A Tour of Llano County’s Historic Red Top Jail

Located 75 miles to the northwest of Austin, the Central Texas town of Llano is most well-known for its hunting opportunities. After all, this sleepy town with a population of just under 3,500 has been proclaimed as the “Deer Capital of Texas”. Aside from that though, there is one place here that has some very intriguing(and possibly spooky) history – the Red Top Jail, where Llano’s criminals were housed for nearly 100 years. As I was picking out a cool destination for a flying trip, this closed-off lockup showed up on TripAdvisor, catching my eye. Being that it was located in a county that I hadn’t visited yet, the deal was sealed. I had to go check out the Red Top to get a glimpse of justice as it existed way back when.

picture of red top jail
The Red Top Jail.

Briley Mitchell, Executive Director for the Llano Chamber of Commerce was nice enough to give a tour of the Red Top. Built in 1895, it was constructed by the Pauly Jail Building Company out of St. Louis. Thru bonds, the $11,500 needed for construction was raised, and the structure handed over to county commissioners in December of that same year. The jail saw use all the way until 1982, when it was condemned for not meeting the state’s minimum prisoner housing standards.

picture of briley mitchell
Briley Mitchell talking about the history of the Red Top.

We started our walk-thru on the first floor, where these now-empty rooms once served as the guard’s quarters, kitchen, and intake area. The stoves and beds here are long gone, but I can still envision the jailers taking a break here in between dealing with rowdy inmates.

picture of red top jail rooms
picture of red top jail rooms

We then headed for the stairs, passing an open steel door on the way. An unmistakable sign that we were about enter an area where people could only dream of the free world, this marked the boundary from the intake area into the actual jail upstairs.

picture of red top jail cells
Heading up the stairs to the second floor.

On the second floor, cells were positioned on all four sides of the building.

picture of red top jail cells
One of the cell units.

Escape has always been a problem at any correctional facility, and the Red Top was no exception. Their solution? Heavy-duty metal doors with sliding bolts, in addition to further security by way of a lever mechanism padlocked shut from the outside.

picture of red top jail cells lock
The lever inside the box was pushed all the way down, securing the cells inside. A padlock was then attached, and finally the door to the box closed and locked.

Briley pointed out the sanitary facilities in the cells, to include a toilet and sink made out of metal. I can see why the state ordered this jail to be closed – space was limited and artificial lighting was pretty much non-existent inside the cells. Having also toured a modern correctional facility, I would rather do time there than (as the inmates here used to say) – “stay a night at the Red Top”.

picture of red top jail cells
picture of red top jail cells

A typical unit was around ten feet long and six feet wide. There were no furnishings except a metal bed and a commode. A big window with bars on it gave the glimpse of freedom outside – and probably was a part of many escape plans. Male and female cells were situated on opposite sides of the building, facing each other. The female cells had privacy curtains that could be used while the inmates were changing.

picture of red top jail cells
picture of red top jail cells

Briley then led the way up another narrow flight of stairs – this time to the fourth and top floor, passing the third floor which contained only an unused crawlspace. At the top was the gallows tower, its presence a reality of justice as it existed back in the day.

picture of red top jail gallows
Climbing up the final flight of stairs to reach the gallows tower.
picture of red top jail gallows
picture of red top jail gallows
These windows in the gallows were still operable – and when I cracked it open, the spring breeze came streaming in. Guess the soon- to-be-executed got to receive some fresh air before meeting his fate.

According to Briley, although no one from Llano County was executed here, several individuals from neighboring Mason County were. The mount from which the noose hung was still there, now partially covered in rust.

picture of red top jail gallows
Where the noose once hung.

As part of the preparation for execution, metal trapdoors on the floor were opened on the second and third stories, letting the body eventually drop down to ground level.

picture of red top jail gallows
Looking down from the gallows tower. The flooring inside the metal bars below was actually a door at one point in time, allowing the dead body to fall down to the first floor.

While on the topic of death, I had to ask Briley about the rumors that the Red Top was haunted. He told a story of two construction workers, who were laboring inside the building. As the work day was wrapping up, both of them announced that they refused to come back the next morning. Why? We may never know. Various paranormal investigations have been conducted here, with some supposedly attaining communication with a spirit, and others inconclusive.

picture of red top jail hallway
One of the main corridors. Haunted? Some would say so.

Finishing up the tour, Briley spoke about the future of the Red Top. The building is now owned by the Friends of the Llano Red Top Jail, a non-profit dedicated to preserving and exhibiting the story of this building. Public tours of the jail are not currently available as renovations finish to mitigate some structural concerns. The end goal is for the Red Top to be a museum, allowing both local residents and visitors alike to see the jail firsthand and learn about this unique building. Who knows..maybe even catch a photo with an orb in there.

picture of red top jail deer statue
A deer statue outside the Red Top, paying homage to what Llano is best known for – hunting.

Thanks to the folks at the Llano Chamber of Commerce for making this post possible!

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