Where the voices of Alcatraz come to life...

The First Fortifications, 1853-1863

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.

Three-Gun Battery

This entire battery had been completed except for the coping on the scarp wall. To level the terreplein it had been necessary to excavate at its rear and to fill in at the front. Tower did not mention whether the scarp wall had been faced with stone or brick.

North Battery

Here Tower had used brick in the scarp. Not only had it been less expensive than stone, it had allowed the work to proceed more quickly: "The scarp wall is finished except the coping. This wall is faced with bricks & filled in with concrete. On account of the increase in the thickness of the parapet . . . it became necessary to excavate back into the rock 10 feet farther before commencing the scarp wall of the short [right] face. . . . The prolonging of the Caponiere from the same cause will require some additional excavation." Work on the caponier had not yet commenced.

A description of the fortifications appeared in the Daily Alta California in 1855. The article stated that the magazine floor in the caponier was paved with Chinese granite. This was possible, for Barnard had ordered 2,000 tons of granite from China in 1854 for Fort Point. The paper went on to say that the caponier's walls were formed of "Monterey stone." While this suggested granite also, all of Tower's inferences and statements supported the use of blue sandstone. Years later, George Elliot, the engineer who was then in charge of the works on Alcatraz, said that the caponier had been built of sandstone from Angel Island.


In December 1853, Totten advised Tower and 43 columbiads would arrive on Alcatraz as soon as possible and he urged the lieutenant to prepare the platforms as quickly as he could. This growing concern over San Francisco Bay's lack of defense stemmed from several causes concerning international relations. Following the 1846 treaty with Great Britain that established the 49th North parallel as the boundary between the United States and British possessions, the British had erected a naval base at Vancouver Island to counterbalance the harbor of San Francisco. In the 1850s the British fleet stationed at Esquimalt was generally much stronger than anything the United States had in the Pacific. Furthermore, 1846 treaty had failed to settle the dispute over the water boundary between Vancouver Island and Washington territory, although a crisis on this issue would not occur until 1859.

Across the Pacific, Commodore Perry" opened" Japan in 1853. Japan was hardly a threat to anyone for the time being, but Perry's adventure signified growing American power and interest in that vast sea. Closer to California, both Britain and the United States were casting covetous eyes at the Hawaiian Islands, and in the fall of 1854, at least Lieutenant Whiting at San Francisco thought it probable "that the annexation of the Sandwich Islands will shortly be consummated" by the United States. War in the Crimea in 1853 - 1854 had little direct influence on San Francisco, but the Russians and the British both had colonies on the northern Pacific coast, and each side was most anxious to see that the United States remain neutral, if not friendly.

The thrilling moment of international friction came, however, in April 1854 when Spanish authorities in Havana, Cuba, seized the U.S merchant vessel Black Warrior. Expansionists in Congress clamored for war with Spain. In October, three U.S. ministers in Europe sent a dispatch commonly called the Ostend Manifests, recommending that the United States purchase Cuba, or failing that, resort to "wrestling it from Spain." Had war come, the East Coast would have been the more heavily involved, but San Francisco was not to be ignored. Spain's outpost, the Philippine Islands, guarded by Spanish ships of war, lay a few thousand miles to the west. In November 1854, Totten dispatched a confidential letter to De Russi in San Francisco alerting him as follows:

You will have noticed in the newspapers that are foreign relations where a somewhat threatening aspect… But a principal object, not yet touched upon this letter is to direct your attention to efforts for making the upmost of the armament of thirty-three, 8 inch and 10 inch colombiads, now on its way to your harbor. I fear that with the exception of the South battery of Alcatraz Island perhaps only a part of that permanent provision will not have been made for the reception of these guns in battery…

As to expenditures on batteries to be thrown up to supply a sudden need, you will not hesitate as to them, in any exigency that may present itself before a heavy armament shall have been accommodated in its proper place.


Some of the weapons promised San Francisco in 1853 departed from the New York Arsenal in the fall of 1854. The New York Arsenal requested quartermaster department to arrange transportation and to have them send to both Alcatraz Island and the West Coast Arsenal at Benicia, California.

By February 1855 Tower had received invoices stating that all 43 guns had been shipped, but, he said, Colonel De Russi wanted 10 of them transferred to Fort Point for emergency batteries. Tower said he could mount 53 guns on Alcatraz in six months - if funds were available. Meanwhile the first of the columbiads had arrived.

Back in Washington, Secretary of War Davis assembled a board of officers for the purpose of determining the ordinance needed for the fortification of the seacoasts. Totten notified Tower that Alcatraz’s guns would eventually consist of ten 10-inch columbiads, thirty-three 8-inch columbiads, fifteen 24-pounder howitzers for the caponiers, and ten 42-pounder guns. The ordinance department introduced these last because columbiads could not handle hot shot. Totten also included details for the mounting of a 42 pounder. Totten pointed out that one more gun had been assigned to South Battery then there was space for. This columbiad was to be mounted in barbette on top of the caponier; a similar arrangement was eventually to be made at North Battery. "By arranging the center of motion," he wrote, "so that the gun may fire over the sides as well as the end of the caponier a very great field of fire will result, but that you may have full advantage of the position the breast height surface should be cylindrical with the radius of 9 feet, the parapet in that position being thickened and to the extent shown by the shaded portion in the margin."

By April 15, 1855, Tower had seven 8-inch and one 10 inch mounted on the left face of South Battery. This marks the beginning of permanent firepower on Alcatraz, six years before the Civil War and at a time when the foundations for the Fort at Fort Point were just being completed. On the right face, Tower had already prepared five emplacements for columbiads, only to learn that the 42-pounders, requiring a different kind of platform, were to be mounted there. Since it would be quite some time before these guns would arrive, Tower fell justified in not making any immediate changes. With some of the ordinance mounted, he thought it a good idea to test the platforms by firing one shell and one solid shot from each gun. Totten was not at all sure that such tests were necessary; but if Tower considered them indispensable, he was authorized to request the necessary ammunition from ordinance.


Perhaps because of the international tensions, Congress passed an appropriation for coastal defenses for fiscal year 1856 as early as March 1855. Fort Point received the sum of $300,000; Alcatraz got $200,000, twice the amount of the year before. The new fiscal year would see the beginnings of a considerable increase in the number of guns bristling from the natural redoubt called Alcatraz.

In September 1855, Lieutenant Prime prepared an elegant map about because he titled "Annual Drawing Showing Progress of the Work." This map showed 20 detailed sections of both North and South batteries and their caponiers. Among the more important things to be learned from these sections is that today's brick scarp wall under the model industries building is, in large part, the original scarp as built by Tower in 1855 - 1856. Of the temporary armament, four 24-pounders and one Navy 8-inch "shell gun" still remained. North Battery did not yet contain any weapons, but 13 columbiads aimed their muzzles over the parapet at South Battery. Four more had been dragged to their platforms but were not yet mounted on their carriages. All the columbiads were employed at the Three-Gun Battery.

In December 1855, Tower informed the chief engineer that since he probably would exhaust his 1856 appropriation by April, it would be a fine idea if he were allowed to return to the East Coast for a few months. He had a number of things to do there and he would also like to discuss his ideas for further increasing the defenses of Alcatraz. Totten was not impressed he advised Tower to lay any suggestions for modification before the Pacific board of engineers, adding that the board should now meet. The Pacific board met in April 1856. By then only two members were present to sign the report- De Russi and Tower. Lieutenant Whiting had finally succeeded in wringing a transfer out of Totten and had left San Francisco for Washington early in the new year.

The Board reviewed the general plans for the defense of San Francisco Bay, pointing out again the need for a second line because the enemy might slip through the gate during nighttime or in a fog: "The most prominent position of the secondary line is Alcatrazes Island. Its guns sweep a larger expanse of waters than those of any other point and lies upon the two passes of ingress and egress most readily navigated. It has additional importance at this time from the advanced state of its batteries as compared with those of the outer line."

Because of Alcatraz’s strategic location, the board proposed additional armament for the island: eight additional guns (42-Pounders) to be added to this still not built West Battery, and a right face North Battery (i.e., to the right of the caponier), having six emplacements (one 10-inch and five 8-inch columbiads). Also, they thought, and additional gun be added to the left flank of the Three-Gun Battery. If the above 42-pounders were added to West Battery, there would be no need for the five such guns proposed for South Battery. That would relieve a dangerous situation wherein the hot shotguns and furnace were to be located close to the powder magazine in the south caponier. The only drawback to having hot shot in West Battery and its relatively high elevation-70 feet above high tide, which would make it difficult to hit the side the ships at close range.

Other recommendations involved the proposed guardhouse and barracks. The guardhouse should be enlarged and made stronger and provided with a sally port, drawbridge, and a ditch or moat. The "basement" room would serve as a prison, the guard would occupy the outer (nearest to the water) gun room, and the officer of the guard's quarters would be in the inner gun room. The terreplein, or roof, of the guardhouse would rest upon brick arches supported by a railroad iron. A brick wall 2 feet thick and about 20 feet high on its waterside and extending 4 feet above the ground on its interior, would serve as a revetment for the rocky bank between the guardhouse and the North Battery. This wall, in addition to its role as a revetment, would offer some protection to personnel making their way along the northeastern side of the island from enemy fire or observation. The board proposed that the barracks retain its present design but be increased in length so as to house a war garrison. The officers’ portion of the building would become a hospital, and three plane cottages would be built for them. De Russi added a short statement to the report that bore his signature only. As senior member of the board he wished to recommend that the addition the North battery contained ten rather than six guns, and a hot shot furnace as well. The four additional guns would be 42 pounders. Two drawings accompanied the report: a plan of Alcatraz showing the proposed additional works in a sheet of plans and elevations for the guardhouse. Several features on this latter are noteworthy. The walls of the structure extended far enough above the terreplein (roof) to offer protection for infantry stationed there. Musket loopholes (slits) were provided in all four walls of the outer gun room and in the position side of the inner gun. Two embrasures for 24 pounder howitzers, one at each gun room, looked toward the wharf; a third embrasure, in the opposite end of the outer gun room, covered the area toward North Battery.

One problem the tower was trying to solve in the spring of 1856, was how to finish off the interior crest lines of North and South Batteries. In that this matter was attacked in different ways by 19th century engineers and causes headaches for restoration specialists today, Tower’s comments, if not his solution, are presented in full. The interior crest was simply the top of the breast height wall, as distinguished from the superior slope, which was simply the top of the parapet. The problem was to find a material and form that would last against the weather through years of peace yet would not disintegrate from the blast of the gun and that would resist enemy hits in time of war:

"I have not yet determined any plan for finishing the interior crest line of the batteries. I have thought of two methods which I will describe the first is to make the portion of the breast height as in sketch. The upper portion “A” being made of sun-dried bricks laid in cement and lime mortar and covered with a thin coating of cement so as to prevent penetration of water. The planking, b, c, made in sections overlapping each other and hooked together and kept in place by pen at “C” would be removed in action. The mass is supposed to have sufficient solidarity to stand during the fire by its mortar joints and not give fragments if struck by a ball.

The other method is similar, only Earth takes the place of the sun-dried brick at “A.” in this case the corner at “B” an iron clasp will hold the plank to the wall. In action the planking will be removed and the earth used to fill sandbags thus."

On June 3, 1856, the chief engineer announced that the Secretary of War had approved all the recommendations of the Pacific board except for the lengthening of the barracks. Further, he approved De Russi's plan for adding ten, rather six, guns to the North Battery, along with a hot shot furnace. When completed, the batteries on Alcatraz would now mount a total of 75 guns.


Tower had reason to be rather satisfied with himself when he prepared his third annual report for the works of Alcatraz. (June 30, 1856).

a. South Battery: the caponier had been built to the coping, it's terreplein paved, its banquet furred, it's gun casemate finished, and the eight 24-pounder blank howitzers mounted. The magazine under the gun room had been floored, furred, ceiled, and finished ready for the powder. The area wall at the entrance to the magazine had been topped and coped. At the battery, five additional circular containing walls had been built, the platforms laid, and the guns mounted. A wing wall to the edge of the bank on the right face of this battery in the prolongation of the scarp of the left face to the Three-Gun Battery had been completed except for the coping. The coping for both the scarp wall and the nineteen 8-inch columbiads and eight 24-pounder howitzers were mounted in South Battery (22 pieces).

North Battery: the Terra plane of North Battery had been widened and the breast height wall built. It's the parapet had been filled and, 21 circular retaining walls constructed, their platforms laid, and the guns mounted. Excavations for the caponier had been finished, and the brick and concrete caponier built to the coping. It's gun casemate was finished except for the building of the drawbridge and mounting the seven howitzers. The framework of the magazine floor inferring was set up; and the lining, doors, and windows were ready as soon as the walls were dry. One set of stone steps down to the magazine entrance had been laid. A new roadway from about the guardhouse to the terreplein of the battery had been opened (on a higher elevation than the former ditch, or road, that had been used up until now). Even the necessary excavations for the scarp for the ten additional guns authorized in June had been completed and the scarp wall foundations laid.

West Battery: Excavation for the scarp of this 16 gun battery had commenced. The completion of about three fourths of the shoreline escarpment between the wharf and the South East end of the island had also been accomplished that year. Some minor repairs have been made to the wharf due to worm damage. With all things considered, it had been quite a good year. Forty-three permanently mounted pieces guarded San Francisco Bay, and the only permanent works yet completed.

Lieutenant Prime Takes Charge

Four Batteries and a Guardhouse

Congress appropriated another $200,000 Alcatraz Island for fiscal year 1857. Tower plan to complete the three extant batteries, by adding such details as the coping, and to construct the new works-West Battery in the right face of North Battery. But he was not destined to remain in charge of Alcatraz’s works. In January 1857, the post surgeon at the Presidio certified that Colonel De Russi had a serious disease of the lungs and should be transferred from the West Coast as soon as possible. De Russi sailed in March for Fort Delaware. Tower succeeded him as an engineer in charge of the fort at Fort Point and as senior engineer of the Pacific Coast. Now Lieutenant Frederick prime rose from the obscurity of Tower’s shadow to take charge of Alcatraz but prime did not assume his new office immediately; he was enjoying a three month leave of absence in Hawaii.

In the autumn of 1856, Tower had forwarded to the chief of engineers three sheets of detailed cross-sections and elevations of the South and North caponiers and North Battery. Although the South Caponier was constructed of stone and North Caponier of brick and concrete (on a stone foundation), the two are quite similar in plan. Among the minor differences were the thicker walls of the North Caponier, part of which stand today, again, there appeared excellent profiles of that part of North Battery’s scarp that still exists. The engineers never did state what kind of stone they used for coping; but the records do contain a request from Lieutenant Prime to visit "Mr. Andrews Quarry near Benicia for the purpose of ascertaining the possibility of his for fulfilling an agreement entered into with Major Tower to supply the coping for the North Battery scarp and caponniere.

In his first annual report on the operations of Alcatraz in September 1857, Prime wrote:

I. South Battery: the breast height wall, 18 inches high and 8 inches thick, was completed the parapet had been filled earth and sodded. The entire length of the scarp and the caponier had been topped off with coping. The superior crest of the caponier was paved with brick from the back of the coping to the interior crest. The drawbridge to the gun room in the caponier had been emplaced, and the iron traverse circles for the howitzers had been laid. The ordinance department had stored 1,000 barrels of powder in the magazine. The area in front of the foot scarp wall the South battery had been leveled to a width of 6 to 7 feet, and the forward (superior) slope in front of this level was left at a ratio of one to two.

II. Three-Gun Battery: much of the same work had been accomplished here as for South Battery also, the terreplein had been excavated from the rock to its full width. Prime recorded the work yet to be done for both batteries: placing the machinery for the caponier drawbridge; replacing the original wooden gun platforms with stone ones, for recent instructions from the chief engineer; constructing a small service magazine for the Three-Gun Battery; sowing grass seed on newly excavated areas; and building a concrete slope 2 feet wide and 6 inches deep at the foot of the scarp walls in order to throw rainwater away from the foundations.

III. North Battery: the scarp wall of the additional ten-gun section was finished and ready for its coping, and the breast height wall stood almost completed. The second pair of steps down to the caponier magazine had been emplaced, and the adjacent area wall had been completed. The wooden lining of the magazine was finished and covered with two coats of paint. The iron traverse circles in the gun room were in place, and the drawbridge was hung. In order to make the parapet steeper, as directed by the chief engineer, the scarp wall had been lowered from its original height by "14 inches or five courses of brick." The coping for the scarp had been delivered to the island, and Prime hoped to finish laying it soon. The terreplein's had been excavated to their full widths, and the rear banks trimmed. To complete North Battery and its ten-gun extension, Prime had to finish the coping, filled the parapet with Earth and sod it, and construct the parapet of the caponier. The original wooden platforms of North Battery had to be replaced with stone ones, and the platforms and traverse circles laid for the additional 10 guns. The shot furnace was yet to be built. Prime also wanted to build a small service magazine here for the additional guns.