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Alcatraz's Defenses Revamped, 1869-1876

Experimental Platform for 15-Inch Guns

The new project for Alcatraz called for all the guns to be 15-Inch Rodmans. Mendell now faced the question as to the kind of platform that would be required. He wrote Humphreys saying that all the hints he had been able to pick up led him to believe that the platforms would be wooden. If this were so, Mendell wished to inform the department of the situation on the Pacific Coast: The Oregon fir or pine as it is usually designated has been used for platforms at the Columbia River, where it has answered the demands of the case very well. It is the best native wood for the purpose, with the possible exception of the California laurel, which however is much more expensive.

The durability of these platforms would probably be greatly increased by "carbonating" the timber, a process which consists of infusing into the pores of the wood hydro-carbon oils, and with the approval of the Chief of Engineers, I would at make the experiment. It is important to order this timber soon, as most of it will have to be sawed to order in the mills on Puget Sound. The Department replied that Mendell was authorized to provide wooden platforms, "in case of lack of funds for more permanent ones." Later, in January 1871, Mendell received specific permission to put down a wooden platform and to test it by firing a 15-Inch gun from it. In his annual report, he said that an experimental front-pintle wooden platform, designed by Colonel Alexander, had been built in Battery 2 (old Halleck). He had subjected this platform to a partial test on June 28, 1871, and he recommended that a severer test be applied to the platform.

The student who wished to know more about the experiment had to turn not to correspondence, but to the Daily Alta California. An unsigned article appearing on the day following the test firing gave a thorough description, so thorough that one might suspect it had been written by either Mendell or Alexander:

“In place of stone, as used heretofore, this one [platform] is constructed from Oregon pine, unpreserved. The cost of timber and entire construction was about $500, while one of stone would cost about $2,000. The wooden one is equally effective. . . .”

There are 7,000 feet of timber used in its construction. It is built on solid rock and riveted with two and a half inch bolts four feet in the rock. The bolts are filled in around with hot lead in order to insure solidity. The width of the platform on [behind?] the breast-high wall is thirty-four feet; from the breast-high wall to the outside it is twenty-two feet. In depth it is twenty-eight inches, and is filled in with concrete. . . . The firing was commenced about ten o'clock under the direction of [Brevet] General [James M.] Robertson, who has charge of the island. The supervision of the gun was under Lieutenant [Thomas T. ] Thornburg. . . . The shots discharged were solid, and 448 pounds each in weight. Mammoth power was used. The first shot was fired off with fifty-five pounds of powder, at point blank range, and in the direction of Point Blunt [Angel Island]. The shot struck the water about a mile and a half off, and made a number of ricochets. Upon examination, it was discovered that the gun had bounded back upon the counter hoisters with considerable force. The transom of the platform was slightly sprung near the pintle, also sprung a little rear [were] the hind wheels of the carriage.

Depressing Gun Carriages

The approved project for Alcatraz did not call for breast-height walls in the barbette batteries. This notable omission was caused by the fact that the Engineer Department was experimenting with a counterpoise, or depressing, gun carriage that was being developed by Capt. William Rice King. If this experiment was successful, the gun would recoil down behind the parapet upon firing, where it could be reloaded more safely, then returned "into battery" by means of the counterpoise. Until the experiment was completed, dimensions for a breast-height wall not be determined. Since the projected armament for Alcatraz was to be 15-Inch Rodmans, Mendell inquired in August 1870 if the new batteries were still to be built without breast heights. A reply to Mendell's inquiry has not been found, but in December he said that he proposed building a breast-height wall of brick and concrete. With or without permission, Mendell completed breast-height walls and the new parapets (without sodding) for the four guns in Battery 2 (Halleck) before he received orders to suspend any further work of this nature.

In the fall of 1870 the number of prisoners at Alcatraz climbed to an average of ISO. Mendell found his work force now ranging from 80 to 100 men. Not only had they finished the excavations at the northwest end of the island, but also they were fast completing the required work, and then some, at the southwest, for Batteries ll, 12 , and 13. In order to keep the prisoners occupied, Mendell now proposed to Humphreys that he commence excavating at Battery 5 (Mansfield) where the ground was to be cut down by 30 feet, removing perhaps 25,000 cubic yards of mostly rock. He worried a little about starting work at this battery, for it still had mounted one 100-pounder Parrott rifle and ten 10-inch Rodmans. Washington was not worried, however, and Mendell received authority to remove the guns and begin excavations in this area. Other projects that helped keep the prisoners occupied were the removal of the 13 wooden platforms in Battery 2 (Halleck) , which Mendell had erroneously reported taken up the previous spring, and the dismounting of the six 10-inch Rodmans and four 42-pounder smoothbores in Battery 1 (Halleck).

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Depressing Gun Carriages, Again

Mendell must have been somewhat surprised when he learned in October 1871 that the board of engineers in New York had recommended, and' the chief of engineers had approved, a new project for Alcatraz that called for the King depressing carriages in eight of the batteries. The New York board recognized that since Alcatraz was composed of rock the project would be most expensive. But "in so important a harbor as San Francisco and one so easy of access, where the great depth of the water, force of currents, and almost constant sea waves render auxiliary means of defense as floating obstructions and torpedoes [i. e., mines] unreliable aids to the shore batteries, that these batteries should be made as efficient as possible." Batteries 2 and 4 were exempted from change of plans, simply because work on them had already progressed so far; and if Battery 3 had already been remodeled significantly, Mendell was not to change it either. Also, Batteries 11, 12, and 13, at the southeast end of the island, were excluded because their fire was upon the interior waters of the bay. Because the depressing carriages needed more space, there would be four fewer guns mounted in the batteries. The existing plans called for parapets 7 feet above the terreplein. But for depressing guns the parapet would have to be 11 feet high. The New York board's plan attained this height in some batteries by raising the parapet 2 feet and excavating the terreplein an additional 2 feet; in other cases the terreplein was to be lowered 4 feet.

The Engineer Department, while approving the project, directed Mendell to proceed for the time being only on the batteries that had been excluded from the new project. The King depressing carriage was still pending its trial. In the end, this depressing carriage was not accepted by the army. The Ordnance Department, ordinarily for the development of weapons, was aroused to fury by the engineers' experiments in this field. Both chiefs would write angry letters to the secretary of war. Not until the end of the century was an acceptable carriage of this type adopted.

Reconstructing the Batteries

Batteries II, IV, and V

Mendell's annual report for fiscal year 1872 was a busy one. He stated that 11 guns and their platforms had been removed during the year--the six Parrott rifles in old Battery Stevens and the five 10-inch Rodmans in adjacent Battery Tower. This dismounting had allowed Mendell to proceed with the leveling of the steep incline in the Battery Stevens area, partly by excavating and partly by filling. He had also demolished the old brick traverses of Stevens. At Battery 2 (left flank of Halleck) the three brick and concrete magazines were completed, covered with imported earth to make traverses, and sodded. A 50-foot section of a low brick wall along the bottom of the reverse slope had been constructed(this wall was greatly heightened in post-fortification days) and the slope itself had been covered with earth and seeded. Mendell considered this battery completed except for three platforms (thee experimental platform and a 15-inch gun were already in place).The workmen had covered the magazine of the former North Caponier with concrete, set its coping, and begun covering itwith earth. Inside the magazine a brick wall had been constructed20 feet in from the scarp wall, and the space behind it had been filled with stone. While this made the magazine smaller, it gave the necessary protective thickness to the old, and now too thin, scarp. A start had been made on an arched passageway between this magazine to a shell room being built in the reverse slope. The breast-height walls and the parapet for the two guns of Battery 4 (the extension of old Battery Rosecrans) were completed and sodded. Considerable progress had been made on this battery's magazine; and the slope to the rear was covered with earth and sown with grass. This battery still lacked its two gun platforms.

At Battery 5, Mendell had the excavation done for the depressing carriages--the first battery to receive this new treatment. He complained slightly that it would have been an easier job if he had known about it when he had first started work on the battery. He also had made progress in reducing the former northwest peak at the rear of the battery and had made a cut through it for easier communication with the eastern side of the island. (Later his cut was covered with earth to make a tunnel-like passageway that came out at the northwest end of the row of noncommissioned officers I quarters. In the modern prison era, this passage was blocked off, and the eastern end was outfitted as a morgue.) At the northwest end o Battery 5, Mendell had built two granite center-pintle platforms the breast heights, and the parapets. These were the only platforms constructed during the year, and their irons not yet in place. The service magazine at their rear was finished, ready for the earthen cover. The road to the rear of the bombproof barracks had been reconstructed this year, making communication with the southeast end of the island once again feasible. One other interesting note that Mendell tacked onto the end of his report was the remark that the sods for the new parapets had been cut in the vicinity of Fort Point. He also had acquired sod from Lime Point, now a military reservation. In addition to the sod, he had planted clover seed, having purchased 25 pounds in March 1872. He concluded this annual report with the statement that the number of guns mounted as of June 30, 1872, had been reduced to 52.

Alcatraz's Tunnel

Alcatraz's appropriation for fortifications in fiscal year 1873 took a slight drop, to the sum of $42,500. Mendell continued to remodel the batteries throughout the year. He constructed four more earthen traverses, each having a magazine and a shell room leading off from the passageway underneath. These passageways were considered also to be bombproofs to provide shelter for the artillerists. He had the parapets built for four guns in Battery 5 and for two guns in Battery 6. The rock bank in the rear of Battery 5 was covered with earth and, at last, this battery had a true parados to protect it from reverse fire. At that time, the cut through the bank was covered, making a short tunnel through the top of the island. Also that year, Alcatraz acquired its only real man-sized tunnel through living rock, when Mendell had a 180-foot-Iong bore cut through the island from the covered way near the North caponier to Battery 4. Since then, to the present time, persistent legends have grown and thrived that Alcatraz is laced with tunnels, secret and otherwise, dating back to the days of the Spanish Empire. Another new road appeared the same year that led from the rear of the noncommissioned officers' quarters to the Citadel.

(See downloadable version to view charts and source notes)

Work on Platforms Suspended

During the year Mendell acquired and cut to shape sufficient timber for five additional gun platforms (for which he also had the irons), but just as he prepared to lay them a letter arrived from the department suspending the construction of any 15-inch platforms. The remaining old armament on the island decreased in number when Mendell dismounted the three 8-inch columbiads remaining in the left face of old Battery McClellan.

Permanent Barracks Proposed

The Board of Engineers for the Pacific Coast prepared a report and plans for the erection of a four-company brick two-story barracks on top of the unfinished casemated barracks at the wharf in the summer of 1872. This ample structure, estimated to cost $140,000, would contain dormitories, mess halls, a post library, a schoolroom, laundresses I quarters, and quartermaster and commissary storerooms. The board had two reasons for recommending such a structure at this time--the present temporary barracks behind old Battery McClellan lay directly on the site of new Battery10; and these being frame buildings they could easily catch fire and, if so, be destroyed because of the lack of water on the island, or they could easily be destroyed by enemy fire.

The Board of Engineers for Fortifications in New York refused to give the chief of engineers a positive recommendation for the barracks. At first it quibbled about minor points, such as inadequate air and floor space and the fact that wooden barracks were cheaper, drier, and more comfortable. The Pacific board rebutted "that Alcatraz Island will always be garrisoned, and be an important post, " and should have permanent quarters. Finally, the New York board showed its trump card against the project--the original concept of a two-tiered casemated barracks with gun embrasures should be retained. If an enemy fleet were to get into the harbor in a dense fog, the guns of this structure could cover the whole sector from Angel Island past Yerba Buena Island and the flank guns from Yerba Buena to San Francisco. In February 1873 the department informed the Pacific board that the proposed would not be built: "The present unfinished casemates will be reserved for completion, and the Pacific board will at once proceed to project the necessary peace quarters located in some [other] position or positions.

The Project Progresses, 1874-1875

Alcatraz's appropriation for fiscal year 1874 bounced back up to $50,000. Mendell used the money carefully, continuing to modify the fortifications. This year the old South Caponier was remodeled into an earthen-covered magazine similar to the North Caponier. It "was cut down to the level of the floor of the gun room, and a traverse wall, four feet thick was built, which lessened the length of the magazine fifteen feet. The space between [the traverse and the scarp wall] ... was compactly filled with earth and stone." Mendell continued, "Concrete was laid on the floor of the gun room to convert it into a roof surface. The stone coping was reset. Where it is exposed to view, the magazine was covered with earth . . . and its exterior slope was made and sodded." Hesaid that the old stone steps that led from the terreplein down tothe magazine were taken up, the passageway from Battery 10 to Battery 11 was excavated in the same area, a portion of the steps was re-laid, and the necessary side walls along the passageway were built. Other work on the fortifications included:

Battery 1 (right face, Halleck): An 80-foot parapet, and covering the reverse slope with earth and sodding it
Battery 7: Filling in the incline of part of old Battery Stevens, and covering and sodding the magazine between Batteries 6 and 7,
Battery 10 (right face, MCClellan): A 40-foot section of its parapet
Battery 11 (left face, McClellan): Breast-height walls, an 8-foot high sodded parapet, and the two front-pintle platforms (without irons)
Battery 12 (Prime): Masonry work on the two magazines that flanked this battery

Total Armament--Three 15-Inch Guns

In addition, Mendell dismounted all the remaining old armament and took up all the old platforms on the island except the two 15-inch guns in Battery 3. Alcatraz's total mounted armament now came to three guns, these two and the experimental 15-inch gun in Battery 2. The major, never one to waste a dollar, used the old platform stones to build a bulkhead at the rear of the wharf, replacing the old wooden one.

A Name for Alcatraz's Works

By 1874, the War Department had formalized the procedures for naming works of fortifications--the names were now promulgated by the department itself and announced in general orders. The chief of engineers solicited his field people for appropriate names for any works in their jurisdiction that had not been so designated. This request placed Mendell in a quandary. He replied that while Alcatraz's batteries had once been named for engineer officers, he had received authority from the chief to designate them by numbers: "This nomenclature is convenient, and being already authorized . . . I have no suggestion to make in the way of change." He preferred to retain the numbers, but being a good soldier, he offered a list of names of persons associated with the history of the Pacific Coast. Mendell was allowed to retain his system, but his list of suggestions is of passing interest: Maj. Gen. Edward D. Baker, senator from Oregon, killed at Balls Bluff, Va.; Brig. Gen. George Wright, commanding, Department of the Pacific; drowned off Pacific Coast; 1st Lt. William H. Warner, topographical engineer, killed by Indians in California; Brig. Gen. E. R. S. Canby, commanding, Department of the Columbia, killed in Modoc War; 2d Lt. Thomas C. Hammond, dragoon, killed at San Pasqual , Calif.; Maj. Gen. James B. McPherson, Alcatraz engineer, killed near Atlanta, Ga.; Brig. Gen. David A. Russell, killed at Opequan, Va.; Col. Bennet Riley, Mexican War Commodore Robert F. Stockton, commanding, Pacific Squadron, Mexican War; Adm. David G. Farragut, Civil War; Brig. Gen. Stephen Watts Kearny, Mexican War; Adm. Samuel F. DuPont, Civil War.

General Humphreys selected McPherson's name from this list and forwarded it to Secretary of War Belknap with the recommendation that it be applied to all the works on Alcatraz, that is, "Fort McPherson." As noted earlier in this report, however, Alcatraz Island never received a formal name.

Appropriations Reduced, 1874

By the mid-1870s, Congress was displaying a growing reluctance to continue appropriating large sums of money for coastal fortifications. This became noticeable in San Francisco in fiscal year 1875. The entire allotment for the Bay Area came to only$80,000, of which $20,000 was to be applied to the works at Alcatraz. Mendell hoped to stretch out this sum as much as possible by the continuing use of prison labor, and he proposed to confine his efforts this year to the southeast end of the island. By June 1875, he had completed remodeling the old South Caponier and had built the shell room associated with it, calling the whole thing "Traverse Q" (he had lettered all the proposed traverses and numbered all the gun positions consecutively, starting with "A" and "I" at Battery I). Three other traverses were also completed down to their sodding.

Leveling Southeast End of the Island

The greatest change in the appearance of Alcatraz was accomplished by the picks and shovels of the military prisoners. The greater portion of the southeast end of the island was being cut down to an elevation of 62 feet--about the same elevation as the new batteries in that vicinity. Although the details are lacking, Mendell arranged for some kind of iron railroad track, complete with dump car and a turntable, for moving the excavated rock down to the wharf. Mendell's concept was to have this large plateau set aside as the site for permanent quarters and a parade ground. This area, which still exists, would see intensive use in future years, but in ways that Mendell did not envision.

Barracks on Casemates

It will be recalled that in 1872 the Pacific board had proposed, to no avail, a permanent barracks on top of the unfinished casemates. The matter of a barracks again became an issue when fire destroyed the frame quarters on the southeast end of the island in April 1874. The garrison went under canvas for the summer, but by autumn steps had to be taken for better shelter. Mendell agreed with the post commander that the top of the unfinished casemates was the best site on the island. He reminded him that army regulations required the approval of the secretary of war before occupying a fortification site or modifying an existing one. Concerned that approval had not been acquired, Mendell wrote the chief of engineers about the matter, saying that "the temporary barrack is well under way. II Whether or not the secretary of war gave his permission has not been determined. But before long a particularly ugly frame barracks stood on the casemates.

Rodmans Mounted, Construction Appropriations Cease, 1876

For fiscal year 1876, the Congress appropriated another $25,000 for Alcatraz. Mendell did what he could with this small sum, principally the construction of two new magazines in Battery 10 (old right face, McClellan). In excavating the site for one of these magazines, the workmen accidently broke the covered drain from the defensive barracks. Mendell had it repaired and at the same time had a new drain built for Battery 12 (Prime). In October 1875, two 15-inch guns were mounted on their permanent platforms at the northwest end of Battery 5, near the former site of the first 15-inch Rodman mounted on the Pacific Coast. The entire armament now consisted of five Rodmans, one in Battery 2, two in Battery 3, and two in Battery 5. Prisoners continued to excavate the southeast end of the island, lowering the rocky banks to the same elevation as the adjacent battery terrepleins. Looking toward the future, Mendell could see the probability of cutting off the entire top of the island some 15 or 20 feet and removing the Citadel so that the resulting plateau could provide space for additional guns and mortars. This would prove to be but a daydream, for Congress would fail to pass any appropriations for constructing fortifications on Alcatraz, or anywhere else, for fiscal year 1877, and for many years thereafter.