The Iowa State Penitentiary stands like a towering stone fortress on a bluff over the Mississippi River, ringed by castle-like guard towers. Built in 1839, it’s the oldest operating prison west of the Mississippi. It is a place that people have long wanted to avoid. Soon, it might become the opposite: an attraction for visitors.
After Iowa’s most dangerous criminals leave when the prison closes next spring, some officials hope that history buffs, ghost hunters and the plain curious will show up to replace them. Around the country, prisons built in the 19th and 20th centuries are closing due to rising maintenance costs and security concerns. But cities eager to fill the economic gap are hoping to capitalize on something that most tourist sites lack: a morbid past.