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What is Leavenworth?

Leavenworth is a charming Bavarian-styled village nestled in the Cascade Mountains of Washington State. Renowned for its alpine architecture, vibrant festivals, and outdoor activities, it offers a slice of European culture with a Pacific Northwest twist. Discover how this unique town became a year-round haven for visitors seeking picturesque scenery and cultural experiences. What secrets does Leavenworth hold for you to uncover?
Nicole Kinsman
Nicole Kinsman

Leavenworth is a medium-security United States federal prison that is located in Leavenworth, Kansas. The facility — the official name is United States Penitentiary, Leavenworth — has garnered notoriety through television and movies since it opened in the early 1900s. Hollywood has chosen to portray this particular prison frequently because of its unique design as well as the interesting cast of criminals that the prison has hosted.

Throughout the 1800s, prisoners in the U.S. were housed in state prisons. The need for more facilities, however, convinced members of the U.S. Congress to allow for the country's first federal prisons to be built. The first federal prison system consisted of three facilities, which were located in Atlanta, Georgia; on McNeil Island in Washington state; and in Leavenworth. The federal prison system was committed to housing criminals who had been handed down sentences by the federal court system.

Hollywood has portrayed life at Leavenworth in films such as “The Birdman of Alcatraz.”.
Hollywood has portrayed life at Leavenworth in films such as “The Birdman of Alcatraz.”.

Construction on the penitentiary in Leavenworth was completed in 1903, and it became a maximum security prison. Inmates were kept in the main building of the facility. This dome-topped building is commonly referred to as the “Big Top” or the "Big House.” As of 2010, more than 1,600 inmates were housed in the main building.

Inside the main building is a large, rectangle shaped room with walls that are 30 feet (9.1 m) in height and approximately 3,000 feet (914 m) long. This room is where cells were constructed on each side of a large walkway that is patrolled by armed guards.

Leavenworth is a medium-security U.S. federal prison located in Kansas.
Leavenworth is a medium-security U.S. federal prison located in Kansas.

Over the years, Leavenworth has hosted some of the most notorious and dangerous criminals in the federal prison system. One such inmate was Robert Stroud, who became famously known as “The Birdman of Alcatraz.” He spent 30 years at Leavenworth, during which time he was allowed to breed and sell canaries. Other famous inmates who have been housed in the facility are George “Machine Gun” Kelly, a notorious gangster during the depression era; Michael Vick, a professional football quarterback; and Carl Panzram, a prolific serial killer who was executed by hanging in 1930.

Until 2005, Leavenworth penitentiary was the largest maximum security prison in the U.S. That year, the prison was changed to a medium-level security prison because the U.S. Federal Bureau of Prisons wanted to change the mission of the facility. The bureau did allow Leavenworth to keep its status as a United States Penitentiary for historical reasons.

Frequently Asked Questions

What is Leavenworth known for?

Leavenworth is renowned for its unique Bavarian-style architecture, vibrant festivals, and picturesque setting in the Cascade Mountains. It's a popular tourist destination in Washington State, especially known for its annual Christmas Lighting Festival and Oktoberfest. The town's transformation into a Bavarian village in the 1960s revitalized its economy, attracting visitors year-round for its alpine-themed shops, restaurants, and outdoor recreational activities.

Can you visit the Leavenworth Penitentiary?

The United States Penitentiary, Leavenworth, is a medium-security federal prison with a history dating back to the early 1900s. While it's an operational facility and not open for public tours, its imposing structure and historical significance as one of the oldest prisons in the United States make it a point of interest. Visitors to the area can learn about its history through local museums and historical societies.

What outdoor activities can you do in Leavenworth?

Leavenworth offers a plethora of outdoor activities, taking advantage of its mountainous terrain and river access. Visitors can engage in hiking, mountain biking, rock climbing, and river rafting in the warmer months. During winter, the area becomes a haven for snow sports such as skiing, snowboarding, snowshoeing, and sledding. The Wenatchee River and surrounding alpine lakes also provide opportunities for fishing and kayaking.

How did Leavenworth become a Bavarian village?

In the 1960s, Leavenworth transformed itself from a declining logging town into a Bavarian-themed village to revive its economy. This change was inspired by the town's alpine surroundings, which resembled the mountains of Bavaria. Community leaders and business owners collaborated to remodel the town's facade, adopting Bavarian architecture and culture, which successfully turned Leavenworth into a major tourist attraction.

When is the best time to visit Leavenworth?

The best time to visit Leavenworth depends on the experience you're seeking. For warm weather activities and the vibrant atmosphere of the town's summer theater and music festivals, May through September is ideal. If you're interested in the famous Christmas Lighting Festival and winter sports, December through February is the perfect time. Oktoberfest in October also draws large crowds for its authentic German beer, food, and entertainment.

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    • Hollywood has portrayed life at Leavenworth in films such as “The Birdman of Alcatraz.”.
      By: Perseomedusa
      Hollywood has portrayed life at Leavenworth in films such as “The Birdman of Alcatraz.”.
    • Leavenworth is a medium-security U.S. federal prison located in Kansas.
      By: BortN66
      Leavenworth is a medium-security U.S. federal prison located in Kansas.