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Pioneer Yosemite History Center Online Tour


Powderhouse and Jail


Location of Old Village, Yosemite Valley
[click to enlarge]

The Jail was originally located in
the Old Village in Yosemite Valley,
on the south side of the road
Powderhouse, outside view
[click to enlarge]

Powderhouse and Jail
The black powder and dynamite used in the routine State work in Yosemite Valley were kept in the “Tool House” before John Degnan built this stone magazine in the 1890’s, while employed by the State of California for road repair and other odd jobs. In addition to thick stone walls, the powder house also had six inches of sand in the ceiling as protection from fire. The powderhouse was originally located in the Old Upper Village in Yosemite Valley.

Later, the powder house was converted into a jail — a very poor one. In 1915, two young car thieves escaped by digging away the mortar between the rocks with a leg they had twisted off the rickety steel frame cot. The pair claimed the task was so easy that they waited until after breakfast to perform their escape. Patrol rangers recaptured them, and shackled them by leg irons to the corners. Following this incident, horseshoes were embedded in the floor to provide a chain base of greater security. Occasionally, the powder house-jail also served as a morgue.

The powderhouse jail was moved to Wawona by splitting it in two, shoring up with heavy vertical timbers, then dragging onto a trailer bedded with old tires. Doug Hubbard remembers

The old jail, from the Yosemite Valley, a tiny structure of rough granite blocks and soft mortar gave Gordo some headaches. It had a foot or so or sand above its ceiling, a fire proofing technique dating back to its original use as a powder house. [Shirley Sargent Protecting Paradise (1998), p. 112.]

Man chained to cot inside jail
(NPS)
Powderhouse, inside view
[click to enlarge]

Inside view of powderhouse
As auto-touring increased, the newly-formed National Park Service recognized that roads needed improvement. Road-building in this region was not easy. Granite rock was blasted away to form roadbeds. Powderhouses were used to store blasting powder. In 1933, access to Yosemite Valley from Wawona was improved with the completion of the Wawona Tunnel. The tunnel’s power lines, carbon monoxide sensors, and high-speed fans made it an engineering feat. Workers used 275 tons (250 metric tons) of blasting powder and spent nearly two years drilling the tunnel, at a rate of roughly 20 feet (6 m.) per day.



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