Where the voices of Alcatraz come to life...

The First Fortifications, 1853-1863

Brick and Stone

One of the major problems Tower faced during the first year of construction was finding sources in the San Francisco area for good quality brick and stone. When the War Department determined that Tower should get only one-third of the appropriation, the cost of these materials became a critical factor along with quantity and quality. Quarries had already been opened in the bay, principally on Angel Island, that provided a blue sandstone, but as yet in limited quantities. In early 1854, however, the engineers were not yet certain that this "blue stone" was fit for facings on scarp walls. Barnard was not worried about Tower's needs because Alcatraz would not have much masonry compared to Fort Point, but Tower was concerned. At first he decided to use the sandstone in his masonry. Then the proprietors of newly opened granite quarries at Point Reyes made him such favorable offers that he considered facing the walls with that material, especially since he still had questions about the durability of sandstone. But the granite was slow in making its appearance. Tower could not wait, and in April 1854, he reported that he was building the scarp wall of the southeast battery with sandstone and a concrete backing. He was considering sandstone for the facing as well.

At this time Totten wrote Tower in infinite detail concerning masonry. He had heard from Barnard that granite was quite expensive in San Francisco and he hoped that sandstone could be used: "That material, I suppose, would be cheaper than bricks." Even more economical, thought Totten, would be 12-footthick earthen parapets faced with masonry. "But," he added, "if they must be masonry, they should be 7 feet thick with a recess at each gun." He added a small drawing on the margin of the letter illustrating the use of earth.

By May 1854, Tower was fully committed to the use of the blue stone. Barnard reported to Totten that this stone was received in blocks at a cost of $10 per ton, but that production at the quarry was slow. Barnard added a postscript saying that a load of Point Reyes granite had just arrived at Alcatraz: "Lieut. Prime reports it excellent, in good blocks & thinks it will cost laid in the work 50 per cent less than the blue stone they have been using." Tower wrote the same day describing the construction techniques, but not mentioning the Point Reyes granite:

The blue stone has been adopted for the South Battery. I have been paying ten dollars per ton for stone in blocks or approaching nearly to a rectangular form which is dressed on bed & build for the face. Stone not so regular I pay six dollars for these are rubble though I have used them in face. Back of the stone wall about 21/2 feet thick is filled with rubble to within six inches of the perpendicular bank which space six inches wide is filled with broken stone & gravel for drainage. The concrete [for the foundation] is mostly made from beach stone. . .

. . . . I should not hesitate to use brick could the hard bricks of the East be obtained here.

Brick manufacturing was still an infant industry on the West Coast, and the army engineers found it difficult to locate good hard brick in quantity and at a reasonable price. An 1858 summary of brick purchased for Alcatraz showed that a large variety of suppliers had attempted to fill the island's needs. Among them were the state prison brickyard and a brickyard at Fort Point that the engineers themselves had established.

Tower and Barnard sent samples of local brick to the East for testing. In July 1854, Totten informed them of the results. The large bricks from Contra Costa County seemed "rather tender from being under-done; and also rather too sandy; but, as in some of our Southern bricks, this last may not be a material doubt." The small Contra Costa bricks were "pretty hard, and I have no doubt would be durable in inside work." Best of all were the bricks from Sacramento. Later, when the engineers changed from sandstone to brick for the Alcatraz works, nearly all the brick came from Sacramento--after the problem of inconsistent quality had been solved.

Engineer Buildings

In his first annual report Tower described the construction accomplished. The island was no longer a barren rock; wharves, roads, buildings, and batteries had already begun to change the island's skyline. Tower first described the temporary buildings he had erected. Most of these "temporaries" remained for many years, serving the needs of the garrison as well as the construction workers.

Carpenter's Shop

This shop was 30 by 20 feet, with a tool room in the half-basement. It was situated on the edge of the road leading to the southeast battery. A wooden cistern, 12 by 10 by 6 feet, stood outside the building at its northwest end.

Blacksmith's Shop

This shop was 30 by 20 feet, had two forges. This stood near the main wharf, on a leveled spot on the cliff. A flight of steps led down to the wharf.

Two Storehouses

These storehouses were used for cement and lime,one 40 by 26 feet, the other 40 by 20 feet. Both were located on the leveled area at the wharf, along the road leading to the northwest battery.


The stable was 30 by 20 feet, with a hayloft above and grain room attached. It accommodated eight animals I and it stood by itself on the southwest side of the island.

Mess House

This building was 66 by 21 feet I with a kitchen attached I and was used for mechanics and laborers. Located at the southeast end of the island, adjacent to the five-gun temporary battery.

Laborers Barracks

This barracks was 75 by 22 feet, with three tiers of bunks accommodating 96 men. It stood across the road from the mess house.

Mechanics' Barracks

This barracks was 81 by 21 feet I with accommodations for 50 persons. It was located above the southeast barracks.

Office Building

This 1½ story building I also contained rooms for the master mason, the master carpenter, and the principal overseer. Its dimensions were 24 by 14 feet, with an ell 20 by 20 feet. It crowned the southeast peak, where the Citadel would eventually stand.

Kitchen and Mess Room

This building was 26 by 12 feet I for master mechanics and principal overseer. The boarding housekeeper occupied the attic. This structure was not identified as such on Tower's map; but it may have been an unidentified building below the office, on the southwest side of the island.

Powder House

This structure was 10 by 10 feet and located just below the northwest peak.

Water Tank

This tank, made of plank, had a 23, ODD-gallon capacity. It stood between the storehouses and the wharf area. Water for general purposes, including concrete mixing, was secured under contract from the Sausalito Water Company.

Tower described each of these structures as being "about 10 feet high built of light scantling & covered with boards placed vertically, the joints being battened. The office building which is l½ stories high is covered with clapboard-- the magazine shingled -- the two store houses are 12 feet in height." A map that accompanied the report showed sections of the laborers' mess house and kitchen, mechanics' barracks, carpenter's shop, office building, and storehouse II.

Two wharves had been constructed, and Tower described them next:


Two wharves have been constructed. . . . The larger on the north [east] face of the Island [where today1s landing is located] consists of a bulk head built of timber and planks 96 feet long [along the shore] and a wharf head of frame work 70 feet wide. The planked structure covers an area of 2283 square feet and the entire wharf room is 6,400 feet, a portion of which is occupied by the mortar mill [and sand and gravel bins]. The large [water] tank and storehouses stand upon the road way near this landing. The wharf at the south [east] end . . . consists of a bulk head 61 feet long and a wharf head 64 feet wide securing 3454 superficial feet level area for receiving stone for South Battery.

Tower had constructed two roads, one leading from the main wharf to the northwest battery area, where it terminated at the end of the island outside the scarp of the battery. The other branched off from the first to the southeast, passed to the rear of the southeast battery, and continued along the southwest side of the island, terminating at the temporary Three-Gun Battery that looked at the Golden Gate. Tower regarded his roads as permanent structures.


The ditches and the sites of the caponiers at both batteries had been essentially excavated. At the northwest battery, 91 yards of concrete foundation for the scarp wall had been laid. Running short on funds, Tower had suspended work on the battery until the new fiscal year. Much more progress had been made on the southeast battery. The left face of the scarp wall (that is, the portion of the battery to the left of the caponier as one looks out toward the water--also called flank) was complete and would be ready for its coping in two weeks. The stone walls of the caponier stood halfway up. And some progress had been made on the right face. The total amount of concrete and stone masonry completed amounted to 1,650 cubic yards.

Tower forwarded two superb maps of Alcatraz with his annual report. One of these showed no fewer than 29 profiles of the roads, those for the northeast side of the island being extended down to water level. The other sheet was an enlarged drawing, including sections and elevations, of the southeast battery. Although many changes subsequently occurred in this area--later fortifications, parade ground, officers' quarters--this drawing will offer detailed data should archeological excavations ever be undertaken. It is noted here that the terreplein of this battery stood at an elevation of 54 feet above sea level.

An interesting array of equipment had been brought to the island to carry out the work. This included earth carts, mortar carts, water carts, stone wagons, stone drags, a crane on the southeast wharf, a derrick to raise stone from that wharf to the battery, and two 50-foot boom derricks for setting stone on the scarp wall. The horsepower consisted of four horses and four mules.

South Battery

Congress appropriated only $100,000 for the Alcatraz works in fiscal year 1855. Although this amount was smaller than the previous year's, Tower did not complain about the reduction. Perhaps the reason for his acquiescence was that Barnard's Fort Point appropriation was the same, rather than the two-thirds, one-third ratio of the past.

Barnard, miffed at Totten for what he considered excessive interference at Fort Point and for other reasons, had requested a transfer back to the East Coast. In August 1854, Totten informed him that he was relieved at Fort Point and his new station was Charleston, South Carolina. At the same time the elderly, much experienced Lt. Col. Rene E. De Russy, then at Old Point Comfort (Fort Monroe), Virginia, was notified to proceed to San Francisco to replace Barnard as the senior engineer on the Pacific Coast. De Russy arrived in San Francisco on November 1, 1854.

Much of Tower's attention was now directed toward completing the South Battery. In July 1854 he informed Totten that he planned a 15-foot-thick parapet. It would consist of the outer stone scarp wall, the inner brick breast-height wall, and a fill between the two. Because of this thickness, the caponier would have to be lengthened (to the rear) so that its howitzers could still sweep the terreplein as planned. Tower recommended that, in addition to the gun embrasures in the caponier, two loopholes be constructed in the upper-level gun room so that musket fire might sweep the parapet. He also suggested additional loopholes at the ends of the gun room. Concerned that the concrete foundations of the brick breast-height walls would settle in the fresh earthen fill of the terreplein, Tower decided to construct concrete piers reaching down to bedrock to support the breast-height walls.

Totten became agitated in the fall of 1854 over the high costs of Tower's stone scarp. (Barnard had informed the chief engineer that Tower's stonework seemed to be costing $80 per cubic yard, unless there was an error in the estimate.) The department, warned Totten, could not tolerate Alcatraz's having an ashlar facing on the scarp. He said that Fort Monroe was faced with rubble masonry: "According to my idea of stone . . . it should be laid in the wall without any attempt to get it into courses: it should be laid simply as 'rubble,' I not even as 'coursed rubble,' I and to be thus laid, it should not be faced with a hammar." Tower hurriedly tried to explain how he had built the scarp that was already finished; he enclosed a diagram that showed he had indeed laid the stone in courses and, although he called it "rubble," he had adopted an ashlar facing: "The work on the left of S. Battery is half concrete & half rubble placed thus as in figure." However, he had now changed the style of the masonry to reduce the amount of stone: "I dress the bed & build [top] and ends so that the face will . . . average about 18 inches thick. The rest of the wall is concrete. By this arrangement I use about half the stone formerly used." In view of the criticisms directed at his efforts by Barnard and Totten, Tower must have welcomed the first official visit of newly arrived De Russy. After inspecting the project, De Russy wrote Totten: "I have visited Major Tower's work on Alcatrazes Island and am gratified to find it progressing, in spite of the difficulty of procuring stone in this vicinity." He said that he himself would visit the several quarries in the Bay Area and use his best efforts to have them worked at reasonable prices.

In a slightly sarcastic letter to Totten in January 1855, Tower discussed construction materials at some length. He said that the cost of building the right face of the battery would be only $29 or $30 per cubic yard. While granite was the best material for resisting shot and shell, hard brick had good qualities too. Unfortunately, the brick available at San Francisco was only medium in hardness. He suggested that ordinary brick backed by concrete would "break shells," but he did not know of any experiments as to the penetration of concrete itself. Since a scarp wall faced with brick or built of concrete entirely was cheaper than any other, he proposed to build the remaining batteries on Alcatraz with these materials. Tower concluded the letter with: "Would the Chief Engineer adorn the building of any of the smaller batteries of Concrete or would it be preferable to face with brick. Will the Chief Engineer send details of embrasures for the flank howitzers of the Caponniere." Totten readily picked up the gauntlet: "I do not think . . . that our knowledge and skill in concrete will, as yet, justify our exposing to the action of the weather or the waves, a concrete surface: there should be a facing of bricks or stones." As for the caponier embrasures, Totten, who specialized in this subject, had much advice to give:

Let the exterior facing be the same as the rest of the scarp--the cheeks be faced like the interior of the wall-you will need no recess or recess arch--let the lintel and sole be of stone--the pintle stone of the given dimensions-- the pintle hole in exact conformity as to position, form and dimensions. Give no wider exterior opening than is necessary to do all the flanking required of the piece-and no wider interior opening than this traverse of the piece requires.

The iron throat plates should conform to the drawing-and so also should the shutters. Perhaps not more than one set of iron plates, if even one, will be requisite between the throat and the outer face--the number of these notches in the cheeks should depend on the obliquity of the cheeks--they have been proved to stop all grape canister and musket balls that would otherwise be reflected by the cheeks in the casemate. If the exterior opening of your embrasure is but little more than that of the throat, the throat plates will suffice. All this iron work should be made of the best wrought iron, and of exact dimensions and form.

In April 1855, the War Department ordered a set of 15-foot shot furnace irons shipped to Alcatraz. This apparatus heated up a solid shot to a red-hot condition so that it could set a wooden ship on fire. The arrival of the furnace on the island would cause a change in the armament, as shall be seen.

Three-Gun Battery

In the spring of 1855 Tower turned his attention to the Three-Gun Battery. The original scheme had called for the three guns to be mounted in a straight line, side by side, pointing eastward . Now Tower discovered that because of the uneven terrain there was room for only two guns being mounted on a straight face; even then he would be forced to move the battery back from the original position. This would expose the rear of South Battery; therefore, he proposed moving the third gun to the flank of that battery. He also suggested building a 4-foot wall connecting the two batteries to improve safe communication between them. Finally, he recommended adding two flank guns to the new battery. Tower said he had shown this plan to De Russy who had agreed with him in these views. Totten readily approved this change of plans, but in the end, the new battery had but one flanking gun, making it in fact a three-gun battery.

State of the Works, June 1855

In his second annual report I Tower said that his objectives for that year had been to bring the three batteries toward completion and to mount guns as fast as South Battery was ready to receive them. He had succeeded admirably.

South Battery

The scarp wall of the right face was complete and ready for coping. Also the breast-height wall and the 12 semicircular containing walls for the wooden platforms on the right face were finished. Furthermore I the parapets for both faces were filled with earth, and the terreplein was graded (both excavation and filling had been required). The caponier had been raised to the springing lines of the arch over the gun room, which had been lined with brick. Doors and windows had been manufactured. The magazine was being lined with wood. The two flights of steps down to the magazine entrance were in place, and the area wall to the rear of the magazine entrance had been raised to the level of the terreplein. The return wall at the battery's left flank had been extended back to unite with the scarp of Three-Gun Battery.