SUGAR HOUSE — Up until 54 years ago, Sugar House was a much different community than it is today. Notwithstanding great advances in technology, it was the town's state prison that was the major difference.

From January of 1855 until 1951 — nearly a century — today's Sugarhouse Park was home to the "state pen."

While today the large area southeast of 1300 East and 2100 South comprises the park and Highland High School — with students, joggers, bikers, picnickers and sporting events — a large rock wall and fences used to surround the area to house criminals and "undesirables."

The Utah Territory built its first prison on the site in 1854, just southeast of the city limits. Brigham Young himself chose the prison site, which was six miles from the city center, in October of 1853. This site had been known as "The Big Field Survey."

According to information from the Utah State Historical Society, it was 10 acres at first. About $32,000 was spent on the prison facilities, but none was for land, because the property was government-owned. Plans were made in March of 1853, and the prison opened a year later.

The original prison was just 16 "cozy cells dug into the ground, with iron bars on top."

These first cells resembled large bird cages, and sometimes cloth or canvass would be draped on top of the cell to halt the sun or inclement weather.

A few years later, an adobe wall, 12 feet high and 4 feet thick, was added, and it enclosed a log dining room and meeting hall. The warden had his own house.

Sir Richard Burton described the area in 1860 like this:

"It is a somewhat oriental-looking building, with a large quadrangle behind the house, guarded by a wall with a walk on the summit and pepper-caster sentry boxes at each angle. There are cells, in which the convicts are shut up at night, but one of these had lately been broken by an Indian, who had cut his way through the wall. We found in it besides the guardians, only six persons, of whom two were Utah Indians."

The cells were poorly ventilated and plain undesirable. In fact, women prisoners were originally placed in the warden's house.

By 1863, another $3,000 was appropriated for repairs, which included $1,000 for the warden's yearly salary.

In 1866, the inmates asked the warden for schooling. Some limited education programs soon began.

By 1867, the state Legislature found the prison to be run-down, unsafe and inadequate. It wrote to Congress asking for money to improve it, stressing that Utah was a thoroughfare to the Pacific and subject to "the marauding depredations of dishonest and unprincipled adventurers."

There was a serious discussion then about moving the territorial prison to one of the islands in the Great Salt Lake, where escape would be more difficult and convict labor could keep busy in rock quarries and in the salt industry. This idea was turned down. There's little doubt that the escape of grave robber Jean Baptiste, from his exile on Fremont Island in 1862, was likely a prime example of how the lake made a poor prison — despite 8-foot deep water around that island.

Poor, too, was the Sugar House prison's track record. Between 1855 and 1878, 47 of the 240 prisoners housed there had escaped. That's a 20 percent escape rate. A lack of guards was a major factor. During the 20th century, a road sign along 2100 South was reputed to have stated, "Drive carefully — Prisoners escaping!"

In 1871, the prison was turned over to the U.S. Marshal. Work projects for the inmates were started, and they began receiving some pay for their labors.

More rules came in 1880. For example, inmates were then required to bathe at least every two weeks. They also had their own chapel and were even raising their own livestock and had their own farm.

Convicted polygamists were also housed at the Sugar House prison during the later part of the 1800s.

A stone wall around the prison finally came in 1885, when a new cell house — with a capacity of 200 inmates — was also constructed. However, it lacked running water, and buckets were given to each prisoner.

In 1896, Utah became a state and took over the prison's operations from the federal government. During 1904-1918, a new cell house composed of steel, brick, concrete and stone was built. With four floors, there ware 200 cells — each with running water and electrical lights. By then, inmates also received movie-watching privileges, sporting events and were allowed to build their own swimming pool.

Women were housed in the upper floor and later moved to the administration building.

From 1923-1934, a factory was made on site. Convicts made goods that were sold to the public, until a new law prohibited it. With Salt Lake City residential development encroaching on the prison site, Sugar House residents wanted the prison out of their neighborhood.

Authorization was given in 1937 for a new prison on 1,009 acres in today's Draper area — 22 miles south of Salt Lake City. However, work on that facility was only on a "pay-as-you-go basis," and so it came about slowly.

Women inmates had never had adequate prison facilities in Sugar House from Day 1. In 1938, Utah began sending all female inmates to the Colorado State Penitentiary in Canon City, Colo. Utah paid for their housing there.

By 1941, Stage 1 of the new Draper prison was complete, at the cost of $292,000. But work on the prison was halted during World War II from 1941-47 because of the shortage of materials. In July of 1948, work resumed on the Draper prison. Finally, on March 12, 1951 — with the Sugar House prison bulging at the seams — 575 inmates were moved by bus to "Point of the Mountain." (It wasn't until 1957 when female inmates returned from the Colorado prison to Utah. ) The old prison went out with a bang, of sorts. On June 4, 1950, officer Ray Barton targeted three inmates climbing a wall with his submachine gun and successfully foiled their escape, despite a 200-yard long distance from tower to wall.

When the old prison walls were demolished at Sugar House, nine sticks of dynamite barely dented them. Many sections of wall had to be taken down stone by stone.

What to do with the former prison land and its surrounding gardens became the key issue in the early 1950s. A golf course, amusement park, tourist campground and even a retail area were among the ideas.

The park idea eventually won out, and 30 acres became dedicated to a future, unnamed high school that became Highland High.

From prison to park — from a place no one seeks after, with restricting walls and bars to a place where many like to go, with open, natural space and no walls or fences — the Sugarhouse Park property has a starkly contrasting history.

• For more information on the old prison, go online to: