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Tourists Captivated by Condemned Prison : West Virginia: Built just after the Civil War and closed in 1988, the ex-penitentiary is doing time as a revenue-generating attraction.

ASSOCIATED PRESS

The most dangerous weapon they’re packing these days at the West Virginia Penitentiary in Moundsville is a 35 mm.

Camera, that is.

Hallways once walked by the state’s most hardened criminals are being reopened to tourists, and Moundsville city officials hope the short-timers will give a lift to an economy that was hurt when the prison’s less-desirable visitors moved out.

“We feel it’s our future,” said Phil Remke, chairman of the Moundsville Economic Development Council. “It’s going to put the biggest boost in our economy in a long time. I’m getting bus tours calling me like crazy.”

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Folks who want a peek at the electric chair where 11 men were put to death or the room where a deadly riot erupted in 1986 can pay $5 for a 45-minute tour of the Civil War-era prison, a fortress with 30-foot blackened sandstone walls.

“There is this mystique of actually seeing where these guys were housed,” Remke said. “When you walk through there, you have a feeling of, ‘Wow, this is really unbelievable how they stayed.’ ”

The maximum-security prison about 70 miles northwest of Morgantown was built in 1866 and ordered closed in 1988 by the state Supreme Court because of its deplorable living conditions. The last inmates were moved to another prison in March.

Officials had grappled for years with what to do with the prison, long one of chief employers in this Ohio River city of 10,700, about 50 miles southwest of Pittsburgh.

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Turning it into a tourist attraction seemed like a good idea after 12,000 visitors in two months took weekend tours of the prison before it was sealed in June.

“We always knew there was something there,” Remke said. “This is our home and we’re not going to let it die on us.”

Among the tour highlights is “Old Sparky,” the electric chair; North Hall, where the most dangerous convicts lived; murals painted by inmates; and weapons--guns used by guards, and cruder tools confiscated from inmates.

Former guards tell visitors tales of the prison, which once housed as many as 1,850 men in tiny 5-by-7-foot cells and where 94 were executed between 1899 and 1959.

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It was the site of a New Year’s Day uprising in 1986 in which inmates took control of the prison for three days and killed three of their own. In 1992, three inmates tunneled out, burrowing 32 feet from the prison greenhouse. The tunnel was lighted and contained a 14-foot ladder made of pipes.

Public Safety Secretary Gen. Joseph Skaff said the state agreed to let the city use the prison “in whatever way they can to promote their economic viability,” provided they take care of liability issues and the utilities.

“We want them to use it,” Skaff said. “We’d like for them to put in a mall or Putt-Putt, take it over and make good use of it. That’s all part of what we had hoped would happen.”


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