Building the Wyoming Penitentiary: Was the 1871 process rigged?

Melville Brown, Laramie attorney and one-time mayor, had significant Republican contacts in Wyoming Territory. That likely led him to be appointed Superintendent of Construction of the planned territorial penitentiary.

 It was to be constructed just west across the Laramie River from downtown Laramie. The appointment would cause Brown numerous aggravations.

 The Laramie Sentinel reported Brown’s initial appointment as one of the Commissioners of the Penitentiary on May 6, 1871, noting that he was chosen by Wyoming Territory Governor John Campbell. He was appointed after one of the first commissioners, B. F. Edmonds, left the territory.

 Brown, along with fellow commissioners Edward Ivinson and George Chapman, under the orders of Columbus Delano, U. S. Secretary of the Interior, selected the site for the penitentiary immediately after Brown’s appointment.

 Correspondence to the Secretary, via Wyoming John Governor Campbell, noted that the site selected would be most suitable as it was located near excellent stone deposits that could be quarried and moved the two miles to the site of the future penitentiary. They also noted that land was already in the possession of the United States as it was part of the Fort Sanders military reservation.

 Just before the end of May, William Jones, Wyoming Territory Delegate to Congress, recommended Brown to be Superintendent of Construction for the penitentiary. The approval of the appointment was announced in the Sentinel on June 26.

 Preliminary plans for the facility arrived in early August and Brown immediately began preparations for construction.  Brown wrote Secretary Delano requesting to make some adjustments to the plans and Delano agreed.

 The final plans were in Laramie on August 21 and advertisements for construction bids appeared in the Sentinel on that same day.

 By the end of September, Brown had notified the Interior Department that he was in receipt of eight bids for the project. Bids ranged from $28,750 to $39,550. Brown believed most of the lower bidders were not qualified as they offered no bond against the possibility that they might not be able to complete the job.

 Brown wrote to Delano that the minimum acceptable bid would be approximately $35,000 based on the concurrent construction of the new Albany County courthouse in Laramie.

 After several letters to and from the Interior Department, it was announced on November 1 that the successful bid for construction was submitted by Colonel J. W. Donnellan of Laramie for the sum of $34,800.

 Donnellan was well known and connected within the city. He was a partner in the first bank housed in Laramie, Rogers and Co., had experience in construction and was able to furnish satisfactory evidence of a bond against completion. Brown’s selection immediately came under fire.

 Wyoming Territory’s U. S. Marshal, Church Howe, also a Republican, contacted the Secretary of the Interior on November 2, noting that the contract should be withheld because “fraud” had been perpetrated against the United States when Brown let the contract.

 Brown must have gotten wind of the telegram because the next day he contacted Secretary Delano and stated that Donnellan, being an honest man, would give up the contract to someone else if indeed there had been irregularities.

 Before Brown could get the contract issue straightened out, he came under attack from another quarter.

 Having been elected to be an Albany County representative to the territorial legislative assembly, anonymous persons claimed that he could not serve because the territory’s law said no federal government employee (except a postmaster) could serve in the legislative assembly.

 Telegrams were sent to and from the territory and Washington D.C. and while it turned out that Brown did serve, it had to be at least a minor distraction adding to his woes over the charges of fraud in the contact letting.

 Marshal Howe contacted the Secretary again on November 17 restating the charges against Brown and offering affidavits from some contractors who felt they had been deprived of fair consideration. In the end, however, Brown’s contract with Donnellan was approved over Howe’s objections.

 While that should have been the end of the rancor concerning Brown’s contract actions, they were again challenged in early 1872.

 Edward Ivinson, local banker and contractor for the new Albany County courthouse, wrote to Secretary Delano in February stating that the advertisements for the bids implied that construction was to occur that winter and he, therefore, did not bid.

 Ivinson went on to say that since the construction was deferred until the spring, others would be interested in bidding. Marshal Howe then jumped on the anti-Brown bandwagon again and offered to take over the entire project, replacing Brown. Almost immediately Governor Campbell wired Secretary Delano that Howe was not to be trusted.

 The seeds of doubt had been sown at the Department of the Interior and they directed Brown to start the whole process over. Howe and Ivinson had won the battle but not the war as Brown was retained as Superintendent of Construction.

 Brown reissued a call for bids in early March. J. H. Hayford, the Laramie Sentinel newspaper’s editor, roundly criticized Marshal Church Howe for the delay.

 A man named Rutledge had submitted an unsuccessful bid of $39,000.  The Sentinel editor claimed that Rutledge was being coerced by Howe to lower his bid to $32,000 and that Rutledge was, “was merely a tool in Church Howe’s hands and was used to spite and injure Laramie City and our people.”

 Howe’s plan to capture the contract failed when Rutledge instead submitted a bid of $35,995. Hayford claimed Rutledge did so in another person’s name, but for some reason Hayford did not name the person. That bid was not accepted.

  After much back and forth between Brown, the original bidders on the contract, the Interior Department and Marshal Howe, the investigation was completed by the Department of the Interior into Brown’s letting of the contract to Donnellan.

 Nothing severe enough was found to remove Brown from his position. He reopened the bidding that resulted in the Denver firm of Samuel Livingston and George Schram being selected by Brown to put up the main building.

 Due to his scheming, Church Howe was replaced at the request of Governor Campbell and Frank Wolcott became the new marshal.

 Construction of the penitentiary was reported to be underway at the end of April. However, unprecedented flooding of the Laramie River and the destruction of the bridge leading from the town west to the penitentiary site delayed any real work until nearly the end of June.

 Brown, whose salary was $1500 per year, then reported to the Secretary of the Interior that work was progressing rapidly, and the foundation and some iron work had been completed.

 Brown held an impromptu official cornerstone laying ceremony on July 15 and reported back to Washington on July 30 that the first floor and its cells were finished, and work had begun on the second floor.

 Brown continued to push the work to its completion and on October 21, 1872, the three commissioners certified the work completed and the facility was turned over to U. S. Marshal Frank Wolcott.

 The controversy over the construction continued to drag on for a while longer due to a fire that broke out in a chimney in August of the next year.

 Sentinel editor Hayford took the opportunity to heap scorn not on Brown but on Edward Ivinson. He claimed that Ivinson was the person who inspected the finished building and he should have recognized there was a problem.

 It should have been clear that Brown and the contractors were similarly culpable and could have been targeted by Hayford. But history shows that Hayford did not like Ivinson’s banking practices and likely chose to single out Ivinson for that reason.

 Despite these early issues, the penitentiary became fully operational and was used to confine inmates until a new state prison in Rawlins started to house Wyoming prisoners. The final inmates at Laramie were transferred to the new facility in 1903.

By Kim Viner

Caption: Main building of the Wyoming Territorial Penitentiary, which housed inmates for about 30 years until a new Wyoming State Prison was constructed in Rawlins.  When the last prisoners were transferred in 1903 the facility was turned over to the University of Wyoming for use by the College of Agriculture. Today it is the centerpiece of the Wyoming Territorial Prison Historic Site, open to visitors year round for a modest fee.

Source: Buffum Collection American Heritage Center University of Wyoming