Imagine living in a rough-and-tumble Western town in the 1800s with no jail facility! Thanks to nineteen concerned citizens who each donated $25 for the project, construction for a much-needed local jail began on August 11, 1875, and the jail was ready for occupancy September 22 of that year. The contract price was $1,235, exclusive of iron work.
Jails typically are sturdy structures, and Truckee’s jail is a virtual strongbox. The original one-story building was constructed of 32-inch native stone. The ceilings are plate steel overlain with 6 inches of dirt, a practice used at the time for fire suppression, and are lined with narrow-gauge railroad tracks. The riveted steel doors weigh approximately 200 pounds apiece.
Truckee’s historic Old Jail Museum is one of only a few surviving 19th-Century jailhouses of its kind in the West and is one of the few remaining original buildings in Truckee. The jail was used continuously from 1875 until May 1964, and ably withstood the many fires that swept the town in its early days.
Nevertheless, by 1900 the jail had fallen into a state of disrepair and had proven to be too small for the town's needs. Thanks to the efforts of Constable Augustus ("Gus") Schlumpf, funding was secured to pay for improvements. A second-floor addition completed in 1904 served as both a hospital ward and a holding cell for female prisoners.
The jail held some of the Twentieth Century's most notorious criminals, including "Baby Face" Nelson, "Ma" Spinelli, and “Machine Gun” Kelly.
Today the jail serves a new class of visitor. In 1974 Nevada County gave the jail building to the Truckee Donner Historical Society to be converted into a museum. The Old Jail Museum was officially dedicated on July 4, 1976, and is currently registered as an official Point of Historical Interest with the State of California.
The museum houses a wide variety of local historical artifacts, including tools from the lumbering and ice harvesting industries, gear from the early days of skiing and winter sports, and items from local businesses.
In 2000 the Society built a Community Memorial Garden on the hillside behind the Old Jail Museum. The Garden was designed to honor all those who have called Truckee their home.
The Truckee Donner Historical Society is a 501(c)(3) non-profit. Through 100% volunteer efforts, the organization is able to share the Old Jail Museum with over 2,000 visitors every year, including local students studying regional history.