Editor’s note: The Nevada State Prison shut down operations in 2012, seven years after this story aired. Efforts to preserve the prison as a landmark or a museum are ongoing.
MYSTERY WIRE — The Nevada State Prison at Carson City has been a prison longer than Nevada has been a state. The shotgun-toting guards and ubiquitous razor wire hint that security is a serious matter here. So imagine what the hardened inmates thought when the warden told them to grab some shovels and start digging.
George Knapp: You have to admit it’s kinda funny for a warden to get inmates to dig tunnels.
Mike Budge: Right, yeah. (laughs)
Mike Budge knows it isn’t something they teach in Warden 101, but he had a feeling the inmates might get jazzed about a search for a hidden cave, and he was right. Budge, a history buff, has seen all of the old photos, postcards and etchings about the cave and the mystery footprints sealed inside. As a corrections officer 24 years ago, he even helped to seal it up, presumably forever. When he returned as warden, his interest was piqued because of a surprise visit by 95 year old Art Bernard, who was the warden 50 years ago.
“He came out and stood there and said the footprints are right there in that cave,” Budge says. “He was very upset and said they should never have been covered up.”
Six inmates volunteered to help the warden find the cave. They dug it out, shored it and marvelled at the strange tracks in the rock. At the cave entrance, the tracks are roundish, like beast prints, but further back, they look like … well, you make the call.
Budge: A large human.
Knapp: You’ve heard that story?
Budge: Yeah. See, those are what, about 18-24 inches?
“They run 19 to 22” says Adolf Stankus, a corrections officer. “They have about a two-and-a-half to three-foot stride, which would be a proper stride for a man of my height, only with a giant foot.”
A big foot, you say? The prison grounds are pregnant with them.
A century ago, this former hot springs was a quarry. Stones from this site can be found in most of the buildings in Carson City. And the more stone the quarry workers removed, the more tracks they found — thousands of prints made by extinct animals.
A Woolly Mammoth left impressions in what is now an exercise yard.
The tracks in the cave stood out though, and caused a sensation when they were discovered in the late 1800s. Even Mark Twain wrote about them. He theorized they were made by drunken legislators on their way to a saloon.
Scientists initially believed the prints were made by a race of giant humans. The prevailing view now is that they were made by a giant sloth, still interesting but not as much fun as the alternative theory.
“This is the outline of the giant prints from the state prison, and this is a Sasquatch cast,” says Gene Hattori, Nevada State Museum anthropologist.
Hattori doesn’t want to be labeled a bigfoot nut, but he playfully notes the similarity between the prison prints and those made by the legendary Sasquatch. For the record, he sides with those who say the prints were made by a giant sloth, but he is reluctant to say the case is closed.
“Especially since we are finding that we don’t know everything about what’s going on in nature,” Hattori says.
“All the sloth tracks that have been found show claw marks,” Stankus says, “and these don’t show claw marks. So, you take that for what it’s worth.”
Unfortunately, when the word leaked out about Warden Budge’s little dig, state inspectors arrived and shut the cave down. Too unstable, they said, plus it might be a danger to the license plate factory on the ridge above. Budge hopes the cave is one day accessible for students and scientists. And even though it’s off limits for now, he’s not going to let anyone fill it back in.
“This goes back millions of years,” Budge says.
The warden estimates it will cost $2,200 to bring the cave up to code so that researchers could be allowed inside, but he doesn’t have the money in his budget. Plus, he is retiring in January.