History of the
Tuolumne County Jail
The history of law and order during the Gold Rush
mirrored the social, cultural, economic, and political turbulence of
the time. Hoodlums seeking their share of the gold and covered by
the cloak of anonymity made targets of travelers and miners.
The absence of social controls and “hometown morality” led the
predominantly male society to activities such as gambling, drinking,
and prostitution, which often resulted in staggering law enforcement
problems. During the year 1850, at least 30 murders (twelve
during one week) took place in the county, which then reported only
With housing at a premium, detention was improvised
by securing prisoners to a chain and locking them around a large oak
tree. Next came the construction of a 20’ X 50’ log building.
The number of escapes indicates that this jail was not secure.
In early 1853, the county purchased a building on the north bank of
Sonora Creek, which served as its jail until 1857 when the public
demanded something be done to prevent frequent escapes and provide
healthier quarters for prisoners. As a result of the 1856
Grand Jury report, the Board of Supervisors purchased two city lots
on which to build a county jail. B. Stout’s bid for $13,300
was accepted and the work began. Completed in 1857, the final
cost of the jail was $20,186.
December 20, 1865, the newly built jail was destroyed by a fire set
by a prisoner. Using salvaged material, the present structure was
rebuilt by J. D. Patterson for $8,400. On September 19, 1866, the
displaced prisoners were transferred to the new jail by Sheriff Bourland.
The Tuolumne County jail was used continuously from 1857 to 1961.
This is a good example for the type of facility for the
incarceration of prisoners during the county’s first hundred years.
Used for its original purpose and limited in the number of its
alterations, the Museum serves today as an example of law
enforcement and corrections in the no-too-distant past.
The jail is also an example of city and county cooperation to
avoid duplication of public services. The two cell blocks,
one of which was divided into two parts, allowed for the
incarceration of women and juveniles and also city prisoners as
the occasion arose. This flexibility accommodated all
types of prisoners in a single facility with a minimum of
supervisory staff. This supervision included the sheriff
and sometimes his deputy, and later, a jailer.
Family quarters were an important part of this building and
demonstrate the degree to which the sheriff or jailer’s family
participated in jail life. In addition to rearing her family
and preparing the prisoners’ food, the sheriff or jailer’s wife
served as matron for the female prisoners. In the absence of
the deputy, she was keeper of the keys while the sheriff was in the
cell blocks. As was common practice at that time, the sheriff
could and did contract to provide food services (prepared by his
wife) and maintenance for the jail structure.
How the Jail Was Constructed in 1866
jail walls were constructed using two thicknesses of red brick with
criss-crossed iron strips between, and set on a foundation of
well laid schist rock. The jail yard, which served as the
prisoners’ exercise yard, was enclosed by a high brick wall. A
contraband wall jutted out to the street on the east side.
Prisoners entered the exercise yard through an iron gate at the west
end of the corridor fronting the cell
blocks. A flight of wooden steps led down to the yard below.
All of the doors and windows had iron bars and shutters to provide
security and air. The front of the jail opened out into the
booking hall which divided the living quarters into two parts.
The living/dining room, kitchen, and porch were on the west side of
the booking hall and the bedrooms were on the east side.
The entrance to the cell blocks was located in the
narrow corridor behind the present exhibit gallery. From this
hall, each of the two cell blocks could be closed off by iron doors
and gates which had heavy locks. A wicket was cut into each
iron door, which allowed for the passage of goods and other supplies
to the prisoners. The length of each cell block was open space
ending in a sink. This allowed half of the cell block to be
used for recreation purposes. On each of the outside walls
were constructed five cells. In the west block, the cells had
barrel ceilings and narrow windows opening above the jail yard
fifteen feet below. Two of the cells on this side had iron
rings in the floor to which unruly prisoners could be shackled.
In the hall fronting the cell blocks was a heavy iron crank, which
turned a rod above the cell doors to provide a simple lock-down
system. On this rod was mounted heavy iron claws, which
descended when the crank was turned and clamped each door firmly
Three cells in the east block had large windows and
were used for women and juveniles. The last two cells were
reserved for prisoners from the City of Sonora, and these were
separated by a wooden wall with a stout door. All walls were
regularly coated with lime to eliminate the problem of lice.
Water for the jail was supplied by a well in the yard until 1858
when water was furnished by the Gold Mountain Water Company.
some point, a lean-to was added onto the west end of the wooden
structure in front of the jail wall. In 1908, to accommodate
the sheriff’s wife, a new bride, the lean-to was replaced by a
kitchen, bath, and a back porch which led to the street. At a
later date, a bedroom was added to the front porch when the
sheriff’s family outgrew the living quarters. The roof
structure was changed from the original as a result of fire in 1911.
Early photographs show a gabled roof. Outbuildings housing the
sheriff’s team and carriage and storage space were removed from the
Jackson Street side of the jail walls in the 1960s.
Conversion to the Tuolumne County Museum and History Center
By 1960, the old jail was obsolete and a new jail was
constructed one block to the north. The space allocated to the
County Museum in the Veterans Memorial Hall was being crowded by
their office space needs. At the request of the newly formed
Tuolumne County Historical Society, the Tuolumne County Board of
Supervisors designated the old jail as the Tuolumne County Museum.
The existing cell blocks and family quarters were turned into
exhibit space and an office. All objects were transferred from
the former museum space at Memorial Hall, and the Tuolumne County
Historical Society became the steward of the County History
Collection. This same building, which faithfully protected the
citizens from the acts of human misfits, now houses displays
illustrative of Tuolumne County’s colorful history. Since its
inception, the Museum Board of Governors has overseen extensive
reconstruction of the building, construction of the History Center
building, the installation of a community-use courtyard in the
former exercise yard, and development of an old fashioned garden.
The History Center stores that portion of the County History
Collection not on display and provides work space for volunteers.
The collection includes thousands of documents, a library and
photographs, which are made available to a variety of users.