Work to restore cell block in old Lake County jail pays off for local craftsmen

2013-03-24T19:15:00Z 2013-03-26T07:42:04Z Work to restore cell block in old Lake County jail pays off for local craftsmenSusan Erler, (219) 662-5336

CROWN POINT | With the pull of a lever, the cell door that once confined bank robber John Dillinger clanked into place along with three other cell doors for the first time in decades.

"We smiled from ear to ear," said Steve Thompson, of Crown Point.

Thompson and Scott Kielbasinski, of St. John, volunteered for a project to help restore the jail's Cell Block 1, under the guidance of the Old Sheriff's House Foundation.

Thompson, a machinist, and Kielbasinski, a master mechanic, worked for more than a year in their free time to restore the mechanism on the darkened first floor of the closed and once abandoned jail.

Thompson was bent on solving a puzzle he first encountered while touring the jail with his Cub Scout pack months earlier.

Cell doors in the block, the scene of Dillinger's famed 1934 escape from the jail, at one time were controlled using a single lever to operate a system of gears and pulleys.

Now rusted and corroded, the mechanical padlock had seized, and the cell doors were rusted in place.

Thompson examined every detail of the device and with Kielbasisnski brought in torches, grinders and drills to free rusted pieces and replace broken parts with hand hewn metal parts of their own making.

Finally, in late February, the moving pieces all fell into place. Thompson pulled the industrial-sized lever inside the control box, and the doors to all four cells and one day room slid open.

The device installed in the 1928 addition to the circa 1908 jail had enabled guards to turn a dial to a particular number and open just that cell door or all doors simultaneously.

The mechanism hadn't failed on the March 3, 1934, day of Dillinger's escape.

"It was fail-safe," Thompson said.

Rather, as Old Sheriff's House Foundation board member Jim Emerson describes it, a jail handyman opened the door to the cell block just long enough for jail trusties to place trays of soap and toilet paper inside.

"That's when all hell broke loose," said Emerson, who is archiving information related to the Dillinger escape for an on-site display in the building.

Dillinger, Emerson said, had been assigned to Cell 4, the cell nearest the warden's office, but was in the cell block hallway for exercise when the door opened.

In a story embraced by Hollywood, Dillinger busted out of the jail, commandeered the new Ford V8 belonging to then Sheriff Lillian Holley and made off, only to be fatally shot less than five months later during capture by law enforcement officials in Chicago.

The jail ceased being a lockup in 1974 when Lake County opened a new, modern jail on the other end of town. The old jail had fallen into disrepair when the Old Sheriff's House Foundation rescued it at auction in 1989.

The project is one of several ongoing by the foundation and its volunteer workers, aimed at restoring the jail and attached sheriff's house and making the buildings accessible for year-round tours and other public use.

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