The Old Penitentiary in West Park – A Brief History

Apr 3, 2015 | | 4 comments

Western Penn Book Scan Frank Lochner

The Western Penitentiary was established as a result of pressure from The Philadelphia Society of Alleviating the Miseries of Public Prisoners.  In August of 1818 Legislators granted the Commonwealth 10 acres of Allegheny Town, the easterly line facing the West Commons, 200 feet above Ohio Street for construction of a penitentiary.  A grey, Norman style, sand-stone building with circular sentry towers was constructed on that site and completed on November 27, 1827.  It sat at the exact spot that the National Aviary sits today in Northside’s West Park.  It was called Western Penitentiary because Eastern Penitentiary was being constructed in Philadelphia (1829-1971).  The first prisoner was received in July 1826 which was 16 months before the Penitentiary’s completion.  He was kept in a small finished part of the prison.  The towns population was around 1000 people at this time.

1869 Western Penitentiary Allegheny Pa

During Charles Dickens visit to the city, March 20-22 1842, he visited the prison and some scholars believe he based the classic A Christmas Carol on conditions at the facility.  From August 5, 1863 to March 18 1864 (during the civil war) Western Penitentiary housed 118 Confederate Prisoners.  Officers of Morgan’s Calvary (Raiders) were captured in Ohio and kept there in 1863.  Conditions were good but 8 prisoners died during winter, 1 by trying to escape. By 1864 the penitentiary was practically self sustaining by manufacturing boots, shoes, brooms, cigars, and woven goods.

1863 look inside Western Penitentiary

The old penitentiary was in a state deterioration torn down when the present Riverside Penitentiary was finished in 1886.  In 1888 stones from Western Penitentiary were used to build the retaining wall on Perrysville Avenue.  The Daughter’s of the Confederacy sought to put a marker on the spot of Old Western Penitentiary in the 1960’s.

1964 Street Car near Perrysville retain wall Bob Rathke

Posted in: History

4 Responses

  1. I rode the “8 Perrysville” from the bottom of federal street ext. to downtown from 1965 on.
    I, as a youngster,I liked watching the guy’s change the bilboard signs at the bottom of federal street extension. I delivered the press & “suntelly” for Vick Stagerwall out of the storefront that used to be “Ben’s Store” I remember when the soft icecream shop open further down fedral on the right hand side. I think it was called “Eddio’s”

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