The MOUNDSVILLE REDEMPTON Cell-out: West Virginia townsfolk thought it criminal when businesses left them out in the coal. So, cash-poor, they opened up the old prison for tours and found a captive audience.

November 27, 1995|By Richard O'Mara | Richard O'Mara,SUN STAFF

MOUNDSVILLE, W.Va. -- For as long as anybody can remember, people have been leaving this place.

A plaque at the Marshall County Court House square reads: "Capt. James Harrod assembled 31 men at the mouth of Grave Creek in the Spring of 1774 and from this point went to Kentucky." Even the Adena Indians, who built the pre-historic burial mound that gave Moundsville its name, left for parts unknown about a thousand years ago.

Since 1980, so have many of Moundsville's major employers, taking with them a third of the town's population.

U.S. Stamping, which made pots and pans, closed in 1977. Hanlin Chemical and Pittsburgh Steel in 1985. Fostoria glass makers closed in 1986. Various coal mines from 1985 to 1995. And finally, the West Virginia State Pen in 1995.

For Phil Remke, the town's largest furniture dealer, the closing of the prison last March was the final insult. Along with the 698 inmates, shipped across the state to a new penitentiary in Fayette County, went 300 jobs and a $6 million annual payroll that Moundsville's 10,000 residents sorely needed.

The closure lit a fire in Mr. Remke that spread to about 50 other earnest townsfolk. They formed the Moundsville Economic Development Council to try to revive this town 10 miles south of Wheeling.

Aware there wasn't much to keep people here, much less draw outsiders in, they began to see in the empty penitentiary at the south end of Jefferson Avenue not just another disaster, but the instrument for Moundsville's resurgence. They would open the prison to tourists.

But who would come? Who would want to see a broken down, empty old prison?

More people than anyone ever thought.

"We've been running tours for three weekends, and we've put 4,000 people through," Mr. Remke says.

At $5 a ticket, that's $20,000. It's a start.

"In the next three to five years we're going to make Moundsville the top tourist attraction in West Virginia," Mr. Remke boasts.

Don't laugh. Last year, 1.1 million people toured the empty federal penitentiary at Alcatraz, making it one of San Francisco's top 10 tourist attractions. The closed Eastern State Penitentiary in Philadelphia is also open for tours. Even tough old San Quentin has become a museum.

In a country obsessed with crime, these places have a strange sort of allure. They have been the setting for countless movies and books about prison breaks and men unjustly punished. And the taste for such stories is undiminished, judging from the popularity of recent movies like "The Shawshank Redemption" and "Murder in the First."

The best overall view of the West Virginia State Penitentiary is from the Adena burial mound. To get up there you have to pass through a small museum, with scenes of Indian life, some Remington bronzes and a gift shop where they sell T-shirts, polished rocks, and -- what else? -- Mounds Bars.

The mound is 69 feet high, and from its summit you can see all of the town, the Ohio River with its barge traffic, the melancholy coal-rich mountains and the abandoned Fostoria glass works, blackened by fire, at the other end of Jefferson Avenue.

Directly across the street from the mound rise the twin towers of the penitentiary's North Hall, the solitary confinement area where the hard cases were held.

The West Virginia State Penitentiary was built in 1866, put up by convicts, stone upon stone, to hold the most dangerous among them.

The pen's rough sandstone exterior is coated with the coal dust so prevalent in these parts. Its high walls are crenelated like a castle's.

It is an ugly, forbidding pile. Unlike cleaner, modern prisons -- such as the one in Mount Olive where the inmates from here were transferred nine months ago -- this one advertised its purpose by its very aspect. Even today, standing empty, with the wind blowing through its shattered windows, it breathes a strong, unnerving aura of menace. Behind its walls, within that forest of bars and hard stone, crimes of every sort, murders, rapes and executions, violence of every kind, unfolded.

It is to be close to all that -- and at the same time safe from it -- that people begin gathering at the gate of the Moundsville pen on Saturday and Sunday mornings around 10. They are people like Judy Clary, who drove up from Huntington with her husband, Ronald, to see a high school football game and take in the prison.

Mrs. Clary is standing in the North Wagon Gate, a closed, two-story stone structure, the oldest part of the prison. It was her idea to come. "I'm the nosy one," she says. Her husband nods.

Mrs. Clary is asked what she expects to see. She glances around, a look of distaste on her face: "Well if it looks anything inside like this, not much."

She adds of the convicts: "But did they deserve anything better?"

John White, 43, waits behind the wall. He was a guard here for 21 years, nearly half his life. He is still in his old gray uniform, one among a handful of other guards (they prefer to be called "correctional officers") who got their jobs back under the new enterprise.

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