Where the voices of Alcatraz come to life...

The Years of Transition, 1863-1869

hotograph Flap

In early summer 1864, Elliot made a short visit to the new works at the mouth of the Columbia River. While he was absent, the post commander on Alcatraz, Capt. William A. Winder, gave permission to a commercial photographer in San Francisco, Bradley and Rulofson, to photograph the batteries and the buildings on the island. Fortunately for him, as it turned out, Winder got the approval of De Russy over at Fort Point for this undertaking. When Elliot returned from Oregon, the photographs had been produced. He promptly wrote the chief of engineers describing the undertaking:

“I have thought that you would be glad to obtain copies to illustrate the condition and the progress [of the works]. . . and append a list, and include two specimen copies (stereoscopic size). The price asked is $200 in notes for the entire series which is rather less than $100 of the currency of this coast. . . The entire number of views is about 50. The views enclosed show a part of the work I was carrying on at the time, No. 1. Remodeling the Magazine in battery Tower, decreasing the inclination of the superior slope •of the parapet, and putting Iron plates on the Breast high wall, and No. 2 filling outside the old scarp so as to strengthen the parapet in Battery McClellan. . .. Had I been here there are some [other] views which I would have suggested.

irvin-mcdowell.jpg

Department of the Pacific, Maj. Gen. Irvin McDowell

The Barracks [Citadel?], Light House, Mortar Battery [first mention that the mortars had been emplaced], Battery Prime and [South] Caponire, Battery McPherson, Battery Rosecrans, View of side of Island (under Battery Mansfield), View of side of Island (showing part of Battery Rosecrans), Battery Mansfield, Battery Halleck, Battery Stevens, Battery Prime from the North Battery Prime from the West, North view of Barracks, View of same showing Parade ground and Engineers & Adjutants Offices, South view of Battery McPherson, North view of Battery Tower View of Battery McClellan, Soldiers Quarters, & Caponiere, View showing Battery Tower and City of San Francisco in distance, View of Battery Rosecrans and Bay towards Sausalito, View of Battery Halleck and Angel Island, View of wharf.”

Elliot's happy letter caused an explosion in the War Department. Chief of Engineers Delafield telegraphed him that such views were strictly prohibited and that no person should be allowed to have them: "You will immediately advise with Colonel De Russy to the end that they be instantly suppressed." On the same day Commander In Chief Halleck notified the new commander of the Department of the Pacific, Maj. Gen. Irvin McDowell, that the secretary of war had ordered the photographs to be suppressed. Four days later McDowell replied that "the provost-marshal-general has all the negatives and all the copies, except those [two] Captain Elliot sent to the Engineer Department."

The incident continued to produce a shower of letters for the rest of 1864. In December McDowell told Halleck that Winder was a loyal American and a good man. At Winder's own request, Halleck had transferred him across the bay to Point San Jose. Winder took the pictures, said McDowell, only because he was proud of his works and he did not give away any secrets. Nevertheless, Elliot soon received a copy of Department Engineer Order No. 32 that directed no photography of any military objects except "such as are required to explain the . . . reports of Officers." Bradley and Rulofson eventually submitted a claim to the government for property seized ,but the records do not indicate if they received satisfaction. The destruction of the pictures must have been thorough; no copies of any of them have been found to date, in the National Archives or elsewhere. National security was preserved; but history was made the poorer.

First 15-Inch Rodman

July 20, 1864, was a day of great celebration on Alcatraz. The first 15-inch Rodman on the Pacific Coast was mounted at the northwest end of Battery Mansfield. The event was marked by a party and a tragedy which came to light only in the letters of Alcatraz's post surgeon written ten years later. In replying to an inquiry, he found in some old records (now lost)that had been present for the two enlisted men had been killed on Alcatraz that day. He interviewed a private who apparently occasion: "Pvt. Lorch now at this post states that both men, while in a state of intoxication fell from an embankment 40 to 50 feet high& that liquor had been freely supplied to the command on that day in celebration of mounting the first 15 inch gun at this fort.

More Guns

As the Union armies began to close in on the Confederacy, the Ordnance Department felt increasingly free to ship additional large-caliber smoothbores and rifled guns to the Pacific Coast. In August 1864, the Engineer Department asked Ordnance to ship to Alcatraz three more 15-inch, center-pintle Rodmans, five 100-pounder Parrott rifles, and two 200-pounder enter-pintle By the end of August, the second 15-inch Roddman already on the island had been mounted, at least temporarily, not in the originally planned position in Battery Tower, but immediately to the left of the South Caponier (platform 8) in Battery McClellan. Also, two 10-inch Rodmans had replaced two 10-inch columbiads in the same battery (on platforms 22 and 23).

Elliot found it extremely difficult to select good positions for the three additional 15-Inch Rodmans that were expected to reach Alcatraz in the spring of 1865. He recommended various locations at both ends of the island, only to learn that they were too high above sea level. In October 1864 Delafield wrote: "Recent experiments in firing show conclusively that it is of great importance to keep the guns at a height of not over 45 feet above the water." Eventually the three positions were fixed thus: (1) in the 90-degree salient in Battery Rosecrans, on the northwest end of the island where the model industries building stands today; (2) on the extreme left flank of Battery Halleck--and adjacent to no. I, above; (3) on the extreme left flank of Battery McClellan, at the southeast end of the island.

Armament Report, 1865 (See PDF Version to View Report)

Casemated Barracks, 1864-1866

Ever since the war had commenced and Alcatraz's garrison had increased, the engineers had been recommending an additional permanent barracks and a permanent storehouse. As the war progressed it became increasingly clear that the proud old Citadel could not withstand a bombardment. But until the fall of 1864, the chief of engineers had not responded to appeals for bombproof quarters on Alcatraz. Elliot informed Delafield that the war garrison for Alcatraz was at least 1,000 men. Although permanent barracks for that many would be too expensive, he thought it vital that a structure be built the same size as the Citadel--for two companies. After all, "this post . . . is considered by all as the key of our possessions on this Coast." He reminded the chief that General Totten had considered building such a barracks at the northwest end of the island, between Batteries Rosecrans and Mansfield. Elliot, too, thought this the best location, "for the quick defense of the batteries Halleck and Rosecrans." The permanent storehouse, he said, should be on top of the retaining wall at the rear of the wharf. Delafield responded immediately and telegraphed Elliot to prepare plans for fireproof and bombproof buildings.

Elliot forwarded his plans just before Christmas 1864. He now proposed one large structure behind the wharf, on the eastern side of the island. He designed it to hold 800 men, provisions for four months I kitchens and messes, a wartime supply of ordnance stores, and a magazine. The masonry building would be bombproof and have two tiers of casemates, the first tier for stores and the second for quarters. He proposed no guns and no embrasures on the two tiers; the only openings in the scarp wall would be ventilators, 2 feet by 14 inches. However I barbette guns would be mounted on the terreplein (roof). The barracks would be located behind the existing retaining wall, which meant considerable excavation. This excavation would be large enough to allow a 10-footwide passage between the barracks and the cliff, which would be sustained by a new masonry wall. The plans called for an angle in the structure, giving it a "dogleg"-shaped flank. A triangular storeroom would be located in the obtuse angle, and an opening in its scarp would allow the receipt of supplies directly from the wharf. All windows and doors would be at the rear of the building, leading into the 10-foot-wide open corridor. To allow much light and air as possible to reach the tier here, an iron-grated6-foot-wide gallery would be placed outside the upper tier with stairways leading both up and down. Inside, the communications between the casemates would be as large as possible to make the interior airy and comfortable.

At the northern end of the barracks, a tunnel-like ramp would lead into the rear space to allow carts to enter for the moving of stores. The barbette tier (roof) of the structure would be arranged for the mounting of one 15-Inch and twelve 10-inch Rodman guns, in a manner similar to the fort at Fort Point . Shell rooms would be constructed in the earthen parapet on this barbette tier. Delafield responded in February 1865, generally approving the plans but making certain modifications. While he did not consider placing guns on the two casemated tiers, he wanted "embrasures" in the scarp wall of each tier to provide better light and ventilation. In time of war the openings could be filled in with some suitable material. Concerning the rear area, Delafield wrote:

"To preserve as much air and light to the lower tier as practicable, it is advisable to reduce the iron gallery communicating with the second tier to a width of 4 feet--making it of wrought iron supports and railings rather than of cast iron, a material so easily broken by careless and heedless persons."

The approved plans showed a magazine and an ordnance storeroom at the north end of the two casemated tiers, and a single magazine placed about midpoint on the barbette tier. The 15-Inch gun would be placed in the salientange of the barbette tier, two front-pintle 10-inch guns on the dogleg, three front-pintle l0-inch guns on either side of the magazine, and a center-pintle 10-inch gun at the northwest corner of structure. Elliot received these instructions on March 10, 1865, and immediately began preparations for excavating the cliff, securing permission to purchase two dumping scows to remove the excavation. It now struck him that since the ventilating embrasures were to be placed in the scarp of the casemated tiers that it would be but sensible to prepare for mounting guns in the casemates. Since embrasure irons would have to be built into the masonry as construction progressed and since it would take up to six months to receive the irons from New York, he promptly wrote Delafield on this point.

Upon further reflection, Elliot realized that by enlarging the excavation he could construct two tiers of small rooms at the back of the rear area. This construction would be stronger than a simple retaining wall and would provide more resistance to the pressure of the rock behind. He prepared a small sketch that would illuminate his idea, which would call for five rooms, each 16 by 12 feet, on each level of casemate. They would be used as privies, coal storage, blacksmith's forge, bathing and washing areas, and a bakery. And in response to Delafield's earlier conclusion that iron-grating gallery should be only 4 feet wide, he urged that it cover all of the open space at the rear, that is, that that it be 10 feet wide. If the ironwork and the area walls painted with a light color, sufficient light would reach the storerooms below.

The chief of engineers agreed with the proposals of building the embrasure irons, preparing pintles for any future guns and building the rear area rooms. He warned Elliot not to order embrasure irons similar to those at Fort Point, but irons for the kinds of embrasures necessary for guns of increased caliber and range. He enclosed detailed plans for these modified Totten embrasures. Elliot, examining the plans and existing correspondence concerning embrasures, became somewhat confused as to the exact dimensions. There were, for example, conflicting instructions as to the width of the throat. Because the embrasure irons were already enroute (by August 1865), he worriedly wrote asking to be straightened out. Delafield replied that the iron shutters were already obsolete because of the power of existing guns. He suggested that Elliot install them simply to protect the stores from theft: "When guns are used, it will be necessary to remove these iron shutters, and hence there is no propriety in endeavoring to reinforce the masonry at this time.

Elliot's monthly reports of operations for the next 20 months showed slow but steady progress on the bombproof barracks:

March 1865: Carpenters built a bridge to carry excavated rock from the site, over the wharf, to the dumping scows.

April-September 1865: The laborers excavated the site.

July 1865: The stonecutters cut granite for the seawall foundation of the flank of the new barracks.

September 1865: Construction of the seawall foundation began.

October 1865: The flank of the barracks was carried up to a reference of feet.

November 1865: Stonecutters cut embrasure stones, sills, lintels, and steps. Construction of the piers began.

January 1866: Masonry of the scarp wall was carried up to the soles (bottoms) of the embrasures. Several piers had been built as high as the springing lines of the communications arches (the passageways casemates).

February 1866: Sills of the area front (or back wall of the barracks) were laid and work on the area wall commenced.

March 1866: Most of the embrasure irons for the first tier were emplaced. The area wall of the barracks was almost as high as the top of the doors and windows of the first tier.

April 1866: Some of the small arches over the embrasures were finished, and some of the communication arches were turned.

May 1866: Work on the bombproof barracks slowed down because of a scarcity of good mechanics. (They could get higher wages in San Francisco.)

In his annual report for fiscal year 1866, Elliot described the structure in considerable detail: This barracks is designed not only to furnish quarters for the garrison, but Storage room for the military supplies of the place. It will contain three magazines for powder and will increase by thirty (30) guns [the plans showed 33 guns] the fire from the island over a part of the navigable waters of the bay . . . which is now commanded by but few guns. The site of this barracks will not be seen by an enemy till he passes the main line of defense of the harbor. The excavation for it required the removal of a very large quantity of hard sand stone rock so that the masonry was not commenced until October.

Since that time the seawall foundation has been completed. All the piers of the tier have been finished, the communication arches of this tier have been turned, and the main arches have been commenced. The embrasures of this tier• have all •been finished. The scarp and rear wall have been carried as high as the skewbacks of the communication arches. The stone stairs and the storerooms in rear have also advanced nearly as high as the opening lines of the arches.

In December 1866, Elliot prepared a new set of plans, sections, and elevations of the barracks. He forwarded these to Washington together with a long letter described the structure and pointed out the need for continuing appropriations in order to complete it. Although parts of this description duplicate some of the material already presented, Elliot included details not hitherto mentioned in his reports:

“The barbette will be armed with one 15" Rodman gun on center pintle carriage, eight rifled guns on front pintle carriages, and one rifled gun on centre pintle carriage. There will be two traverses, each rising 6'above the interior crest. One of them will contain a service magazine 16' x 8'. There are two tiers of casemates. The upper will furnish quarters for the garrison . . . and in the lower will be storage room for the Commissary, Quarter Master, Ordnance and Engineer supplies' for the post. This tier will also contain the kitchen for the troops. . . . One of the casemates in each tier will be used and is arranged for a magazine. There are smoke flues for stoves from each casemate of each tier. There are two flues for the escape of smoke over each casemate, and there is a ventilator from the rear of each casemate near the crown of the arch. The small irregular casemate of the lower tier [in the salient] is arranged the reception of stores from the wharf below, thru' a large door thru' the scarp. The machinery necessary to raise the stores from the wharf will be placed in the corresponding casemate in the 2nd tier. This machinery can also be connected with a pump which will be placed below the floor [of the lower casemate] for raising salt water to the cistern to be provided for supplying water for bathing purposes. [There would also be a freshwater cistern, both of them located at the second level behind the area way.]

In rear of the gun casemates is an open space 10' wide, and in rear of this had been arranged a series of small rooms two tiers high [and now numbering more than ten] . . .. The stairs communicating with the different stories are also on the rear side of the open space. Across this open space and 6" below the tops of the sills of the doorways of the 2d tier is an iron grating formed of bars of iron 2-1/2" x 1/2" placed a part. This grating rests in ledges in the masonry, except at the stairways where it rests on wrought iron girders. Two of the small rooms in the rear will be fitted up for ovens. They are [approximately in the middle of the first tier] . . . and will each contain two ovens 6' 6" x 4' 9". In rear of the barbette will be a roadway 16' wide connected at the northerly end with the ramps leading to the wharf, the summit, and the northwest end of the island and at its southerly end with a covered way leading to the southern batteries. This structure will furnish barrack room for at least 500 men in time of war and one year’s supplies for them. . . . The piers and walls of the 2d tier . . . are about 6" above the floor (34' 6"). The arches (bomb proof) of the 2d tier of the small rooms in rear are nearly finished.”

This proved to be Elliot's last major correspondence concerning the casemated barracks. In January 1867, Maj. George Mendell replaced him on Alcatraz as the engineer in charge of the works. Nearly all of Mendell's career would be on the Pacific Coast, where he would be the senior engineer well into the Endicott period. But he would not oversee the completion of the barracks, now more than half built. The chief of engineers suspended further work on the structure until the board of engineers in New York could determine a design for scarp walls that would resist the heavier weapons now available. Just as the masonry scarps of the batteries had become obsolete, so had the face of the casemated barracks. Nevertheless, Mendell argued that the structure be completed. In April 1867, he forwarded a report showing that some of the piers for the second tier had reached a height of feet above the floor. By then he had discharged most of his force because that year's appropriation was nearly exhausted.

Mendell continued to hope that would be renewed in the new fiscal year, 1868. But on July 2, 1867, Chief of Engineers Humphreys wrote him, saying: "I am led to the conclusion that it is not expedient to make this structure an exception to the rule which has suspended work in all like cases. . . ."If, he added, "the work itself is liable to injury from the delay, it may be covered with boards, or to a certain extent with asphalt, for its security, and so as to make the lower tier available for storage or other use. Later Humphreys suggested that Mendell could proceed with the completion of the small rooms to the rear of the barracks, in addition to making the casemates safe for storage.

In his operations report for August 1867, Mendell recorded that "six courses has [sic] been laid on the area wall of the rear part of the barrack, three arches covering small apartments have been turned, the piers of the cisterns have been completed, the arch covering the approach to the man hole of the large drain almost completed, and some progress made on the flues." The idea that the board of engineers would eventually find a solution that would allow resumption of the bombproof barracks remained alive on Alcatraz for many years to come. In reality, there was no future for this type of fortification.