Historic Iowa State Penitentiary opens gates for tours - WGEM.com: Quincy News, Weather, Sports, and Radio

Historic Iowa State Penitentiary opens gates for tours

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The Historic Iowa State Penitentiary was built in 1839. The Historic Iowa State Penitentiary was built in 1839.
Despite the weather, crowds showed up for tours of the prison. Despite the weather, crowds showed up for tours of the prison.
Joe Frendo and his family drove down from Grand Rapids, Michigan to get an inside look at the prison. Joe Frendo and his family drove down from Grand Rapids, Michigan to get an inside look at the prison.
A look at one of the cells used to house inmates. A look at one of the cells used to house inmates.
All the funds raised on the tours go towards upkeep and renovation opportunities. All the funds raised on the tours go towards upkeep and renovation opportunities.
FORT MADISON, Ia. (WGEM) -

After being closed for 176 years to the general public, the Historic Iowa State Penitentiary in Fort Madison was open to the public this weekend. It's only the third time in the penitentiary's history that visitors were allowed inside prison walls. 

"The Iowa State Penitentiary is the oldest institution west of the Mississippi," said Rebecca Bowker, executive officer with the Iowa State Penitentiary. "So we try to take this opportunity to allow the public to come in and see our historic facility."

The crowds over the weekend did not disappoint. 

"The weather hasn't cooperated with us this time but people are troopers and they've come out to visit us today," said Bowker. 

Joe Frendo and his family drove down from Grand Rapids, Michigan to get an inside look at the prison. 

"Being in it is actually kind of alarming," said Frendo. "We went inside and it's dark and scary and ominous. You see how tight it is."

The facility was built in 1839 with some of its first stones being laid before Iowa was even a state.

"A lot of it was built by the inmates themselves and you can see where they kind of piecemeal-ed everything together," said Frendo. "Some of them had some skill and did some beautiful work."

It's the beauty of the institution that residents and non-residents alike are trying to preserve. All the funds raised on the tours go towards upkeep and renovation opportunities. 

"It's historic," said Bowker. "It's part of Fort Madison. It's one of the oldest institutions in the State of Iowa so I think they get a true appreciation for the history and the cultural impact it's had in our community."

The historic prison has been closed since August of 2015 when more than 500 inmates moved up the road to the new multi-million dollar facility. 

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