First Jail

By Nicholas R. Cataldo
(Photographs provided by the San Bernardino Historical and Pioneer Society)

One of the few remaining tangible reminders of our county's early history has recently found a new "home" on the headquarters of the San Bernardino Historical and Pioneer Society. A brown and rusting two ton jail that was possibly the first here when San Bernardino was a wild frontier town had been sitting in private collections--including that of the late casino owner Bill Harrah -- elsewhere during most of the past century before Fred Coops' Collector Galleries, headed by Randy Briggs and John Dudding bought it at a San Francisco auction in August of 1986 and had it shipped to back to San Bernardino.

And during the early afternoon hours of July 16, 2004 this colorful and rather unglamorous remnant of the "old days" was given to the Historical Society thanks to volunteers led by Jim Stocker, 72, and George Butler, 80, who transported it from storage on South "D" Street to the Society's headquarters at 8th and "D".

Moving San Bernardino's First Jail to the Heritage House
(Moving San Bernardino's First Jail to the Heritage House)

Although documentation is not conclusive, the 9 foot square cell, a self-contained one room box made of riveted boiler plate with a barred window, was probably built sometime after the "Mormon Recall" in late 1857.

San Bernardino's First Jail on Display at the Heritage House
(San Bernardino's First Jail, now on display at the Heritage House)

The lettering over the heavy grilled door states that it is the first jail in Southern California and was built in 1852. But that is highly unlikely as Dr. Leo Lyman, local historian and author of San Bernardino: The Rise and Fall of A California Community emphatically mentions that during the years between 1851 and 1857 while the relatively law-abiding Mormon founders were developing the town of San Bernardino, there was so little "riffraff" that there really wasn't an urgent need for a jail. In fact, the Western Standard, a church newspaper that often included national and world news, reported on December 27, 1856 that:

" As yet there is no courthouse, the sessions of court being held in a large room of Bishop Crosby's hotel; neither is there a county jail, nor much of a need for one."

But as the town grew the atmosphere did get rather tense. William McDonald was arrested for killing Marion Perkins in the summer of 1857, he was detained in a vacant house with a dozen volunteer guards worked in shifts to prevent a possible lynching.

By that time the Board of Supervisors had decided to build a jail and a courthouse (court proceedings were shared between Bishop Crosby's hotel and the Mormon Council House near 3rd and Grafton Streets (now Arrowhead Ave.), many of the Mormons followed Church President, Brigham Young's orders to return to Salt Lake later that year.

On June 14, 1858, the San Bernardino County Board of Supervisors discussed seeking out bids for building a jail. But not much was accomplished as the Board mentioned in its minutes for December 19, 1859--a year and a half later--that "sealed proposals would be received at the Courthouse until February 7, 1860 to build a cell for the jail".

Josephine DeWitt Rhodehamel and Raymund Francis Wood mentioned in their biography, Ina Coolbrith: Librarian and Laureate of California (published in 1973) about the building of a jail:

"He (Robert Carsley) was apparently doing well enough to be given some important commissions, for during the summer of 1860 he built in his own shop, an iron casing for the jail in San Bernardino. This was made of sheets of metal one-fourth- inch thick fastened to flat bars by screws. The Star's (Los Angeles Star) praises were glowing, 'It is the most secure prison possible, as no attempt can be made to break jail without alarming everybody in the neighborhood...The establishment weighs over six tons (our figures say two tons) and is the heaviest piece of iron work yet completed here...It will cost about $2000. The work has been executed in a manner highly creditable to Mr. Carsley.' The plate bars and screws were hauled to San Bernardino and set in place in July."

The Los Angeles Starfor September 29, 1860, reported that San Bernardino County was going through some bad financial times. There is also another mention (albeit not very complimentary) of the Historical Society's recent acquisition:

"This is a deplorable state of affairs for a county that is yet in its infancy, without any mark of public improvement whatever save an old adobe building (the former Mormon Council House) that is used as a court house, which in its present dilapidated condition is more of a disgrace than of usefulness or ornament. To be sure, the Supervisors have had two iron cells built by way of a jail, at a cost of $1700, and before they become habitable, there must be at least $200 more expended to obtain a sufficient circulation of air, to maintain life in those who may unfortunately be compelled to enter its horrid portals."

On December 22, 1860, the following bid was received and awarded by the Board that the contract for boarding prisoners in the County prison for the next ensuing six-months be awarded to M. Jacobs...that Anson Van Leuven be allowed one dollar and twenty-five cents for chamber pot furnished jail, and that "R.G. Ayers account be reduced to thirty-eight dollars for ventilating the County Jail and a warrant be drawn on the Interest Fund".

A correspondence between the late historian Arda Haenszel and Randy Briggs from Fred Coops Galleries included an 1862 newspaper account by San Francisco reporter Henry De Groot mentioned about a "great boiler - like cell" that occupied the corner of the county courthouse.

Finally, The Guardian for June 1, 1867 contained even more unflattering comments about the cell:

"COUNTY JAIL--This building will be completed and ready to be turned over to the authorities today. It is a most substantial structure...The walls are built of the stone from Slover Mountain, a kind of coarse marble...The interior is partitioned into three apartments. The large room is 15 feet square, well ventilated and sufficiently light. The (two) cells we entirely disapprove of--and recommend that those horrible iron chests be removed. They are a disgrace to the civilization of the age. In one of them (the Historical Society's cell?) is a nuisance not fit to be alluded to. Let a stone wall be run up and two cells with stone walls be substituted for this iron cage, which might be suitable to chain a hyena in, but not for the confinement of a human being..."

Dedication of San Bernardino's First Jail
(July 23, 2004 Dedication of The First Jail in S. California)

There was a dinner and dedication ceremony for San Bernardino's first jail cosponsored by the San Bernardino Historical and Pioneer Society and the Native Sons of the Golden West, which took place on the Society grounds on July 23, 2004.


San Bernardino's first jail cell was dedicated on July 23, 2004 at the Heritage House at 8th and "D" Streets. The Native Son's of the Golden West-Arrowhead Parlor #110 performed the service. "Chicken Charlie and the California Minstrels" provided the entertainment. Approximately 130 people witnessed the dedication and 100 of them stayed for the lasagna and baked ziti dinner.

Randy Briggs and John Dudding, who attended the ceremony with their wives, donated the jail cell itself to the Historical Society. It had been in several major collections like Wells Fargo and Harrahs before they obtained it over 20 years ago. Mark Ostoich of the law firm, Gresham, Varner & Savage, donated the money for a cement slab for the jail.

Board Members Allen Bone, Steve Harte and Steve Shaw provided the manual labor of pulling out the hedges and preparing the ground. James Stocker and his family attended the dedication. James, who's father was the Sheriff in San Bernardino County in the 40's, was responsible for moving the jail from the storage space at Rialto and "D" Streets to the Historical Society. By doing so, he saved the Historical Society $850, the estimate from one moving company.

An open structure with a roof was built by the Carpenters' Joint Apprentice and Training Committee for Southern California and painted by Allen Bone, Steve Harte and Steve Shaw.