Rocky Butte Jail, 1950

Oregon is home to many archives, most rich with collections documenting Oregon’s history. In order to highlight some of these collections containing Portland-area images, Vintage Portland has invited photo submissions from other archives within the region. Today’s photo and text is provided by the Multnomah County Archives.

Rocky Butte Jail began receiving prisoners in 1942 and served as the primary county jail until it was demolished in 1983 to make way for I-205 construction. It stood at the current confluence of I-84 and I-205. Most of the stonework in the jail was repurposed in the Columbia River Highway restoration. This Sheriff’s Office photo dates from 1950.


Rocky Butte Jail, 1950

Rocky Butte Jail, 1950


Access the Multnomah County Archives by clicking here.

42 thoughts on “Rocky Butte Jail, 1950

  1. Would not have recognized it, neither the hill in the background or the building is familiar. I understand it was removed because of freeway air pollution, no problem for untold number of homeowners but too much for inmates.

  2. For those interested in seeing a historical video about the RBJ, go to youtube and type in: booking a prisoner at Rocky Butte Jail.

  3. Kenn, Rocky Butte Jail was removed because it was directly in the path of I-205, where it was is now under the freeway. It was not because of pollution concerns for the inmates.

  4. It was fairly archaic-looking on the inside. There were several gates to go through to get to the booking section. How do I know this? No, I wasn’t a “customer.” I went on a ride-along with a city cop in the mid-1970s. One of the calls we went on was an accident investigation. One driver turned out to be drunk, the cop arrested her and we took her to the Rocky Butte Jail.

    I-205 now runs right over the site of the jail.

  5. @ Douge and oldwxwatcher: I-205 doesn’t go directly over the jail, in fact Rocky Butte Jail was still open when I-205 was set to open in 1983. The prisoners sued to delay the opening until they could be moved to the new Multnomah County Jail then being finished downtown.

    The fact that the jail wasn’t demolished until 1983 is proof enough since I-205 took years to build in that area starting in the 1970’s. If the jail was in the way it would have had to been demolished by the late 70’s at the latest.

  6. on the way to the motorcycle trails, we would go by the jail. my mom talked about the caves in the area that she would explore with her brother. that was back in the 20’s. i ruined a pair of handlebars and turn signals on the hill climbs with my trusty old honda cl 350. I’ve heard rumors about some pretty rough conditions in that old jail.

  7. I’m curious as to exactly where this was. If it was on the confluence of I-205 and I-84, but was still standing when I-205/I-84 was built, It could be between I-205 and Rocky Butte. Looking at the picture linked by Brian, it looks like the base of Rocky Butte. Could it have been possibly at the following location on Google maps?

  8. Adam,

    As I remember it, the jail was on the east side of I-205. Before the bicycle path was finished, you would connect using the frontage-type road in front of the RBJ.

  9. There are frontage roads off 102nd and the bike path looks like it could have been an old road…but I’m having trouble seeing where something this size and the freeways could have stood at the same time.

  10. I remember what Elliott remembers.

    I lived on 92nd and Broadway back in the 1970s with my grandfather who had the house built for his family back in the 1940s. There was a road that went down past the jail that was a shortcut to… um… idunno… Park Rose I guess. We would drive past it a few times a month. My mother told me she remembers seeing the prisoners, “busting up rocks” when she was a little girl.

  11. You could see it at the base of Rocky Butte from the freeway. I would have been somewhere in the area of the Google map referred to above.

    They sure went out of their way to make it grim and forbidding-looking. I’m sure it is bad enough being in jail without it looking like a dark dungeon.

  12. To answer the questions above about where the jail was relative to the freeway, see the pdf file linked at this site. It was created by a grad student at PSU and has several slides that show the location of the jail in relation to the freeway.

    And yes, Elliot is right, the jail was located on what is now a field (now called Gateway Green) just along the east side of I-205.

  13. I’ll bet that Chevrolet 2-Dr Bel Air Deluxe hardtop on the right was yellow with a black top…and the big ’48 Buick Super Eight is probably just basic black…but I’d take either one of ’em!

  14. The thing I remember best about this place was sitting on the cliff up above and watching the inmates make little rocks out of big rocks. In the 40’s this whole Butte area was one giant play area and adventure park. From the Hill Military Academy gates with those neato machine guns at the gate to the caves and trails thru the swamps at the western base and Red’s Riding Academy on the southeast side. Endless adventuring. And that doesn’t even include the train watching or buying a six flavor ice cream cone at that little store on 82nd north of Tillamook Street. We ranged free and life was good. Watching those guys breaking rocks was a life lesson.

  15. Stoney Lonesome ??
    With 4 guys in a 10’x12′ room…. ?
    Like all jails, it had its share of over crowding.

    I worked a job on their boiler plant 1980.
    We had 2 trustees as laborers, They were thrilled to have the chance to get out of the cellblocks for a few hours. One of them was beaten up because he wouldn’t smuggle.
    It was a gloomy place for sure and very obsolete at that time.

  16. ROD TAYOR: I lived on the south slope of Rocky Butte. 9429 N EThompson St. New house 1956. I started kindergarden at Jason Lee. Lived there my entire young life. Nothing can compare to the adventures of Rocky Butte , Red’s Riding Academy, Zachor,s Icecream Parlor, and cruising around on our bikes at the old abandoned Military school! I got bucked off a horse in front of the jail. A fast car threw a rock and my horse bucked me off. Not the first time either! :-

  17. ROD TAYLOR: By the way, are you the same guy who got into accident with my sister Lana……..I think it was a blue Volkswagon owned by her husbands parents?

  18. OnfireOnfire:

    Red’s Riding Academy, is that what it was called? My mother said her younger brother pestered their dad to take him horseback riding there. Eventually he did and got bucked off. No matter how hard my grandfather tried he couldn’t get my uncle to get back on that horse. My uncle swore he’d never ride a horse again. Maybe that’s a factor in why he loves Jeeps so much.

  19. Pretty old dude to be loving JEEPS! Hope he doesn’t have brittle bones, unless he’s still a young “Buck.” heehee

  20. Onfire. Uhh No. In 1956 I was living in France earning $36.50 a month in US Army script. What a wonderful place that was to send a young boy. I will always love my Uncle Sam. But I digress. Far as I recall I never met your sister.

  21. ROD TAYLOR: From you original post, you mentioned Hill Military Academy entrance with machine guns at the gates. I have a blog about HMA and would love some more info on this. Could I get your email or could you please email me at: I would love to talk to you about this, any information would be helpful TY.

  22. Rocky Butte Jail was at the base of the east side of Rocky Butte. A large part of the location is between today’s I-205 and the butte. A large rock (basalt) is to the immediate south of where I recall the jail being. And rode horses from the place nearby on ocassion. Went to Jason Lee grade school in 50’s and 60’s.

  23. We all knew about Rocky Butte; a proper jail; someplace you’d never want to end up in. Nice that they recycled the basalt stone at the Columbia River Highway.

  24. I do remember that Rocky Butte jail was just East of I205 ! I even remember that they moved homes in Maywood Park area directly North of the North and West of the jail people. I am only 52 yrs old & I vividly remember that, I was a visitor there twice. I ev er n was talked into visiting a guy in the hole, omg ! He was to my astonishment pasty white he’d been there so long ! I’ve walked in the area,driven past many times and even remember the inmate turmoil over being next to the hwy. !!

  25. The jail was still obvious when 205 opened on the west side of the jail. The jail was removed later because of pollution complaints. When the freeway was widened from four to six lanes the fill came almost to the old jail location which still exists.

  26. Been there…been in the hole. Iron bar door with a solid steel door closed on that one. Drain in the floor. If you acted up, the doused you with water from a hose..

  27. I remember my dad worked for the county and they had a yard over there & we would pick him up. I always thought it was a very dark place to be.

  28. Behind the jail was a huge lot (as big if not bigger space than the jail held). It was fenced in and I remember climbing the east side of the Butte I could see them looking down, plain as day.. They were chained together 2×2 crushing rocks.

  29. @Rumblefish: About the machine guns mounted at the gate of Hill Military Academy. They were WWI vintage and appeared to be Browning M1917 water cooled machine guns. There were (I think) 2 of them, mounted on separate rock pedestals flanking the school entrance at what is now NE 91st & Fremont. One of the pedestals is still there, next to the City Bible Church Rocky Butte Campus sign. The other pedestal and both machine guns are long gone. The Oregon Historical Society has photos of them, I believe in one (or more) of the Hill Military Academy yearbooks and/or newsletters produced while the school was operating. Tons of info there. Good luck. PS: For those interested, Rocky Butte Jail was where the I-205 bike path and the MAX tracks paralleling I-205 are now.

  30. I’ve read some of these articles people wrote. I lived there for a little over one year. I know it very well every inch. Of that jail. There’s a big crater next I-205 freeway where Rocky Butte jail used to sit. And they closed the jail because of the air pollution from the automobiles. I was there to watch two escapes from Rocky Butte jail. It was a very interesting place the jail is gone but the nightmares are not. That’s all folks

  31. The jail was closed because it was obsolete. That is the only reason. Not because of it being in the way of I-205, pollution, a tanker spill or escapes. It was replaced in 1983 by the then modern and much larger Multnomah County Detention Center (MCDC) which is located in the Justice Center downtown. Also, the Donald E Long Juvenile Detention Home (JDH) has been located for many decades right next to I-84 in Portland (and still is); JDH was there even back while the Rocky Butte Jail (RBJ) was still in operation. So if pollution was an issue JDH would have been relocated away from a freeway, too. But it isn’t. Meanwhile, I will never forget the night that Stephen Kessler and his accomplices escaped from RBJ, that was back in 1982:

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