Where the voices of Alcatraz come to life...


Alcatraz and the Endicott System

Ever since the Congress stopped appropriating funds for coastal defenses in the mid-1870s, a rising chorus of complaints about the government's neglect of the nation's safety reached Washington, D.C. In 1882, for example, the San Francisco Chamber of Commerce addressed a memorial to the Congress pointing out the "comparatively defenseless condition of our harbor, our city, and the Mare Island naval-station." Brig. Gen. H. G. Wright, chief of engineers, emphatically agreed: "The city of San Francisco is today at the mercy of the iron clads of an enemy." He said that he had reported the defenseless condition of American cities to Congress annually for the past three years, adding: "There is hardly any civilized nation so illy prepared for war, so far as maritime defenses are concerned as the United States.

The government reacted. In 1883 naval appropriations established a joint army-navy Gun Foundry Board to study ways and means of producing modern Two years later, the Congress established a board under the presidency of Secretary of War William C. Endicott (the Endicott Board) to study and plan the modernization of coastal fortifications, and in 1888 the Board of Ordnance and Fortification, headed by Maj. Gen. John Schofield, commander in chief of the army, was established to review plans developed by army engineers. Illustrative of this fresh activity in coastal defense was an estimate for defensive works for San Francisco that was prepared by the Board of Engineers for Fortifications (New York) in 1884. It called for 200 modern rifles and mortars at a cost of almost $15 million. The Endicott Board's recommendations for San Francisco were even more grandiose: guns and 128 rifled mortars.

Chief of Engrs. Thomas Casey wrote Colonel Mendell, now the senior engineer on the Pacific coast, in the fall of 1890, proposing the temporary installation of an 8-inch rifle on a disappearing carriage on Alcatraz: "This... position was selected on account of its splendid command down the Entrance and has always been regarded as a most eligible site for guns .in the harbor. Besides a gun here would cross its fire with the [10-inch] gun [proposed] above Fort Point." Mendell did not favor this scheme and wondered if the temporary emplacement was worth the money it would cost. Moreover, the colonel that thought the outer defenses should be constructed first, while the inner defenses of the harbor could wait until later. Still, Alcatraz remained somewhat important in the scheme of things: "I think that Alcatraz, although deprived by modern advances [in weapons] of the high importance with which it has been invested in past discussion of the defense of the harbor, will always have value for its fire into the Golden Gate.

In November 1891 the New York board of engineers completed a defense project for San Francisco that included plans and sections for the various new works. The project called for two huge, earthen and concrete batteries containing five 12-inch guns on lifts on Alcatraz Island. A two-gun battery would stand on top of the island, just northwest of the Citadel, and a three-gun battery was to be located on the prisoner-carved plateau at the southeast end. As it turned out, the Ordnance Department did not adopt the gun lift for American defenses. In 1897 the board of engineers recommended that the five guns for Alcatraz be mounted on disappearing carriages and be arranged for all-round fire. This new project received approval.

A year later, the senior engineer officer at San Francisco, Col. Charles R. Suter, argued that the inner harbor did not require heavy armament, such as the proposed 12-inch guns at Alcatraz: "The protection of the mine-fields is the only obvious requirement, and this is a matter for small guns." Eventually, Suter's ideas gained ascendancy and, by 1905, the approved project for Alcatraz called for six high-powered 6-inch guns.

Permanent Military Prison


Secretary of War William C. Endicott


Maj. Gen. John Schofield


Maj. Gen. Arthur MacArthur


Chief of Engrs. Thomas Casey

General MacArthur on Fortifications

Meanwhile the number of military prisoners on Alcatraz increased greatly as large numbers of convicted personnel were returned from the Philippine Islands. The need for additional prison buildings became imperative, and the only available space was the area that Mendell had had leveled 25 years earlier. In 1902, these buildings (temporary in character) were erected at the southeast end of the island. An up-to-date permanent prison was still very much required and, by 1903 the Army was considering feasible sites for its location in the Bay Area. The departmental commander, Maj. Gen. Arthur MacArthur, believed that if this institution was erected on Alcatraz, it "would materially interfere with the Artillery defenses, which I hope someday may be installed thereon." Like his famous son, MacArthur had a way with words: As a purely defensive proposition there can be no question that the installation of high power guns on Alcatraz Island would not only greatly strengthen but would make the defense of San Francisco Bay absolutely invincible against any combination that the entire world could bring against it. . .

Effective defense of the harbor is of course all that is required, but when experts differ . . . it is impossible to make an error on the side of prudence. For example, if we have many more guns than are needed the national interests are safe, but if we have one gun less than necessary at the critical moment the honor of the nation may be jeopardized and all the money invested on existing works as good as •thrown away.

Since all my convictions in the premises have been confirmed and strengthened, and are now most emphatically to the effect that all of Alcatraz should be devoted to fortifications. Personally, I favor high power guns and as many of them as can be installed on the island, but the question of the weight of the gun is, for the time being, considered as secondary to the proposition that the island shall be dedicated exclusively and for all time to purposes of defense.

Alcatraz to be a Prison

"For all time" proved to be but a few short years. The chief of engineers hinted in 1905 that Alcatraz would not be armed for at least several years, since Congress was considering suspending appropriations for additional batteries. Moreover, San Francisco Harbor already had a great deal of heavy armament emplaced. Any future role for Alcatraz in the defense of San Francisco came to a complete end in 1907 when the secretary of war selected the Rock as the site for a large permanent prison. About the same time the army engineer in San Francisco announced that the connection of his office with Alcatraz Island was terminated.

For 50 years, Alcatraz Island had guarded the Golden Gate against potential foes. It had been the first post in the bay to mount permanent guns; it was the only post so armed when the Civil War began; along with Fort Point it had been the only post effectively armed in the years of confusion and neglect following the war; and had the Spanish fleet approached the Pacific Coast in 1898, Alcatraz would have played a vital role in San Francisco's defense. All that lay behind Ahead, a different history would unfold a grim story of military prison and federal penitentiary.