Where the voices of Alcatraz come to life...

The First Fortifications, 1853-1863

West Battery: Work on this battery had proceeded rapidly. The scarp wall was finished and its coping laid. The breast height wall had been carried to its full height, and the terreplein had been excavated. One 42-pounder pintle stone was already in place. The magazine site had been excavated in the magazine constructed to the springing line of its arch. Even work on the shot furnace had commenced, although its progress was slow due to the high cost of tire brick. Prime did not state the kind of construction he had employed in building the scarp wall for this battery, but one of his successors describe it as having a sandstone facing, concrete backing, and a Chinese granite coping. It's height varied from 2 to 16 feet, according to the contours of the natural rock. Prime believed that a communication connecting West and South batteries should be built. He recommended that it be 6 feet wide and covered, protected from the waterside, by a breast height wall and parapet.

Guardhouse: the stone wall from North Battery to the guardhouse had been completed. It measured 394 feet in length, almost 22 feet in height on its waterside, and 4 feet in thickness. Two drains have been carried through it to carry water off the road behind. The site of the guardhouse and its ditch had been fully excavated, and the counterscarp (outside wall of the ditch or moat) had been built of stone from Alcatraz. The walls of the guardhouse had been billed up to the level of the sally port entrance. Prime, for once, was specific materials. He said the lower story the guardhouse was being constructed of blue sandstone in Chinese granite. The upper part was to be brick. The sills of the two gateways had been laid, in part of the entrance way (sally port) had been paved with granite. The brick walls of the gun room on the waterside already stood 9 feet above the roadway. In this room the two stone transverse circles in the brick pavement had been laid. Prime said that the embrasures for the howitzers were of the newest model, but that the room would be very much cramped with its two weapons. Finally excavation for the revetment wall on the inside of the road from the guardhouse to the wharf area had been commenced. Prime was concerned about the deterioration of the main wharf. While he did not give particulars, probably the teredo (worms) was doing its damage. He expressed hope for a permanent wharf on iron pilings.


Images of Pierre Gustave Toutant Beauregard



The great desire to have permanent works constructed on A1catraz had pushed the planning of the defensive barracks far into the background. Now in 1856-1857, since the pressure to have armament had eased somewhat, correspondence concerning the barracks increased. In 1856, the chief engineer disapproved Tower's earlier idea of increasing the length of the barracks. However, he approved the substitution of a wooden (southern pine) second floor in place of brick. Also, he agreed that bedrooms and squad rooms should have furring to reduce dampness. Planning called for iron beams to support the heavy roof, and to assist the San Francisco engineers, Totten sent a sketch showing a "section of a wrought iron beam proposed by Major [P. G. T.] Beauregard for the 2d floor of the Tower at Proctors Landing, Louisiana."

Ideas continued to flow from Totten’s fertile mind. He thought the building should have a cellar with a vertically walled dry moat around it. The kitchens, storerooms, and a few "dark" cells would occupy this basement. The chief engineer even drew a diagram of how the kitchen plumbing should be put in. The officers' portion of the building was to be arranged with flexibility in mind so as to accommodate either officers with families or bachelor officers, or both. Space should be set aside for company laundresses, those perennial appendages to a garrison. The barracks proper should be of sufficient size to accommodate one peacetime company. If war came, a second company could be squeezed in without undue hardship. Also, rooms for sergeants should be provided. Adjacent to the barracks, brick underground cisterns would hold an adequate amount of freshwater for a garrison under siege. Totten went on in great detail about how to lay the floors, ways to ensure adequate ventilation, and the respective values of cast and wrought iron.

Before Tower transferred to Fort Point, he sent Totten a revised plan for the defensive barracks showing the modifications suggested by both himself and the chief engineer. Tower still believed the officers should have separate quarters and they "should not be housed with their families within the thick walls and badly lighted rooms of a keep." In addition to the underground cisterns he recommended that up to four wooden cisterns lined with lead be placed on the roof. Tower included quarters for the laundresses on the plan but personally believed these "camp women" should be housed away from the barracks. While his drawing called for cast iron on all levels, placed 6 feet apart, he personally preferred wrought-iron I beams, which have to be procured in the East.

Totten relented a little concerning the size of the structure. He directed that its width be increased by 2 feet and its length by 30 feet. The increased length would provide for 12 additional rooms, all of which would be in the officers' portion of the building, there being four sets of such quarters. He insisted there be no door opening into the ditch: "The only outlets from the building should be over the two drawbridges on the level of the floor of the main story." All interior stairs should be. of iron, with two flights leading to the roof. To improve lighting, three skylights should be located over the main corridor on the second floor, and the doors opening on this corridor should have large transom lights over them. Finally, the concrete roof should be covered with "asphaltic mastic."

Lieutenant Prime compiled all of these directives and prepared three sheets of detailed plans and elevations in June 1857. The basement level contained four officers' kitchens, four officers' bedrooms, an officers' storeroom, the company kitchen, a bake room, four storerooms in the enlisted men's section, a light prison, a light cell, and a dark cell. Located on the main floor were four officers' dining rooms, four parlors, one servants' room, one company mess room, one reading room for enlisted men, one company office, two sergeants' rooms, one laundresses' kitchen, and two laundresses' bedrooms. The top floor was divided into eight officers' bedrooms, one servants' room, two enlisted men's dormitories, and two more sergeants' rooms. Built into the counterscarp on the outside of the ditch were eight small storage rooms for vegetables, coal, and the like, and a privy for enlisted men. An infantry parapet surrounded the roof for fighting off attackers. The windows on the basement and first-floor levels were little more than rifle slits (4 inches wide on the exteriors at the basement level, 12 inches wide on the main level). The outside walls were 3 feet thick and made of common brick, while interior walls measured from 4 inches to a foot in thickness. The overall dimensions of the structure were approximately 112 by 52 feet. On two opposite corners were bastion-like projections (the soldiers would call them "towers") that measured 19 by 20 feet. Prime estimated the costs of the structure as follows: Masonry $52,211; Plastering $2,970; Carpentry $11,954; Plumbing $2,173, Fireplace grates, ranges, & mantles $1,550, Company oven & cooking apparatus $800; Iron girders & ties $5,711; Painting woodwork $925; Excavation $3,250; Asphalt on roof 2,145; Wrought iron staircases $4,000; Total $87,689.

One additional letter from the Office of the Chief Engineer settled most of the details concerning construction of the barracks. It agreed with a suggestion by Prime that the building should be located on top of the southeast peak rather than on the slope of the hill: "Why it was not placed by the Board of Engineers on the summit of the Eastern hill, I never understood: and unless there are good reasons to the contrary the best place would seem to be the summit occupied by the 'office. And I would state as one reason for placing the barrack on the summit, that its command over the surface of the island would be extended, and for another that in connection with future buildings on the western summit and immediate ridge, perhaps within a common enclosure; it may form a sort of citadel from which the whole surface of the island and the terrepleins of the batteries would be controlled. "The chief engineer was concerned that the 12-inchwide windows on the main floor would be wide enough to give passage to a man who could throw a plank or a light ladder across the ditch to a window sill: "They may be improved however as follows--which will give more light, and save a great deal of brick cutting. The sash frame ought to be set up in the furring, and at a little distance from the inside of the wall, and it should be wider than the inside of the opening through the wall."

Inasmuch as Prime had been concerned that the fireplaces would not give off sufficient heat for windy Alcatraz, he was now authorized to build flues "into which the pipes of Franklin stoves may be inserted. These make very neat fire places which very seldom smoke." One more item, wrote the chief engineer: "There is no point about which military families more complaint than about water closets and such things. I would not, therefore, avoid the small additional expense of providing them in numbers as heretofore indicated." Finally, the counterscarp, or area wall, should be raised to 8 feet above the lower floor, and it should be paved on top with bricks making a walk 8 feet wide all around. The barracks was to be a solid, massive, defendable building that could withstand not only an infantry assault, but most of the naval armament of the day. When eventually completed it would dominate Alcatraz's skyline and be widely known as the Citadel. Prime had already begun procuring brick for its construction. It was time to go to work.

First Fatality

On July 9, 1857, a fatal accident occurred on Alcatraz, one of the very few to happen during all the years of construction. Three men, excavating the cliff between the wharf and the guardhouse, were caught in a massive landslide that removed about 7,000 cubic feet of crumbly rock. Prime had inspected the area only two hours earlier but had no indication of pending trouble. William from the site when he heard a rumbling noise. He turned in time to see the bank fall and a man running from it. The man, James Shea, escaped but was hurt badly in his right arm, hip, and leg. Prime ordered the fallen material removed promptly. Underneath, the workmen found two bodies: Daniel Pewter, 50, from Ireland, and Jacob Unger, 25, from Germany. Later, evidence was taken by a coroner and the verdict returned: "There can be no blame attached to any parties for the cause of death.

Defensive Wall

A second slide in the same area, without injuries, caused Totten to write Prime with instructions to change the design of this wall:

“I do not doubt the necessity of increasing the thickness of the walls facing the embankments, as proposed by you, beyond what it was designed to give them when the banks were assumed to be self-sustaining; but I cannot approve of building them entirely of brick instead of using a large proportion of concrete which is much cheaper and which will not be found wanting in tenacity provided the wall has the requisite stability against overturning. These walls should therefore be constructed of concrete faced on the exterior with bricks.”

Prime responded by describing that part of the wall which had already been built. He said that the stone foundation course of the wall had been laid and backed with concrete averaging a foot thick. The stone measured 12 inches in rise. The brickwork had already been laid for a length of ISO feet and at an average height of feet. The wall was 5 feet thick at the stone work and had a batter of one-half-inch to the foot. Hereafter, wrote Prime, concrete would be used in the wall as Totten had instructed. Despite the troubles attending its construction, a large portion of this massive wall still stands, connecting the guardhouse to the casemated barracks. Its stone foundation is now buried from sight by the asphalt-covered roadway that parallels it.

Illustrative of the tight control that the War Department maintained over its officers in the field are two documents that came Lieutenant Prime's way in 1857. One of these was an approval by the secretary of war •himself for $28 worth of purchases that Prime had made for his office: a calendar, a map of San Francisco, a city directory, a map of California, a letter rack, and a tin cashbox. Then, a few weeks later, Totten authorized to sell the following unserviceable items: 1 anvil, 26 files and rasps, shovels, 5 wheelbarrows, 1 horse, and 2 chairs. It was not this ubiquitous oversight of detail that caused Prime to request a transfer to the East Coast. He had been at San Francisco for the normal tour of four years and he felt a need for a change, even though he now had full responsibility for the works at Alcatraz. He pestered Totten through the summer and fall of 1857 with his requests and finally received the news that he would go to Mobile Bay, Alabama, to take charge of the works there, and a few days later 2d Lt. James Birdseye McPherson, at New York, received orders notifying him to leave for San Francisco to replace Prime at Alcatraz. McPherson arrived in due course, and on December 31, 1857, Prime turned over the charge of the fortifications on the island.