Where the voices of Alcatraz come to life...

The Alcatraz Light

Americans have long had a romance with lighthouses. Also there is a special mystique about islands in man's mind. Therefore, a lighthouse on an island makes a heady combination, especially when the island is Alcatraz in its first light was the first light on the Pacific Coast.

In 1850, the Congress passed its first appropriation for the construction of lighthouses on the Pacific Coast, including one for Alcatraz. The Treasury Department scandalously let the contract to build the first of these to a treasury clerk, who promptly sold it to the Baltimore contractors, Francis X. Kelly and Francis A. Gibbons. Each of the lighthouses was to cost $15,000, and they were to be completed by November 1, 1853. This date was later extended to May 1, 1854. The lights were to be Argand lamps with 16 inch parabolic reflectors. Ammi B. Young, a prominent 19th century architect, designed the structures, each to be a Cape Cod type dwelling with a tower rising from the center.

Young specifications called for a 38 x 20' house constructed of stone or hard brick. A full seller, 6 feet in the clear with a brick floor and an outside doorway was to be built. A chimney was located at each end of the building; one to have a fireplace; the other a hearth and a flue. Another fireplace was to be placed in the attic chamber. The main floor had two rooms, and entrance vestibule, and a stairway between them. The attic also had two rooms, with the tower and the stairway separating them. The roof was to be covered with "ladies" slate. The circular tower and an inside diameter of 8 feet and a wall 1 foot thick. A window is located in the tower. The top of the tower, which formed a deck for the lantern, was to be a domical arch. The deck above was to be covered with 20 ounce copper sheathing, and finally a 12 x 10' frame lean to porch, was to be added to the back of structure.


Meanwhile the Congress established the Lighthouse Board, which divided the country into 12 lighthouse districts, the Pacific Coast being the 12 district. Each district had an inspector and in the case of the 12 district it was invariably an Army engineer already assigned to San Francisco. His duties included supervising the construction of lighthouses, keeping them in repair, and purchasing and installing the illuminating apparatus. The local collector of customs was appointed to take care of fiscal and administrative duties, such as the appointment of keepers. The first inspector for the 12 district was none other than Captain Henry W. Halleck, then the staff engineer of Military Department 10 (California) and who was soon to be involved with Alcatraz's fortifications.

The Baltimore contractors dispatched a ship load of men and materials to the West Coast in 1852. On board were bricklayers, carpenters, stonemasons, painters, blacksmiths, plasterers, and laborers. The materials included yellow pine flooring, doors and frames, window frames, shutters, cupboards, mantels, hardware, tin, oils, paint, and glass. The ship arrived in San Francisco in December 1852, and on the 15th of the month, workmen promptly began laying the foundation for the Alcatraz lighthouse.

In May 1852, the government decided to put French manufactured Fresnel lens Pacific Coast lights rather than the Argand lamps. Because the installation of the Fresnel lens was a delicate undertaking, the Lighthouse Board decided to put it under a separate contract; subsequently some $800 was deducted from the contract Gibbons and Kelly. A naval officer was dispatched to Paris to purchase the lenses. The first two lenses arrive safely in New York in April 1853 and were ordered reshipped to San Francisco by sea.

On June 21, 1853, Halleck reported to the Lighthouse Board that the Alcatraz lighthouse was completed and ready to receive its lighting apparatus. The Fresnel lenses, both of the third order, arrived a few weeks later. Halleck attempted to find a person skilled in directing the apparatus. But no one would accept the job for the small amount of money that was available. The captain estimated that in inflation ridden San Francisco $3,000 was needed.

Captain Halleck resigned from the Army in 1854, before the Alcatraz light was installed. The lighthouse Board promptly arrange with the chief engineer of the Army to have Major John G. Barnard, then in charge of constructing the fortifications at Fort Point, assume responsibility for completing the Alcatraz light and that he "should have the management and control of the lighthouse for at least one month after being lighted." Barnard completed the work and on the evening of June 1, 1854, the Pacific Coast’s first light was lit. Interestingly enough, the lighthouse Board forgot to obtain a permit from the War Department to erect lighthouse on Alcatraz, a military reservation. This fact was not discovered until 1907, when the Department of Commerce and Labor wrote the war department asking for a copy of the original permit. Whether or not this oversight was rectified remains unknown.

A third order light, such as Alcatraz’s, was authorized a principal keeper and an assistant keeper. Michael Cassin was appointed Alcatraz light’s first keeper on August 15, 1853, long before it was completed. The San Francisco customs collector was not at all certain that Cassin would remain on the job for long. His annual salary was only $750, barely enough to pay for his food. It is possible that Cassin supplemented his income with another job, for, the inspector reported in June 1855, that the principal keeper was absent considerably. The inspector reminded him that his full-time presence was a necessity. Cassin promised to give strict attention to his duties. But in October 1855, Cassin, having overstayed his leave, was considered dismissed. His successor, John Sloan, who may have had been the assistant keeper until then, held the job for only one month. He was replaced by Underhill Van Wagner, whose salary was increased to $1100 per annum. Edward S. Swan was appointed the assistant keeper, replacing Nathaniel Blackstone who was "removed." The Army officers appointed as inspectors for the 12 district made their periodic inspections of the Alcatraz light. Most of the reports considered the apparatus and the premises to be in good condition. Occasionally there was severe storm damage, such as on New Year's Day, 1855, when most of the metallic roofing was blown off. Later it was replaced with white pine shingles. In 1856, a fog bell arrived to be placed at the South East end of the island. Because of the gun batteries around the edge of the cliff, the bell station was constructed below the cliff, near the water's edge.

The machine was designed to strike a 1,000 pound bell a blow of the hammer every 10 seconds for four successive blows, then a pause of 30 seconds, and then a repetition. The hammer weighed 30 pounds and was fastened to an arm that was 2 feet long. The hammer raised 9 inches at each blow. One man could wind up the machine using an ordinary crank key, the weight being hung on a movable pulley. The motive weight was composed of 14 cast iron disks weighing a total of 3640 pounds. This weight was raised 25 feet and it allowed the machine to run five hours before rewinding. It took a man about three quarters of an hour to rewind the machine.

The Daily Alta California described the fog bell and the light in 1858, when the keeper was Underhill Van Wagner, as follows:

“Beneath the south wall, and l’utting over bay washed rock, stands a little frame building enclosing the machinery connected with the fog bell, suspended on its outer edge. This spell is a clear, sonorous tone, and its close proximity to the bay enables its silver tones to be heard in a long distance over the waters on that side of the island. But there is some complaint heard from pilots… That it is impossible to hear the bell at all on the upper side of the island. They state that in foggy weather the sound never reaches them until they are clear the lower end.

The fog bell is struck by the clapper at times a minute, the chain is three hours and a quarter unwinding. It takes an hour and a quarter rapid turning of the crank to wind it up, and in foggy weather the Bell man often times presses into the service a merry party to help him in his labors, which are as arduous as those of the bona fide "chain gang," for 4,000 revolutions are required to wind up the chain.

On the highest eminence is situated the lighthouse, that bright beacon of safety to the port seeking sailors. The lower part of the building is very conveniently and nicely arranged as a dwelling for... Mr. U. Van Wagoner and his family. At the top of the second flight of stairs the visitor enters the mammoth lantern, the walls of which consist of immense plates of flint glass, which are so extraordinarily transparent as often to lead one to imagine nothing intercepting and unobstructed view without. The hydraulic pressure lamp within is the third order of a Fresnel light, and burns with remarkable clearness and brilliancy… The house is lit at sunset, in order that the light may shed full effulgence by the time darkness sets in it is not extinguished until sunrise. Two quarts of sperm oil are consumed nightly.”

Extensive repairs to the dwelling were carried out in 1880. A new roof was added and two of the fireplaces were rebuilt. The tower walls were repaired, and steps down to the fog bell were renewed. Three years later a new bell, weighing 3,340 pounds, was cast at the Navy Yard at Mare Island, using the old Bell and other material for casting. In a response to complaints about the old bell, the new one was directed 15 feet farther out on the shore to increase its range. Also, a new flight of steps, with railings on both sides was constructed. In 1884, the light underwent change when the mineral oil lamps were substituted for those burning lard oil. The whole complex was painted any inspector declared the station to be in "excellent condition."

Around 1886, an old sailor, Captain Leeds, became the Alcatraz keeper. He is said to have constructed a two foot high wall around the dwelling, filled it with soil, and planted flowers and trees. When a post office was established on Alcatraz it was located in the lighthouse, at least during Leed’s tenure. The fog bell continued to claim the hours away - for example, 527 operating hours in 1889 and 396 hours in 1890.

An excellent, unsigned article on the Alcatraz "range light" appeared in the San Francisco Call in 1896. From outside the bar at the Golden Gate, six lights could be seen; but only two of them, at Fort Point and on Alcatraz, were used to guide vessels into port. These two were known as the range lights. Fort point's light at that time was a red and white flash, while Alcatraz’s was a steady white light. After noting the military character of Alcatraz, the reporter finally arrived at the lighthouse and wrote the following:

"The Alcatraz Island lighthouse consists of a stone tower 40 feet high, with the keeper's residence of the same material built around it. The walls of the structure are about 2 feet thick, stuccoed and painted a pure white. The lantern is reached by a spiral stairway in the tower.

Alcatraz Island station is of the third order and has one of the finest lenses ever built. It was made by Saulter and Company of Paris, France, in 1852 under the direction of Thomas Corwin [D. S. Secretary of the Treasury, 1850 through 1853]. The glass used is the most peculiar, as it is so soft the pocketknife will cut it. The advantage of this glass is its remarkable clearness. With a 74 candlepower Funk lamp the light can be seen 19 miles at sea, while at Point Bonita, which has nearly double the candlepower and an ordinary lens, can be seen only 17 miles. The reason more of these lenses are not used is on account of the cost. Alcatraz Island lenses cost $8,000, and at the same rate a first-class lens like Point Bonita would cost $20,000.

At present the lamp burns mineral oil, which is supplied to the wick from a reservoir and regulated by a float feed attachment. The lamp clearing room is just beneath the lantern. Everything about the place is as clean and as orderly as possible. All of the brass work shines like gold. Alcatraz Island is also supplied with the fog signal. It is located at the base of the cliff on the southern end of the island, and is reached by a flight of steps. The bellows operated by a machine that will run for four hours with one winding."

More living space was provided for the keeper and his assistant in 1897 by rebuilding the two kitchens in adding a room over them. Also, to bring the general appearance up to that of the military posts, latticework and fences were built around the yard, and an unsightly outhouse removed. In 1899 a brick oil house was constructed, and in 1900 the fog bell was moved again. The batteries on the southeast end of the island were much less important now than they had been a few decades earlier. Now, the fog bell (with striking new apparatus) was moved to a new building on top of the cliff, where its effectiveness was greatly increased, because it could be heard on both sides of the island.

In 1900 the Treasury Department asked the War D for permission to erect a second fog bell at the north east end of the island. The post commander reported that a 15 inch Rodman that had stood at that site had been dismounted. By the following year a new bell, in a wooden frame structure 21 x 12' and identical to the other station, added its tone to the fog sounds of the bay. A major change to the light occurred in 1902 when the third order steady beam light was replaced by a fourth order flashing lens. Masters in pilots have long complained that from outside the Golden Gate, Alcatraz’s steady light could not be distinguished from the Berkeley streetlamps. They were not wholly happy the change, however, arguing that it should have been moved up to the second order rather than reduced from the fourth.

The 1906 earthquake caused only minor damage to the Alcatraz lighthouse, knocking down the tops of the chimneys and causing a slight crack in the stone tower. These items were quickly repaired. In 1907 a new number three Gamewell fog bell striking apparatus was installed in the Bell House at the northwest end of the island. At the same time an electrical system was installed that allowed for the controlling of both bells in the keepers dwelling.

When the Army decided to build a permanent prison on the site of the Citadel, it was readily apparent that the huge new structure would cut off the Alcatraz light from the harbor entrance. Major Turner, the prison commandant, one of the lighthouse removed for another reason as well: The building and sheds were unsightly and if left in their present position would badly mar the appearance of the new prison building and being out of harmony with the general building plan of the post. No matter to Turner that the Pacific Coast’s first lighthouse would be destroyed and a historic structure gone. Turner proposed that a new light be erected on the roof of the prison. In 1909, Major Charles H. McKinstry, Corps of Engineers, now the lighthouse engineer for the 12th district among his several other duties, prepared a set of plans for a new light tower and three sets of quarters for a keeper and two assistants. Rather than on the roof of the prison, the new tower was located slightly to the east of the old lighthouse - which continue to operate while the new one was under construction. The old fourth order lens was moved to the new tower, with a new lantern, and the light was turned on December 1, 1909. The 84 foot tower was built of reinforced concrete. The two dwelling wings were each two stories and were cement plastered. They were connected by reinforced concrete area, beneath which were located and oil room and a carpenter shop. The total cost of construction was $35,000.

A newspaper reporter visited the new lighthouse in 1919, when Henry W. Young, another ancient mariner, was a keeper. "The keeper first raised the yellow curtains which cover the octagonal windows of the tower. This action display the apparatus… Technically it is called a fourth order light. With its resplendent brass and glittering crystals, which curve in semi circles on either side of two central bull's-eyes, it would seem to be more of an object for admiration that practical use. In the center of this canopy of crystals sets the lamp.

Removing the covering which shields the apparatus... The keeper took a small brass lamp from a sideboard and lighted it. "This lamp," he said, "ordinarily has the power of the dining room lamp, but when it gets inside its intensity is increased to 2000 candlepower."

"That crystal structure you see," continued the keeper, as he began to wind a small crank, as one might a phonograph, "is operated by 70 pound weights, which are regulated by clockwork. It makes one revolution every 30 seconds, and, as it has two faces, the flare can be seen from any point once every 15 seconds."

In 1963, the Alcatraz light was converted to automatic operation. There is no longer a need to have a permanent keeper and assistants. About the same time a new double drum reflecting light was installed. The two fog bells remained in operation. Disaster struck in 1970 during the Indian occupation of Alcatraz. On June 2nd, fire destroyed the residences and damaged the tower. The light went out… The Alcatraz Indian Council denied charges that they were responsible for the fire. A few days later the Indians claim to have rekindled the beacon with a small generator. On June 11, 1971, federal marshals remove the last of the Indians from the Rock, and on June 14 the Alcatraz light was again turned on, hopefully for good. The wreckage of the residences was removed; the soot and red paint on the tower were replaced by gleaming white. The workrooms underneath still serve the needs of the light. The light is not the oldest in the Bay Area - Fort Point lighthouses are older, but it is located on the site of the first light on the Pacific Coast and the two together have played a significant role in the maritime history of San Francisco, a role not yet finished.