On the Road: Prisons and Oil

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Wyoming Territorial Prison

By William Deverell

Headed north into Wyoming.  An eventful day on the road.  Drove north out of Colorado Springs, cut west to hug the mountains above Fort Collins, then punched into Wyoming to make our way to Rock Springs for the night.  Had the road more or less to ourselves, at least until I-80 at Rawlins.  We stopped at the Wyoming Territorial Prison, now a museum.  Well done – the buildings and cells have been preserved, and even the grounds are foreboding.  It is a grim place – as you’d expect – the incarcerated must have suffered year round in the heat and the freezing cold.  They even beat the guards for dereliction of duty.  The site, now run well by Wyoming State Parks, points out the life stories of a number of prisoners: men and women alike, the career criminals, the bank and train robbers, and those who looked simply to have made a few very bad choices.  The prison’s practice of shaving the heads of the male prisoners did not prevent individuality from staring out at us from huge black and white photographs made at booking.

We had a start when we visited the “broom factory.”  The imprisoned worked as master broom makers in a big factory on site, and Wyoming State Parks puts historical actors – who stay silent – in prison garb making brooms as you walk through the factory.  Very effective, even creepy.

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Wyoming Territorial Prison

History and geography roll back on themselves, and prisons keep coming up in our travels.  We drove I-80 through Sinclair, Wyoming.  I’ve noticed it before, but I had never made the connection before.  Population 450 (tops), the landscape given over to a huge array of oil refining equipment.  I’m going to make a reasoned guess that this place is named for Harry Sinclair (of Sinclair Oil, which you can still see at Sinclair service stations in the West). Harry Ford Sinclair got caught up in the notorious Teapot Dome oil scandal of the 1920s, and he served six months in federal prison for witness tampering.  It whacked him and his reputation, for sure, but he proved remarkably resilient (with uninterrupted wealth as a cushion, no doubt), rebounding to a life of leisure in Pasadena until his death in the mid-1950s. Someday I’ll find out which house he lived in, as I bet it still stands.

We are now in Rock Springs – tough railroad town and, like Los Angeles, the site of a horrific massacre of Chinese in the 19th century.

The high and barren landscapes of Wyoming and the spaces and places of greater Los Angeles – linked by all kinds of stories and histories, oil and infamy and violence and racism among them.

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Northern Colorado, Southern Wyoming

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