Ghosts of the Wild West

Strange things happen in the Old Kootenai County Jail

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Seen through original jail cell doors, Sue Culver, treasurer of the Historical Society of Rathdrum, explains the history of the historic Kootenai County Jail on Thursday in Rathdrum.

RATHDRUM — When tour guides leave the Old Kootenai County Jail for the day, they lock the building up tight. They set alarms and make sure no one is left behind.

The building sits empty and quiet when everyone has gone home … or does it? Rathdrum/Westwood Historical Society treasurer Sue Culver isn’t so sure anymore.

A spooky incident involving the security alarm left her feeling a little uneasy about being alone at the 123-year-old historic site.

“I’ve never been even a bit hesitant with ghost stories or whatever until this year,” Culver said Thursday afternoon. “That’s the first time in the three years that I’ve been doing this that I absolutely hesitated to come back. I normally do the tours by myself. The next time I came out to do a tour, I had my grandson come with me until I got it all open.”

In the middle of a weekday in August, Culver was called to the site because something triggered the security alarm. She went inside, assuming someone had wiggled the handle to an outside door or some other common occurrence.

Not this time.

"I came in, shut the alarm off, and this is what I found,” she said, walking through the building's annex toward the original iron door that separates the old jail from the museum.

“You can see this door here, it was open,” she said. “You can see it can’t be opened from the outside, it has to be opened from the inside.”

Startled beyond belief upon her discovery, Culver said she hollered to whoever might be in the building. She was 100 percent sure the jail door was shut and locked the night before.

But that wasn't all. The security agency told Culver that 30 seconds after the jail door alarm went off, another alarm was tripped in the adjacent exhibit room where the jail kitchen used to be. 45 seconds after that, something set off the alarm just around the corner in the old sheriff's office, where the door to an antique safe was mysteriously opened much more than usual. And no exit alarms ever sounded.

“I was pretty nervous. When there’s no outside door breached, how do you get in? And like I said, this was the first door breached,” she said, gesturing to the heavy jail door. “How do you get it open from the inside when it’s latched? I think whatever set that alarm off opened that door, came in there, went in the kitchen then went to the sheriff’s office.”

That was the first time Culver experienced anything paranormal that gave her the willies in the beautiful old brick building, although she has had to rationalize things to herself when the unexpected happens.

“When you’re here, you’ll hear noises, you know, like maybe footsteps upstairs or something drop or whatever,” she said. “But it’s an old building, I try not to pay any attention to it.”

While she is neutral about whether the location is haunted, she said she is open to listen when others have experiences. She said the workers who built the annex told stories about strange goings on in the jail, which still houses a cell with an original door from when it actively housed inmates in the late 1800s and early 1900s.

“The (workers) would shut the door on the cell and they would put a rock in front of the door,” she said. “Nine times out of 10, the rock would be removed when they came back to work the next day.”

The Old Kootenai County Jail is rich with history. County sheriffs and their families resided in one of the upstairs rooms when Rathdrum was the county seat. An upstairs room was also used as the Kootenai County Hospital and some of the rooms served as the county poor farm, housing many of the community's poor and indigent at one point. The wooden floors are all original, as are many of the Wild West artifacts in the different exhibit areas.

The "Insane Room" at the end of the upstairs hall, where disorderly and unstable citizens were kept, is especially creepy to some, along with the vintage mannequins and a couple dolls positioned throughout the museum.

And a window in one of the upstairs rooms curiously opens on its own. A set of footprints in the dust under the window has perplexed volunteers, because they lead into the room from the outside.

Culver said a few of the tour guides refuse go upstairs.

"They feel that there is definitely something up there. They’ll do the tours downstairs but they won’t go upstairs,” she said.

Paranormal groups have conducted investigations, Culver said, but they haven't found anything notable. But the imagination certainly has a field day with what spirits, residual or otherwise, could be lurking in the Old Kootenai County Jail.

“If it has ghosts, they are definitely friendly,” she said. “There haven’t been bad things that have happened with the ghosts. They’re welcoming to the guests that come through. They don’t seem to come out when we’re doing tours, they seem to be OK with us invading their space. We have people come through that feel like it’s haunted, but they're not afraid.”


Sue Culver, treasurer of the Rathdrum Historical Society, recounts when she came to the Kootenai County Jail in Rathdrum to investigate the alarm being tripped when the solid steel door leading to the jail cells, which is usually locked, was wide open.


A floor safe is positioned beside an original sheriff's uniform on Thursday at the Kootenai County Jail in Rathdrum. When Culver discovered that the steel door leading to the jail cells was mysteriously opened, she also found the safe opened, something out of the ordinary for the museum.


The Kootenai County Jail was built in 1892, and restored in 2010. It housed all county prisoners, until 1908, when the jail became the city jail of Rathdrum. Today, it is a museum.


This room on the top floor of the Kootenai County Jail building was used to hold mentally disturbed inmates. The mannequin in the corner is displaying a straight jacked used during that time.

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