Where the voices of Alcatraz come to life...

The First Fortifications, 1853-1863

D. James Birdseye McPherson and Alcatraz

1. McPherson and the Wind

McPherson quickly became acquainted with Alcatraz by living on the island and going over to San Francisco only on weekends. At the end of his first month he wrote to a friend in Wilmington, Delaware, describing his lonely assignment:

Alcatraces Island
San Francisco Harbor Cal.
February, 4th 1858

My dear "Major," Perched upon .a little rock Island the summit of which is One hundred and forty feet above the water and while watching the sun as he dips into the broad Pacific, or listening to the never ceasing roar of the breakers dashing against the rocks, I often think of my position one year ago, and instinctively draw a comparison between it and my present one--Candor compels me to state that in everything appertaining to the social amenities of life the "Pea Patch" [Fort Delaware] is preferable to "Alcatraz" and were it not, that being here in charge of this work is very gratifying to my professional pride I should regret the change deeply, as it is all my pride is scarcely sufficient at times to keep my spirits up--though I am determined to make the best of the matter, looking forward joyfully to the time when I can return to the Atlantic States.

I have made but few acquaintances as yet in San Francisco, though I go over every Saturday evening and remain until Monday morning, and frequently at other times during the week when I get tired of playing the hermit—

Fate or circumstances, or perhaps both combined have arranged it so that I am doomed to live on Islands, and though it may sound very poetical in the distance to speak of the "Gems of the Pacific" and all this manner of thing, I have not attained that sublime height of sentimentality, which places me above the practical unromantic incidents of everyday life, and consequently hear something besides music in the deep sea's roar, especially as I get a good wetting about every third time I go over to Town--San Francisco beats all the cities I have ever been in, in the way of Drinking Saloons, Billiard Tables, Cigar Stores and idle men "loafers" genteely dressed, and if you happen accidentally to make the acquaintance of one of them, before you are aware of it, you will be introduced to any number more--for they have the greatest way of introducing folks I have ever seen--

I often congratulate myself when I am in Town, that I have a place to flee to, where the air is pure and where I can avoid meeting people whom I do not care to know-- for the more of them you know the worse you are off. . . .

The old whale boat may have caused the wettings that McPherson had to endure, but more likely the sloop that Alcatraz had acquired sometime during the past four years was the culprit. In either case, McPherson acquired permission to purchase a new "boat" at a maximum cost of $300. This was a rather modest sum considering that Alcatraz's appropriation for fiscal year 1858 was another $200,000.

Before he left Alcatraz, Prime had constructed a hairpin road to the top of the southeast hill--the same road that reaches up to the prison building today--and had begun to stack bricks on the hill for the defensive barracks. Construction of the barracks, however, would be McPherson's responsibility entirely. One of the first things he did on taking charge was moving the office building from the future site of the barracks to the northwest peak. Later the excavated rock from the barracks site was used as fill in the saddle between the two hills.

McPherson ran head on into the federal patronage system almost before he got his bags unpacked. One of the first letters he received from Totten informed him that at the request of the Honorable Joseph McRibbon, Secretary of War John B. Floyd had directed the appointment at Alcatraz of Charles Murphy in the position of master mason or overseer. McPherson reluctantly complied:


James Birdseye McPherson


Secretary of War John B. Floyd


George Washington Custis Lee, the oldest son of Lt. Col. Robert E. Lee


H.M.S. Satellite


Crew on-deck of the H.M.S. Satellite

"I regret exceedingly that it should have been thought proper . . . to supersede the former overseer Wm H. Pratt, a man who has been employed on Government Fortifications for the last nine years... [a man of] straight-forward integrity and zeal. . . . He has been the Master Mason and Overseer on this Island since the commencement of the works." He gave Murphy a month's trial, then he reported, no doubt happily: "I became satisfied that he was not competent for the position . . . and accordingly discharged him at the end of the month." It was too late to get Pratt back, and one of McPherson's mechanics found himself the new acting master mason.

Alcatraz's columbiads got an opportunity to roar in April 1858. It was a custom for shore installations to exchange salutes with visiting foreign warships. When the British corvette Satellite arrived in San Francisco Harbor on the 19th, McPherson was chosen to do the honors. No army troops then occupied the island and the lieutenant did not say whom he used as gun crews:

"Last Saturday I had to awaken the echoes of the Island by returning the salute of the English corvette 'Satellite.' I fired twenty one guns from 8 inch Columbiads which require something like twelve pounds of powder for a load, so you can imagine what kind of report they mack [sic]."

McPherson discovered another kind of roar at Alcatraz that spring--the wind: "This beats all countries for wind I ever inhabited--At 10 O'clock A.M., every day the sea breeze commences and it is no gentle zephyr I can assure you--The dust flies in every direction. The bay is covered with white caps making it worse crossing, than the afternoon we went to Salem—I expect after four years residence here I shall become so much disgusted with the wind that I shall fairly hate the sight of anything that goes by the wind.

2. State of the Works, June 1858

McPherson’s first annual report for Alcatraz was as impressive as its predecessors.

a. South and Three-Gun Batteries

These batteries stood virtually completed. The earth in front of the scarp walls had been graded so that it partially masked the masonry. This provided some additional protection against a cannonade. On the right face of South Battery a wing wall had been constructed, jutting toward the water. The slopes in the vicinity of the wing wall were covered with concrete to make them even more inaccessible. (This wing wall, either as built in the 1850s or as 'possibly modified later, still stands.) The conversion from wooden to stone platforms for the 8-inch columbiads continued, the iron traverse rings having been laid. McPherson, too, thought the Three-Gun Battery needed a small service magazine. About all that still remained to do was installing the machinery for the caponier drawbridge and constructing a surface drain the whole extent of both batteries.

b. North Battery

While McPherson preferred calling the new right face Ten-Gun Battery, he nevertheless discussed the entire work as one entity. During the year, 486 running feet of coping had been set and backed with concrete. The breast-height walls had been finished, the parapets filled with earth and sodded, and the terreplein partly graded. The masonry parapet of the North Caponier was finished, the superior slope being paved with brick. The 8-inch columbiad platform on top of the caponier was completed, and its iron traverse circles put down. The area in front of the magazine door had been paved (with brick?), and a lattice door leading to the gun room was installed. A good start had been made in constructing the stone platforms in the new right face of the battery.

c. West Battery

This battery, too, was nearing completion. All the stone platforms, traverse circles, and banquettes had been completed, except putting down the iron traverses. The parapet had been filled and sodded. Both the shot furnace and the powder magazine were close to completion. Like Prime, McPherson thought a wall should connect West and South batteries. It could be built with recesses for eight additional guns, practically a battery in itself.

d. Guardhouse

The guardhouse was almost ready for occupation. The masonry was finished, the coping was set, the terreplein (roof) was paved with flagging, the gun rooms were paved with brick, floors were laid in the prison room, and the prison room windows were ready to put in. A flight of stone steps had been built from the roadway, back of the guardhouse, curving up to the road above that led to the defensive barracks. A small retaining wall had been built and coped in the rear of these stairs. The doors to the gun rooms had been hung, and the drawbridge and heavy doors closing the sally port were made. They would not be hung until McPherson had hauled the heavy construction material for the barracks through the sally port. Also to be installed were an iron ladder and a trap door leading down to the prison room and the iron traverse circles for the 24-pounders.

e. Defensive Barracks

The excavations for the barracks and the cistern had been completed. Building of all four main brick walls had commenced, and some of them were already over 12 feet high. The partition walls of the basement story had been carried up to the level of the main floor and the iron girders for this floor had been set. The brick arches for the basement level had been turned and "leveled up" with concrete. McPherson estimated that he would complete the barracks in seven more months at the most.

f. Defensive Walls

The defensive wall from North Battery to the guardhouse and the wall from there to the wharf were both completed and ready for coping. The latter wall, where the two fatalities had occurred, stood 21 feet high, and earth had been filled in behind to within feet from the top. This wall was over 400 feet long, stretching along the entire area where the casemated barracks now stand. Some escarping of the cliffs had been carried on during the year, mostly at spots on the southwest side of the island. Once again, minor repairs had to be made to the wharf. McPherson prepared the usual annual map of the island depicting the state of the works. It contained a number of excellent profiles of various parts of the island as well as an elevation of both walls and the guardhouse on the northeast side of the island. Despite the good progress, McPherson complained mildly that he could have accomplished more had San Francisco not been deserted by workmen who had rushed to the Frazer River in the British possessions to partake in the latest gold rush. Regardless, Alcatraz was beginning to look like a fortified place.

3. Armament Report, 1858

In July 1858 McPherson prepared a schedule showing the number of guns on hand and the number yet required for Alcatraz. A total of 94 positions had been constructed for which 70 guns were already on the island. Captain Tower transferred back East in the summer of 1858, leaving 2d Lt. George Washington Custis Lee, the oldest son of Lt. Col. Robert E. Lee, in charge of the Fort Point works until the arrival of Capt. Jeremy F. Gilmer at the end of the year. By this time the Board of Engineers for the Pacific Coast had lapsed into inactivity. McPherson and Lee each wrote directly to Totten, giving their recommendations and progress reports and individually receiving his advice and orders.

4. Alcatraz Described, 1859

Hutchings' California Magazine, that early publication that featured many of California's wonders, described the fortifications on Alcatraz in considerable detail in 1859. The article implies that McPherson gave a personal tour to the reporter:

This island is 140 feet in height above low tide, 450 feet in width, and 1650 feet in length, somewhat irregular in shape; and fortified on all sides. The large building on its summit is a defensive barrack or citadel, three stories high, and in time of peace will accommodate about 200 men, and in time of war at least three times that number [an exaggeration]. It is not only a shelter for the and will withstand a respectable cannonade, but from the top a murderous fire could be poured upon its assailants at all parts of the island… There is a belt of fortifications encircling the island, consisting of a series of Barbette batteries, mounting altogether about 94 guns, 24, 42, 68, and 132 pounders. The first building that you notice after landing at the wharf is a massive brick and stone guard house, shot and shell proof, well protected by a heavy gate and drawbridge, and has three embrasures for 24 pounder howitzers that command the approach from the wharf. The top of this, like the barracks, is flat, for the use and protection of riflemen. Other guardhouses of similar construction [the caponiers] are built at different points, between which there are long lines of parapets sufficiently high to preclude the possibility of an escalade, and back of which are circular platforms for mounting guns of the heaviest caliber, some of which weigh from 9,000 to 10,000 pounds.

Early in the morning, January 25, 1859, an accident occurred at Alcatraz that would recur periodically during the next century. A violent storm sprang up suddenly that drove the schooner Gertrude onto the rocks between the wharf and Three-Gun Battery. She was loaded with 500 barrels of cement for McPherson's works. The lieutenant turned out his work force, who managed to unload 270 barrels, of which one-quarter were wholly damaged. Once the cement was taken off, the schooner was so much lightened that she floated off the rocks. Although several large holes had been knocked in her bottom and part of the keel had been torn off, other vessels succeeded in towing her to the city.

During fiscal year 1859 McPherson directed the major part of the construction effort at the barracks. At the same time he worked on converting wooden platforms to permanent stone ones. One great problem he faced was the uneven quality of the iron traverse circles that the Ordnance Department supplied. Exasperated, he dashed off a brief note to the chief engineer on the subject: "The small circles instead of being perfectly true on the top and 1-3/4" in thickness, are quite uneven and vary from 1-3/4" to 1-5/16" in thickness, so that it is necessary to cut circular grooves of irregular depths [in the stone], or file down the irons, in order to make the difference of level between the upper surfaces of the outer and inner circles precisely 6 inches and allow the wheels of chassis to rest on the outer circle, while the middle transom rests on the inner." It is doubtful if McPherson received any outside relief for his problem.