Cañon City: Opposite Ends of the Street

The Holy Cross Abbey and the Colorado Territorial Prison are on opposite ends of the Royal Gorge Boulevard in Cañon City.   We went to the Abbey first.  It is on the National Register of Historic Places.

Benedictine monks were the originators and caretakers of the Holy Cross Abbey which began in 1924.  It had three purposes:  to serve as a Boy’s School, a Boys camp, and a Seminary for young men desiring to pursue a life dedicated to God.

The building was completed in 1926.  Despite using prison labor for construction, there were significant cost overruns and other Benedictine Abbeys helped out financially.

The first floor, where the highest ranking monks and public rooms were located, is still viewable by self guided tour.

Because this was primarily a teaching facility, the chapel is not elaborate.

The Abbey school operated from 1926 to 1985 and included boarders and day students.  Capacity was 250 students and it operated at, or near, capacity for most of those years.

From 1985 to 2005 the Abbey still served as a monastery.   We were told that the upper floors never had heat.

The campus was sold to an investment company in 2007 for $11 million and operates as a special events center for weddings, meetings, retreats etc.   The Sister’s House (you know those nuns who did a lot of the work) is available on Airbnb.

There are vineyards on the grounds and we went to the Abbey Winery.   For $8 they offer samples of 13 wines.   We only chose to sample six because we already know we are wine simpletons and only like the sweet stuff!

We did buy a few bottles.

Did you notice in the Abbey description that prisoners were used to build the abbey?  That was a theme we saw over and over in Cañon City and you may have picked up on it in our previous blogs.   

The Colorado Territorial Correctional Facility was built (by its own prisoners) in 1871 as part of the federal system.  “Old Max” was deeded to Colorado when it became a state in 1876.  (Did you know Colorado is called the Centennial State?)

When it was the state’s maximum security prison, it held up to 2000 prisoners.  Now it is a medium security prison and is currently holding 1100.  This prison also holds those suffering with dementia and other long term medical conditions.

In addition, we were told it serves as an intake center for all prisoner’s who are then dispersed throughout the state.

This picture shows the older section of the prison and the old deputy warden’s house.

The Prison Museum is housed in the former Women’s Prison, adjacent to Old Max.  While walking around outside we could hear announcements and instructions being given in the  main prison.  The woman’s prison was built in 1935 and do you think they used labor next door?  They seemed to be used everywhere else!

This is the gas chamber that was used at Old Max.  

There is quite the list of notorious prisoners, riots and wardens attached to Old Max and many of their stories are highlighted within the former cells.

This is what a woman prisoner’s cell would have looked like in the early days.  The prisoner’s sewed their own uniforms.

A cell in the later days looked more like this.

There are many displays of contraband weapons and items confiscated from prisoners but I thought this one was bittersweet – a chess set made of toilet paper.  Hard to see how that could have been dangerous to guards or fellow prisoners….

Given the number of times we read or heard “prisoners were used in building this…” throughout Cañon City, we had visions of chain gangs utilized throughout the area.   Given that background, I thought the cell highlighting current educational opportunities and work opportunities through Colorado Correctional Industries was especially interesting.

Almost all prisoners are employed in some capacity.  Old Max was the facility that began making Colorado license plates over one hundred years ago and they still make two million annually.

A side note:  Colorado’s white mountains on the green background license plate design is seventy years old and they claim it is the second oldest still in use in the U.S.   Ten minutes of research seemed to give the oldest design award to Deleware but I wouldn’t bet my house on it.  I also found that Idaho was the first state to put a slogan on their license plate:  Famous Potatoes, in 1928.   This feels like a rabbit hole I could fall into and I’m not willing to go there.

Besides license plates, Colorado Correctional Industries “employees” also make furniture, highway signs, flags, trash dumpsters and tables for state parks, and single and double beds.  They run a dairy farm, pig farm, green house, and do other agricultural farming.   They have a print shop, a metal shop, a sewing shop, an automotive shop and also build Old Max Chopper Motorcycles.   They run dog training programs and Colorado’s Wild Horse and Burro Program.  It seems far more promising than being free labor for Cañon City’s elite.    

Prison museums are always sobering, but I’m glad this visit included something positive!

Now, what are they ever going to do with this guy?!?

About Serene

Former full time RVers, transitioning to part time RVers. We've still got a map to finish! Home is the Arizona desert but we may not want to be here in the heat of the summer!
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2 Responses to Cañon City: Opposite Ends of the Street

  1. Ann M Shadiow says:

    Great adventures!!! Keep them coming.

  2. Mark McClelland says:

    An Abby and a Prison. Definitely different ends of the spectrum! And I have can certainly remember seeing that Colorado license plate design for what seems to be forever. Safe travels.

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