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American Lives

US National Parks: Alcatraz Federal Penitentiary (Exterior) (California)

by Laurie Stevens, 25 July 2021

 

Alcatraz Prison, CA
Photo © Laurie Stevens

Alcatraz Island, also known as 'The Rock', measures twenty-two acres (nine hectares), and is located one and a quarter miles (two kilometers) from the shore of the San Francisco peninsula in California.

The island had little vegetation and was a seabird habitat when it was explored in 1775 by Lieutenant Juan Manuel de Ayala, who named it Isla de los Alcatraces ('Isle of the Pelicans').

Sold in 1849 to the US government, Alcatraz was the site of the first lighthouse on the coast of California (1854). For fifty years, Alcatraz played a key role in the defenses of San Francisco Harbor. Thereafter other buildings were erected on the island, and the first permanent army detachment was garrisoned there in 1859.

In 1861 the island was designated a residence for military offenders as the American Civil War was being waged. Civilians prisoners were added to the population after the San Francisco Earthquake of 1906, and in 1907 the island was designated the Pacific branch of the United States Military Prison.

From 1934 it was refortified as 'the world's most secure prison' and served in that capacity until 1963. Alcatraz Federal Penitentiary was home to some of the most dangerous civilian prisoners, 'the worst of the worst', who had shown themselves to be a problem at other facilities in the penitentiary system. Eventually, the necessity of transporting fresh water to and waste away from the island resulted in its abandonment in 1963.

In June of 1970, fires of unknown origin destroyed several buildings on the island, including the warden's house and the officer's club amongst others.

Today the island serves as a wildlife sanctuary, a US National Park, and as a part of the Golden Gate National Recreation Area. The island and its facilities are open daily for visitors to tour and explore.

Alcatraz Prison, CA
Photo © Laurie Stevens

The wharf, or boat dock, was established on Alcatraz in the 1850s to permit the landing of men and building materials to construct the fort which was completed in 1859.

During the Federal Prison phase of the island, six guard towers were used to watch over the island. Today, this is the only one remaining. Beyond that, the ruins of the officer's club which burned during the fires of June 1970 can also be seen.

Alcatraz Prison, CA
Photo © Laurie Stevens

Building 64 Residential Apartments, located adjacent to the wharf, were constructed in 1905 on the site of an 1860s army barracks. It functioned as a residence for prison guard staff and their families, although additional housing was also built elsewhere.

During the native Indian occupation of 1969-1971, hundreds of Native American activists lived in Bldg 64, leaving behind numerous physical reminders of their residency in the form of graffiti and other political statements.

Alcatraz Prison, CA
Photo © Laurie Stevens

The rocky, hilly terrain of the island is seen here on the south-east area of the island. 'Survivor' vegetation, of which all was imported from offsite of the island, the ruins the warden's house, and Building 64 are visible near the wharf.

Alcatraz Prison, CA
Photo © Laurie Stevens

The Sally Port Gatehouse sign. During the 1860s, Alcatraz was the most fortified military site on the West Coast, with over a hundred cannons facing the bay in case of would-be intruders.

The guardhouse was built in 1857, and contained the island's first prison, a US military stockade, in the building's basement. That facility was used to house unruly soldiers and, during the Civil War, Confederate spies. The guardhouse featured a sally port, an armored, controlled entryway to the fortress on Alcatraz beyond.

Alcatraz Prison, CA
Photo © Laurie Stevens

Heading from the Sally Port Gatehouse up the East Road, this view shows the route past the Electric Shop.

Alcatraz Prison, CA
Photo © Laurie Stevens

This seagull faces east onto San Francisco Bay, Bay Bridge, and part of Treasure Island. Today, as part of Golden Gate National Recreation Area, Alcatraz is once again a sanctuary for seabirds, the most common breeding birds on the island being cormorants, gulls, night herons, egrets, and pigeon guillemots. Nesting birds are counted annually, and management actions are adjusted to avoid disturbance during this sensitive time (February through September).

Alcatraz Prison, CA
Photo © Laurie Stevens

The Federal Bureau of Prisons erected the water tower in 1940, as the island doesn't have its own water source. The tower was the source of the prison's drinking water, but also held enough for the prison laundry and an additional reserve in case of fire.

During the occupation of Alcatraz (20 November 1969 to 11 June 1971), the water tower was subjected to messages written by Native American activists. Now, it's a cultural landmark; the graffiti was restored by the park service with the help of an original occupier and a descendant of another. They repainted the messages to commemorate and document the cultural protest.

Native Americans occupied Alcatraz in an effort to reclaim decommissioned federal property (as granted in an 1868 treaty), in that the prison was no longer in use. Though mainly symbolic, the occupation of Alcatraz had a direct effect on federal Indian policy and, with its visible results, established a precedent for Indian activism.

Alcatraz Prison, CA
Photo © Laurie Stevens

Before human settlement, Alcatraz had only a thin deposit of soil which supported sparse native grasses and shrubs. In an effort to make the barren island more livable, the military began importing soil from nearby Angel Island and the Presidio and, as early as 1865, planted Victorian-style gardens.

Alcatraz Prison, CA
Photo © Laurie Stevens

The island's gardens were abandoned after the federal prison closed in 1963. Plants unable to survive without maintenance and irrigation soon disappeared, while others spread wild over the island and structural elements deteriorated.

In 2003, the Garden Conservancy, Golden Gate National Parks Conservancy, and National Park Service began a collaboration to restore the gardens. Today the staff of both conservancies work with volunteer gardeners to maintain the historic gardens.

Alcatraz Prison, CA
Photo © Laurie Stevens

Monterey Cypress, a ubiquitous tree in the San Francisco area. The natural habitat is noted for its cool, moist summers, almost constantly bathed by sea fog.

Alcatraz Prison, CA
Photo © Laurie Stevens

The morgue was built in 1910 by the US military on a site which was formerly the entrance to a tunnel which was used by soldiers from the 1870s to cross to the opposite side of the island.

It is described as 'one of the simplest expressions of the mission revival style on Alcatraz'. The morgue was built with three vaults and an examination table, with a steel door and a grated skylight.

Alcatraz Prison, CA
Photo © Laurie Stevens

Inside, this same small structure had the aforementioned steel door and grated skylight, and now also a dank and mossy examination table. This morgue had only one documented use: overnight storage of the body of a prisoner who died after the last boat run of the day. No autopsies were performed here. All deceased inmates were brought back to the mainland and released to the San Francisco County Coroner.

Alcatraz Prison, CA
Photo © Laurie Stevens

The sole remaining guard tower looks north-east towards San Francisco Bay. Bay Bridge and Building 64 Residential Apartments can be seen to the right.

Alcatraz Prison, CA
Photo © Laurie Stevens

From 1918 to 1933, this building was the Military Salvage Shop. Once Alcatraz became a penitentiary, the Salvage Shop turned into the Penitentiary Electric Shop from 1934 until it closed in 1963.

Alcatraz Prison, CA
Photo © Laurie Stevens

The East Road leads on from the dock area, ascending to the quarters and service buildings. Seen here, left to right, are the smoke stack from the power house ruins behind the greenary, the ruins of the officer's club at the far end (burned in 1970), and the electric shop.

Also, closer to the camera, is the former military chapel (Bachelor's Quarters), built in the 1920s in the mission-revival style to accommodate officers at the island's military prison.

The ground floor had quarters for the officers and their families who worked at the military prison. The top floor was used as a school and chapel. On the far right is the yellowed roof of the military guardhouse, one of the oldest and most significant structures on the island.

Alcatraz Prison, CA
Photo © Laurie Stevens

The Cell House here is seen from the East Road. The prison building, built between 1910 and 1912 when Alcatraz was still a military prison, is a three-story cellhouse with four cellblocks. It was the largest steel-reinforced concrete building in the world when it was built, designed to hold up to 600 prisoners.

When it transferred from military control to the Bureau of Prisons, the cell bars were strengthened to better prevent escapes. The cells remained primitive and lacked privacy. African-American prisoners were segregated from the rest of the prison population due to the prevalence of physical abuse among prisoners.

Alcatraz Prison, CA
Photo © Laurie Stevens

The ruins of the warden's house, burned in 1970, and the base of the lighthouse both stand at the summit of the East Road (seen in the far distance in the previous-but-one photo).

The world-class, vibrant city of San Francisco is seen beckoning less than two miles away in between the two, but the short distance is deceptive: strong currents make it an impossible distance to swim.

Alcatraz Prison, CA
Photo © Laurie Stevens

The Parade Grounds form an open area on the south end of the island. Originally built in the 1860s by the US military for drills and marching, the space later became a site for housing for the correctional officers and their families, as well as a playground for their children after the island became a penitentiary.

The parade grounds were also used for hosting special officer's club events. The area has become a habitat and breeding ground for black-crowned night herons, western gulls, slender salamanders, and deer mice.

Alcatraz Prison, CA
Photo © Laurie Stevens

The administration building as seen from the area near the base of the lighthouse. The main administration center was at the entrance to the prison, which included the warden's office.

The administrative office section also had the offices of the associate warden and secretary, mail desk, captain's desk, a business office, a clerk's office, an accounting office, a control room which was added with modern technology in 1961, the officer's lounge, armory and vault, and a visiting area and restrooms.

 

Continued in Part 2.

Main Sources

US National Park Service

Encyclopaedia Britannica

The Gardens of Alcatraz

Federal Bureau of Prisons (bop.gov)

Other Sources

Photoscape Design

Genealogytrails.com

Alcatraz101.com

Wally Gobetz on Flickr

 

Images and text copyright © Laurie Stevens except where stated. An original feature for the History Files: American Lives.