wire mesh on some of the upstairs windows from the alley behind. When the new city hall was built, another small jail was included. Heavy wire mesh on a back window shows where that was. The city of Rogue River had also had its own jail for awhile, located in a small stone building at the back of the old fire station. It’s now reassembled and on display at the city’s Woodville Museum.

The city of Gold Hill actually had a wooden lockup until a concrete building was put up in the early 30’s. It too was attached to the fire station and was mostly used to hold drunks and other rowdies until they could sober up or be taken to the county jail. Tragically, one inmate suffocated to death in 1932 when a fire broke out in the first building, leading to construction of the concrete lockup.

The city of Ashland maintained a small lockup for many years. A wanted poster offered a 30 dollar reward for the capture of a deserter from the U.S. Cavalry who broke out of the Ashland jail in the late 19th century. It referred to the jail as a “calaboose”, a Spanish word for dungeon.

The Jackson county jail was in Jacksonville for many years. It was there in 1927 that the D’autremont brothers were held while their train robbery trial played out in the old courthouse next door.  It’s now an art gallery. It pretty much outlived it’s usefulness by the late 20’s when the county seat was moved to Medford and the jail there was establish in the top floor of the county courthouse.  You can still see bars on some of the top floor windows at the back of the old county courthouse in Medford. A new county jail was built across the street about 40 years ago.

The biggest city jail of all in our area was probably the Medford city jail that was in the basement of the city hall.  That used to stand in what is now a vacant lot across Central Avenue from the Elk’s lodge. It was here in the 1930’s that one talented inmate actually created an ornate silver and abalone key to the city now on display at the Medford airport.

The first Klamath county jail was in a stone building back of the original courthouse. The current jail is about two miles away overlooking the city.  A wooden structure was the stockade and jail at Fort Klamath. It has since been restored and is part of an interpretive display.

Bonanza’s last jail is still standing. But an earlier structure had a tragic ending in 1903 when two Indian boys died when the jail caught fire.  Today, all these city jails are gone or museum displays.

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