JEFFERSON CITY — For 168 years, thick stone walls kept most of the inhabitants of the old Missouri State Penitentiary from making an unscheduled departure.
But the razor wire-topped walls were no match for the EF-3 tornado that struck the capital city last month, not to mention the roofs and windows of the historic prison.
Although damage assessments from the twister are still underway across the city, officials are estimating the havoc at the prison will cause an economic loss of about $1.2 million in tourism-related spending because of cancellation of tours at the complex.
“It took a big hit,” said Diane Gillespie, executive director of the Jefferson City Convention and Visitors Bureau, which operates the tours.
Last year, more than 33,600 people toured the facility, which once held as many as 5,200 inmates on a bluff overlooking the Missouri River.
The damage last month occurred as Jefferson City was attempting to make the prison an even bigger draw for tourists.
The facility, which was closed in 2004, was the oldest prison west of the Mississippi River. Situated eight blocks from the Capitol, it was once Jefferson City’s largest employer and one of its largest manufacturers, using prisoners to make shoes, brooms and other items.
Known as the “Big House,” the prison opened in 1836, more than a century before Alcatraz.
It also held its share of infamous inmates, including bank robber Charles Arthur “Pretty Boy” Floyd and boxer Charles “Sonny” Liston, who lived briefly in St. Louis as a youngster.
Among notable escapees was James Earl Ray, who later assassinated the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.
Overcrowding of cells led to a three-day riot in September 1954, involving 2,500 inmates. When it was over, four inmates were dead and many more injured. In 1967, Time magazine labeled the prison the “bloodiest 47 acres in America” as a result of violence that included 550 serious assaults in 1963 and 1964.
Before closing , the prison had seen more than 2,000 deaths, including 39 who died in the gas chamber that is still on the site.
In 2017, the state turned over 32 acres to the city, with a plan to build roads, hotels and housing in the shadow of the old fortress.
Under the deal, the prison structure itself remains in state hands.
Brittany Ruess, spokeswoman for the state Office of Administration, said it’s too early to determine when or if tours will resume.
“We’re working on cost estimates right now. As far as what’s next, we’re still assessing what we’re going to do,” she said.
Specifically, Ruess said there is roof and structural damage to four cell blocks, the dining hall and the gymnasium. A metal building on the site was crushed and will need to be removed.
Along with taking down part of the wall on the south side along Capitol Avenue, the wind pushed down a wall on the north side along the Missouri River side of the prison.
Privately owned historic buildings that surround the prison were severely damaged, with some expected to be declared total losses.
Gillespie said tours are on hold through at least the end of August.
It’s not the first time the prison’s tours have been canceled.
In 2013, a site assessment revealed mold in the facility, forcing the state to make repairs.
“We’re hopeful this isn’t a long-term thing,” Gillespie said.