Behind bars: A look at the historic connection between the Sandusky Library and Erie County Jail

In the bowels of the Sandusky Library is a series of cavernous areas and a jail cell carved into the stone basement with its barred-cell door still intact. 

This dungeon-like area was part of the historic Erie County Jail that, for more than a century, housed hundreds of inmates arrested in the Sandusky area on charges of crimes ranging from drunkenness to theft. 

Meanwhile, the Erie County sheriff and his family lived in the front, residential part of the building, which from the outside looked like a large, two-story home with spacious front porch, perfect for enjoying sunshine and breezes from the nearby Sandusky Bay on summer afternoons. 

Today, the historic jail and adjoining sheriff’s residence are part of the Sandusky Library, a historic building in its own right that has been on the National Register of Historic Places since 1975. 

Erie County Jail is etched in stone on the building facade. (Photo/Kristina Smith)In an unusual merger of historic buildings, the library incorporated the jail, which was its neighbor, into its addition that was completed in 2004. It is the only library the staff knows of that is joined with a historic jail. 

“History is really important in this town,” says Ron Davidson, Sandusky Library special collections librarian. “It was a good idea to preserve it. By preserving it, we’ve become part of its history, too.”

The buildings seamlessly merge two types of historic architecture, Greek revival, which is inspired by the classical Greek temples, on the library side and Gothic revival, which is inspired by medieval architecture, on the jail side. Both buildings were constructed with local limestone. 

The original part of the library was dedicated on July 3, 1901, and was built with money from philanthropist Andrew Carnegie, whose funding constructed libraries across Ohio and the country. 

The design of the library addition allows visitors to see some of the different architectural aspects of the jail building. In the adult services area of the library on the lower level, the limestone exterior of the jail can be seen along the wall. 

Original metal shutters are still on the bottom windows, and the upper levels still have their exterior windows. 

Anyone who has attended a program in the meeting room or used the Lifelong Learning room across the hall has been in part of the jail and sheriff’s residence. 

This device was likely used for guards to keep an eye on inmates. It is now filled in. (Photo/Kristina Smith)On the wall outside the meeting room is a large, circular black spot that depresses to a point in the wall. In the jail’s early days, guards used it to peek into the jail area to make sure the inmates weren’t up to anything nefarious, an 1883 Sandusky Register article indicates. 

It’s a conversation piece among visitors who often wonder what it is, Davidson says. 
In the staff area and areas closed to patrons, the original mosaic tile – blue, burgundy, brown, and gold - floor is still in good shape by the front door of the sheriff’s residence. A transom window hangs above the doorway from the front door and spacious porch. 

Before the library addition, there was a large staircase at the entrance leading to the upstairs, Davidson says. 

Upstairs, the sheriff’s residence dining room and living room today serve as a cozy break area for staff. The living room still has the original fireplace mantle, although the fireplace itself has been closed off. 

Other parts of the jail building are now office space. 

Twenty sheriffs and their families lived in the residential part of the Erie County Jail, spanning the jail’s opening in 1883 through the last sheriff to live there in 1972. It was a common arrangement for county sheriffs in Ohio during the 19th and early 20th centuries. 

The mosaic tile floor is still intact at the entrance to what was the sheriff's residence area. (Photo/Kristina Smith)“The sheriff would have his whole family living here,” Davidson says.

The jail remained open until 1990, when the county’s new facility opened. When the jail was dedicated in 1883, it was considered state of the art for its time. 

“The prison contains twenty-four cells and is built in the strongest and most substantial manner,” according to the Aug. 13, 1883, article. 

The newspaper described its chrome steel bars, made of the same material that protected vaults of banks in Philadelphia and Chicago, as indestructible. 

“Experiments made here with the chrome steel jail bars satisfied everyone who witnessed them that the material cannot be cut by the finest steel saw, drills or chisels, nor broken by blows,” the Register reported. “The prisoner who is placed behind chrome steel bars and surrounded by as solid masonry as enters into the construction of the cells of the Erie County Jail, may as well make up his mind first that escape is impossible.”

This is one of the walls of the jail. The window is covered, and this is in a non-public area. (Photo/Kristina Smith)The basement, or cellar, as the Register called it, was an ample storage area with steam heating apparatus.

Today, the basement is closed to the public, but Jeremy Angstadt, museum services manager at the library and its Follett House Museum, shared a video of the area on the library’s Facebook page. He shows the area that was the laundry with notes on the wall indicating how the clothing should be separated. 

Graffiti, from reminders to duck in the short hallways to avoid hitting one’s head, to notes from the inmates, such as “Nate White” and “I love Dar.” Others, Angstadt didn’t show because they weren’t appropriate for the video. 

“People are expressing their opinions of what they thought of Sandusky and being in jail,” he says. 

At the end of the video, the viewers see a thick iron door with a cell in the back. This was used for solitary confinement. 

At this time, the library does not plan to offer tours of the jail area. However, patrons are welcome to check out the parts that are visible in the public areas.