In the heart of Council Bluffs sits a destination that has captivated my imagination since I first heard of it. The “Squirrel Cage Jail” features a cylindrical, rotating cellblock. No longer an active jail, it is now listed on the National Register of Historic Places and operates as a museum.
I visited on a weekday afternoon and was welcomed by the guide on duty, Brad, and his friendly dog. Brad gave me an overview of the jail and then handed me a booklet of information to refer to on the rest of my self-guided tour.
Built in 1885, the building served as Pottawattamie County Jail until 1969. It’s one of only three surviving jails of this type, and the only three-story one ever built. The individual cells are wedge-shaped, and the warden would use a hand crank to rotate the cellblock, lazy-Susan style, to align cells with the one opening per level where inmates could enter or exit.
I was fascinated with the still-visible markings on cell walls and ceilings from inmates of years past, as well as memorabilia and newspaper clippings documenting the jail’s history. And (let’s be honest), I was even more enthralled with the haunted lore connected with the place. The jail is a favorite of paranormal groups, who regularly visit to investigate and document instances of ghost activity there.
I asked Brad about this. He said when he’s in the building alone, it’s not uncommon for him to hear noises—banging, footsteps, or doors slamming. “If you tell them to stop, they usually stop,” he said nonchalantly, adding that it doesn’t make him as jumpy as when he was a new employee. As I started my self-guided tour, he said he would go up to the fourth floor warden’s apartment and turn on the light for me. He added that sometimes the light goes off inexplicably. “If it’s off when you get up there, just find the lamp and turn it back on.” Okay. Gulp. (It was still on.)
I’m glad my first visit to the Squirrel Cage Jail was in the light of day, but I think it would be a whole different kind of fun visiting at night. The jail hosts occasional overnight events, or you can book your own overnight stay by appointment!
The Squirrel Cage Jail is open Tuesday through Saturday, 10 a.m.–4 p.m., and Sunday 1–4 p.m. More information available on the Historical Society of Pottawattamie County website.