About Deer Lodge, western Montana’s prison town

Deer Lodge, Montana, in the 1950s.

Deer Lodge once was a two-stoplight town. It’s a quieter, less-populated place now. Visitors will find Old Montana Prison in the distance, on the right, where cell house towers command the skyline.

Deer Lodge, Montana, with a population of about 3,200 residents, grew from early mining and cattle interests. The town sits in the middle of wide valley between mountain ranges in the heart of the Rockies. It’s about 40 miles northwest of Butte on Interstate 90, and about 80 miles southeast of Missoula. To the southwest, about 25 miles away, is Anaconda. To the northeast about 60 miles away is Helena. Bozeman, Kalispell and Great Falls are farther.

Even though the state prison houses far more inmates nowadays than it did in 1959, the town’s civilian population is smaller. People wonder why. Wouldn’t the prison have many more employees as a result?

The answers lie with the demise of trains and a shift of the work force. Thirty years ago and more, when the Milwaukee Road kept trains running east and west, Deer Lodge had a roundhouse and car shops for maintenance. Much of the area employment fell into three arenas: railroad, prison and farming/ranching. When the Milwaukee Road disappeared, so did hundreds of people.

The prison, meanwhile, moved to a new location west of town. Over time more and more guards came from Butte and Anaconda. Although Deer Lodge appears to have more commerce than in the 1960s, the growth is near Interstate 90 where travelers stop. High school enrollment fell by nearly half (now Class B in sports) since the 1960s, when the school competed in Class A. For all the years gone by, Deer Lodge remains much the same — a small town with a big heart.

Take me to Kevin's books: One Woman Against War, Summer of the Black Chevy, Jerry's Riot


Ever been to Deer Lodge? The first thing anyone notices is Old Montana Prison, which looms out of the landscape like a movie set.

In fact, it’s been used for just that: Fast Walking (1980), Runaway Train (1984), Diggstown (1990),The Last Ride (1994). The state ought to work harder to get more movies filmed there, because Old Montana Prison is a beautifully preserved relic of prisons past. The first you’ll notice are the turrets, then the gray walls. In the last years of the old prison’s life, electronic doors replaced some of the key locks. Otherwise, the prison is much like it was many decades ago.

When I researched Jerry’s Riot, I was able to reconstruct what happened in 1959 as I walked through the prison grounds. Except for the 1896 cell house, all the infrastructure from the 1959 riot remains. The museum staff at Old Montana Prison has done a marvelous job bringing the old prison to life again. It closed as a functioning prison in 1979 (the big house west of town houses more than two times as many inmates as the old one did).

Visitors to Old Montana Prison can still visit Cell House 1, see maximum security, and even inspect the tunnel from where guards watched inmates in the dining room.

4 thoughts on “About Deer Lodge, western Montana’s prison town

  1. Wow, I lived in deer lodge at that time. I was in 7th grade at st. Mary’ academy. My dad worked for Milwaukee road and was head of the shOps and maintenance. Dad’s office was in the roundhouse.
    Can’t wait to get your book

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