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Editorial - Reimagining tourism

June 23, 1997

Not all history is pretty, as students of the Civil War will attest, but would tourists really travel and pay good money to walk through an old prison? For the past two years, they've been doing just that at the site of the West Virginia Penitentiary at Moundsville, proving again that the unfamiliar and the bizarre can be fascinating.

We commented on the proposal when it was first announced, noting then that if Moundsville could turn a dreary Civil War-era prison into a tourist attraction, then other communities with more attractive historic structures could do the same, with a little bit of imagination.

Up until two years ago, the state penitentiary had operated for nearly 130 years in Moundsville, located about 50 miles southwest of Pittsburgh on the Ohio River. It had a well-earned reputation as a mean and nasty place where three inmates were tortured to death during a 1986 riot.

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Tours started as weekend-only affairs, but expanded to six days a week last year, with 20,000 paying $4 a head to soak up the atmosphere of a prison no one will mistake for a country club.

The tour begins with visitors having "mug shots" taken, after which they enter the prison through a large hydraulic gate that closes behind them with a menacing thunk. Inside they're met by tour guides, former correctional officers, who describe in gory detail the hard life inmates and their keepers faced every day.

In another place, something like the Moundsville prison might be considered just a old hulk of a building, still standing only because it would cost too much to tear it down. But there's a difference here.

The difference is Phil Remke, who owns a local furniture store. Remke conceived the idea and promotes it tirelessly, even hiring a consultant who estimated 150,000 a year might be enticed to visit. Think of Remke every time someone says, "That'll never work here." Maybe it won't, but maybe with someone whose brain doesn't share cell space with all those who focus on liabilities instead of possibilities, it just might work.

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