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Old Monterey Jail

An impenetrable fortress for a century

Old Monterey JailThe Old Monterey Jail was constructed in 1854 and served as the City Jail until 1956. No one ever escaped from the thick granite walls during its history. The building is open to the public Thursdays through Sundays from 10 am to 4 pm.

The Monterey Jail When California became a state in 1850
Monterey was selected as the seat of Monterey County government. The new county needed a new jail. The problem with the old jail, an adobe structure that stood near the present-day bus terminal, was that too many prisoners had escaped! Word had it that you could use a simple spoon to carve out the adobe mud walls standing between you and freedom. Construction on the new jail began in 1854. It was built next to Colton Hall, which was the home of the county courthouse, and where California's Constitution was created in 1849. The jail was completed in September 1855. It was solidly built from Monterey granite quarried at Point Lobos, and iron-work fashioned in San Francisco. The walled compound that contained the jail had all the necessities: a kitchen, a stove, and even its own well. The jail contained six large cells, a debtor's room, and a special room for the jailer. Today, only the jail itself remains. The Monterey jail continued to operate until the mid-1950s, long after the county seat was moved to Salinas in December of 1872. In 1960 the jail was opened to the public as part of the Colton Hall Museum. For more stories about some of Monterey Jail’s most notable inmates, tap or click the blue right-arrow above the photo thumbnails. 

Notorious Inmates During the Gold Rush
The jail saw many desperadoes enter its iron doors, including combatants in the notorious Roach-Belcher Feud, an ongoing series of vendetta murders in the 1850's. The feud had been sparked when two local hotheads, Bill Roach and Lew Belcher - aka the "Big Eagle" - quarreled over money inherited by a widow. One of Belcher's henchman, a dangerous outlaw named Anastacio Garcia, was mysteriously hanged in his jail cell by parties unknown - vigilantes who took justice into their own hands. In the twentieth century, a free-spirited habitual offender named Eddie Romero was known to spend a few nights in the old jail. He became the model for the character of Pilon in John Steinbeck's novel Tortilla Flat. Many stories are recorded about various jail inmates serving time in Monterey but this one about a pair of Californians confined for a robbery stands out. The men applied to Monterey's Alcalde, Walter Colton, to have their guitars delivered to them to help while away the time. Colton writes, "Last evening when the streets were still, and the soft moonlight melted through the gates of their prison, their music streamed out upon the quiet air with wonderful sweetness and power. Their voices were in rich harmony with their instruments, and their melodies had a wild and melancholy tone. They were singing, for aught they knew, their own requiem." 

"Young Sports"
Article from the Weekly Herald, January 16, 1875

jail_hallOn Tuesday last there arrived on the steamer Constantine two lads who were apparently prepared for a grand hunting tour through this section. They were aged respectively about 12 and 14 years, and from the number of shooting irons and amount of ammunition they carried it was evident that they intended to make a lengthy stay among us.

Refusing the offers from the coaches for a free ride, they gathered up their traps and marched down to the wharf and from thence to town.

About this time Constable Barnes received a telegram from San Francisco directing him to arrest and detain them, until called for, which he did. The boys slept two nights in the jail, and their spirits were pretty well tamed. One of them had $200 in coin, a fine English fowling piece, a silver mounted pistol and hunting knife, and both were provided with satchels filled with ammunition. The father of one of the boys arrived on Wednesday and took them back to the city next day.

Out of respect of the parents, who were highly respectable residents of San Francisco, we withhold the names of the boys, hoping in the future that they will profit by the lesson taught them.