February 24, 2019

1867: Needed a Jail; Built a Courthouse

It had only been three years since Yavapai County’s seat was formed and there was already need for a jail. Prisoners were being kept under an expensive 24/7 armed guard and two criminals already cost the county $2000 each (about $180,000 apiece today,) to keep them before and during trial. So the county floated bonds, worth nearly a million dollars today, to build a new (now referred to as the “Old,”) Courthouse.

It was the first permanent courthouse fully owned by the county. Previously a community building was rented for this purpose. 

The cost of the building was $9,500. “A large sum, some people will say,” the paper predicted, “but they must remember that the building will soon pay for itself in the saving of rent to the county, and by the cheap manner in which prisoners can now be kept…Now, they can be securely locked up and kept without the expense of guards, and boarded for a reasonable sum per month.” 

Compared to the county’s huge land mass back then—about the size of Missouri, Yavapai’s Courthouse would be a tiny speck. Its 28 x 38 foot foundation would provide a meager 936 interior square feet for each of its two floors. 

The exterior of the building featured “two wide and spacious banquettes, well roofed, on the front of the building, and a beautiful pair of…stairs (that led) from the ground, outside, to the court room.”

The ground floor housed “three neat, but rather small rooms, for offices (and) a hall which runs the full length of the building. Between the back of said rooms and the front are four cells for the accommodation of vicious and (unruly) customers,” the paper reported. 

“The upper story consists of one large room, and it is intended for a court room. Its height is 12 feet. It is well-lighted with excellent sash doors and windows, and covered with a good shingle roof."

Prescott AZ's 2nd worst disaster: the Mercy Hospital fire, June 8, 1940. Prescott would be without a hospital for 33 months.

Despite its appearance, the Old Courthouse was essentially a log-cabin with a brick facade. However, the size of the logs used offers enlightening insight into how large the forest trees were back then. 

“The walls are built of hewn logs 12 inches thick, weather-boarded, and lined on the inside. The ground floor (was) of logs (and ran) the full length of the building. The partition walls, also of logs, (were) mortised into the floor logs.” 

The second story was the same. Therefore, the logs used just for the exterior walls and floors, each over a yard in circumference, would stretch for 7-tenths of a mile if laid end to end.

The interior walls, used to house the prisoners, were even more impressive. “The doors of the cells (were) huge hewn logs, 28 inches in width and 12 inches thick,” the paper described. Such a piece of wood could only come from a tree that was 7’ 4” around. These doors were fastened to the walls “with two heavy iron strap hinges and two large padlocks,” the paper detailed. “Three of the cells (were) lighted with small windows in the back of the building, in which (were) stout bars of iron; only one (was) ‘dark and dismal.’” 

On November 27th, 1867, Yavapai County Supervisors took possession and the building was immediately put to use. The Arizona Miner described the courthouse as “an ornament to the town and an honor to the county, a terror to evil-doers, and an asylum and comfortable home for our county officials.”

“The workmanship cannot be beaten,” the paper believed. “The windows and doors are first-class; and…the contractors and builders, Messrs. Beebe & Cornell, did the very best they could in the erection of the building.

The Miner did notice one potential problem, citing that a prisoner could communicate with someone outside “who might pass them in tools to cut the iron bars.” Still, the paper admitted that “it is all that could be desired.”

Unlike the openings of future civic buildings that had parades, speeches, and great fanfare, the Old Courthouse opened quietly. (Perhaps the population was only big enough to have a parade OR spectators, but not both!)

One little known fact about the Old Courthouse, brought to light by researcher Michael Spencer, was that the clock and 800 pound bell for the tower didn't arrive until 1878, when the building had already been in service 11 years! 

Local watchmakers and jewelers Morgan & Dougherty arranged for the purchase from manufacturer Howard Watch Co. of Boston for a clock that was just below and cheaper than that company's finest. However, the Boston firm decided to use the opportunity for promotional purposes. "In consideration of the fact that this is the first tower-clock ever sent away into these far-off Western wilds," the paper announced, the Howard Watch Co. "concluded to send one of their very best clocks, without increasing the price agreed upon for a cheaper grade. This is done in order to introduce their fine work, and the people of Yavapai get the benefit of it."

“We are proud of our new County building,” the paper exclaimed, “and advise all our citizens to go and see it for themselves, and judge if we are not correct in saying it is a good one.”

Unfortunately, the construction of the Old Courthouse proved to be slipshod and the building was razed after only 48 years.

A sane man might wonder if the Three Stooges didn't paste it together just prior to landing their gig on vaudeville!

An index of all the Prescott, AZ History articles involving historic buildings, infrastructure and other structures in Yavapai County, Arizona.

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