If she had known how many visitors would brave the winter weather to visit the Wyoming Territorial Prison this year, Superintendent Deborah Cease said she would’ve tried their winter hours a long time ago.
“The majority of those individuals were travelers,” she said. “It has made a big difference being open in the winter.”
Not that the prison needed the extra visitors — Cease said the number of visitors has “grown exponentially,” with 49,000 people walking through the state historic site just from April-December.
“We’ve already beat our numbers from last year,” she added. “Of course, you really can’t beat January, February or March because we were closed (last year).”
One thing many don’t realize is most visitors to the historic site are not local. Cease explained the travelers can range from international visitors — including a tour bus full of Russian people who listened to the tour guides via interpreter last week — to families stopping through on their way to other Wyoming cities and landmarks.
“We lovingly like to say that the Territorial Prison is the front porch of Wyoming,” Cease said. “We’re either the first stop that they’re making, they’re beginning their vacation in Wyoming … or we’re their last stop before they leave Wyoming, so they tell us all of their wonderful experiences.”
Even with the Territorial Prison’s brown informational sign on the side of Interstate 80, Cease said the days of highway travelers stopping on a whim because of a sign are pretty much over. Google and other websites like Google Business reign supreme, and she said the Territorial Prison’s social media presence is strong.
Trip Advisor, a website where people rate and recommend travel destinations, recently gave the historic site an award for being a 5-Star destination for five years straight.
Despite the influx of out-of-state traffic, Cease said one of the main aspects of the Territorial Prison’s vision is to be “an integral part of the community.” The site is open for private rentals, including weddings or corporate retreats, as well as frequently hosting popular, community-wide events like the Holiday Lights and Music Show or the Kid’s Pumpkin Walk.
Schools, too, frequently visit the Territorial Prison. More than just a typical field trip, Cease said the tours with the schools involve activities with a curriculum that follows Wyoming state standards, so “they actually have classroom time when they’re here.” It’s such a huge draw, schools from Casper, Wheatland, Fort Collins and Greeley, Colorado, make a point to visit.
Even the gift shop has seen increased patronage, and Cease said it’s an indication of the overall economic benefit the Territorial Prison brings. Many, if not most, of the goods sold in the gift shop are Wyoming made.
“That’s what people want — they don’t want to buy something made in China,” she said. “They want something that is unique that they can’t get anywhere else.”
Additionally, she added, many of the visitors stay in Laramie overnight, contributing to lodging taxes and spending money at other businesses in town.
What sets them apart the most, Cease said, is the Territorial Prison’s constant desire to change, adapt and push forward. Her hope is to be the go-to recommendation for locals to give tourists without hesitation.
Never slowing down, the site has plans for a variety of new exhibits, including one detailing Winchester rifles — commonly used by the prison guard — and a new, natural playground for children. There are also plans to expand the broom factory part of the museum, and Cease said the Wyoming Peace Officers museum will be migrating to the site from Rawlins soon.
“We’re not stagnate here,” she said. “We’re constantly fixing things, adding things, changing things. We’re trying to be a very live and moving body.”