Where the voices of Alcatraz come to life...


Prisoner Maintenance

Mendell's annual reports over the years following 1876 had the routine maintenance of the existing fortifications; printing metal work, scraping moss off brick walls, whitewashing engineer buildings, resodding parapets, periodic excavation by prisoners at the southeast end of the island, and so forth. From a separate appropriation, "Preservation and Repair of Fortification," Mendell acquired a small amount of funds sufficient for hiring a civilian overseer, and for occasional supplies such as paint. In 1877-1878, windstorms had carried away the extension to the wharf that had been constructed in 1867 and Mendell did not propose its replacement. With departmental Mendell sold the engineer steamer Kathy, and his scow at public auction in April 1881, receiving almost $5,000 for the two of them--considerably more than he had anticipated. By 1884 even the engineer crane on the wharf had been taken down.

Centennial of American Revolution

The citizens of San Francisco celebrated the Centennial of the American Revolution on July 4, 1876, with parades, speeches, a battle at the Presidio, naval vessels bombarding a target, and four' of AIcatraz's guns firing at Lime Point. The Alta California described the exercise at the island, and the reporter was apparently somewhat embarrassed by the results of the firing. The four 15-Inch Rodmans in Batteries 3 and 5 fired successively. The first rounds fell far off of the target; but succeeding shots managed to hit the cliff at Lime Point. When a Rodman at Battery 5 was fired, fragments of the wooden sabot tied to the shell and unburned grains of powder flew among the men in the lower guns in Battery 3, "who, nevertheless, went on with their work with the utmost nonchalance. In this connection, it may be remarked that a heavy piece of wood from one of the sabots struck the platform of the left piece, grazing the blouse of one of the men . . . while another passed so near the head of a noncommissioned officer that the wind from it caused a momentary unpleasant effect." Apologizing for the artillerists, the reporter wrote: "It is but fair to state that the guns used were none of them provided with the proper sighting, three being aimed by means of a chalk string. The batteries at Alcatraz are being remodeled and the few guns are smooth bores, which, accurate enough for short ranges, fail in •the longer ones."No one had told him that the remodeling on Alcatraz had come to a halt. While visitors had been provided with seats on the roof of the Citadel, most observers, said the reporter, preferred to wander about the parapets nearer the guns. Perhaps the most interesting event of the day occurred when military prisoners broke into the commanding officer's reception room "and made away with a quantity of distilled etc., which had been set out for the visitors. Several drunkards were caught and confined.


The Alcatraz Citadel in 1893


Maj. Gen. Nelson Miles

Mendell's Activities

Mendell may not have had any construction underway at either Alcatraz or Lime Point, but he was hardly idle. Operating out of a four-room suite of offices at 533 Kearny Street in San Francisco (southwest corner of Kearny and Sacramento), he supervised a multitude of harbor and river improvement projects. His personal monthly report for August 1884 illustrated the expanse of the activities of which he was in charge:

Defenses of Alcatraz Island and Lime Point; Improvement of Oakland Harbor; Improvement of Wilmington Harbor, Calif.; Improvement of Humbolt Harbor and Bay, Calif.; Improvement of Redwood Harbor, Calif.; Improvement of Petaluma Creek, Calif.; Improvement of Colorado River, Nev., Calif., and Arizona Terr.; Survey of Islais Creek, San Mateo River, and Napa River, Calif.; Removal of wreck Escambia, entrance, San Francisco Harbor; Investigation of causes tending to decrease depth of water, San Francisco Harbor; Member, Board of Engineers of Pacific Coast.

Citadel Remodeled

In contrast to Mendell, the post quartermaster on Alcatraz had construction funds in 1881. He proposed remodeling -the old Citadel to convert it into 6 three-story' sets of officers' quarters. The paperwork eventually reached the Office of the Chief of Engineers where no objection was made to the idea. From then on the Citadel was considered to be a post structure, no longer a part of the fortifications of Alcatraz. Doors were cut into the main floor; the loopholes in the basement level were enlarged and made into windows; dumb waiters were installed in the basement kitchens; and the three cells were blocked off with a partition. Very soon, formal flower gardens would be laid out on top of the water cisterns on the southeast side of the building. But from the city, the proud old building still dominated the skyline.

Engineer Buildings

In January 1887, Mendell prepared a long inspection report of the engineer structures and works:

“The Engineer Buildings are two small storehouses, an office, a carpenter shop, a blacksmith shop, a stable and two frame buildings being quarters and kitchens for employees. Five of these buildings, all of which are classed as temporary, date from the earliest period of Engineer occupation and have now reached the limit of usefulness, and are not worth the expense of any considerable repair. . . There are 14 magazines in traverses, all of which are now dry. The parapets and slopes are in fair condition. Their appearance would strike unfavorably an eye accustomed to the well preserved lines and slopes of batteries on the Eastern coast. The absence of sod, and the peculiarity of the climate in being nearly rainless for half of the year or more, make it impossible . . . to maintain lines and surfaces in their exact form. . .

Two Warehouses--they were near the wharf, and were 40 feet and 25 by 18 feet. One building was frame, very old, and the boarding of little value; the other building was 12 years old, in good condition, with a good roof. Both buildings were used to store the engineer material.

Blacksmith building was near Battery 1 and was 25 by feet, was a frame building and had two forges. The condition was worthless. It was then used as an engineer shop. Carpenter Shop. This shop was on the back wall of the unfinished casemates; was 36 by 18 feet, had two benches, was made from old lumber, and was in fair condition. It is now being used as a carpenter shop and a storehouse.

Stable--This building was 19 by 30 feet, had seven stalls and was near the southeast end of the island. The condition of the stable was worthless, but it was still being used as an engineer stable. Laborers' Quarters--This building was near the southeast end of the island, was 81 by 31 feet with a dining room and kitchen below and accommodations on main floor for 100 men. The condition was worthless, and then vacant. Engineer Office--This office, moved back to the vicinity of the lighthouse was 23 by 35 feet, with three rooms on the first floor and four rooms above. The condition was very old but was in fair order. It was used as fort keeper's residence and engineer office.

Fourteen Magazines--Five of these were used to store powder, two were used for ordnance materials, five were used as engineer storerooms, and two were vacant because of leaks.”

Mendell struck two of these buildings off of his list when fire destroyed the stables and the laborers' quarters in the early morning of March 25, 1888. The nearby laundress' quarters (which belonged to the garrison) were also destroyed. No attempt was made to replace the two engineer buildings, simply because Mendell had no laborers and no animals on the island. By then he had lost his fort keeper because Congress had not passed an appropriation for even preservation of the works. Not until the late fall of 1888, did a trickle of money allow Mendell to rehire the fort keeper for Alcatraz.

Submarine Mines

Mine Storage on Alcatraz

A few more dollars came into Mendell's accounts in the mid-1880s when the Ordnance Department announced that it was ready to ship submarine mines (then called torpedoes) to San Francisco for the defense of the harbor. The army had been experimenting with mines at Willets Point, New York, and now felt ready to distribute them to principal harbors. The Board of Engineers for the Pacific Coast met to consider where mines might be stored at San Francisco, and decided that the only feasible place to store them was in Mendell's unfinished casemated barracks at Alcatraz. In May of 1883 Mendell learned that the mines would be invoiced to him and that he would receive $800 to prepare the casemates for their arrival. The commanding officer at Alcatraz objected to the storing of the mines in the casemates, apparently on the grounds that they would endanger the lives of the troops living in the temporary barracks on top of the works. Once he was assured that the mines would not actually contain their explosives, he withdrew his objections.

Mendell improved the casemates, primarily by extending the temporary barracks so that it would completely cover those casemates being used for storage to prevent rainwater from gathering on the casemates and percolate through them. By June 30, 1884, Mendell was able to report that he had received 451 mines, had had them painted, and had stored them on scaffolding. Thus Alcatraz became the first home for San Francisco Harbor's mines, a project that would last down through World War II. Before much time passed, however, Mendell became unhappy with the storage facility. He complained repeatedly that it was damp, dark, and practically unventilated. He soon discovered that the mines were rusting to the extent that prisoners had to be employed to remove the old paint and apply new. By September 1885 he had prepared plans for a permanent brick torpedo shed to be erected on Yerba Buena Island. Approval for the new mine storehouse did not reach San Francisco until 1889. Meanwhile, Mendell's one civilian and the assigned prisoners scraped and painted in an unending effort to keep ahead of the rust. A typical monthly report of this period read: "During the month 128 Torpedoes were cleaned and scraped, and 153 torpedoes were painted with one coat of red lead and one coat of white lead." In September 1889 Mendell learned that Willets Point was preparing to ship him an additional 120 mines. Hurriedly he wrote requesting that the shipment be postponed until he could build the yet un-started storage building on Yerba Buena Island. The Ordnance Department agreed. The new structure was completed in November 1890 and Mendell completed the transfer of the (by now) 461 mines to Yerba Buena by June 1891. But Alcatraz's association with mine defenses was not yet at an end.

Mine Casemate

Controlled electrical submarine mines were operated from coastal bombproof casemates called either mining casemates or torpedo operating rooms. The functions of the operators in these shelters, were to respond to messages from observers and to manage the panels from which electrical cables ran' underwater to the mines. If an enemy ship passed over, or near to, a mine or minefield, the operator sent an electrical impulse to the mine(s) causing it to explode. The Board of Engineers for Fortifications (New York) developed a project for the mine defense of San Francisco Harbor in 1885. Mendell was informed that the plan called for mines in two areas: one in front of Alcatraz having no fewer than 735 mines, and the other in the rear of the island with 315 mines. In 1889, the Congress made an appropriation of $250,000 under the title of "Torpedoes for Harbor Defense." Of this sum, $60,000 was allotted to San Francisco Harbor for two mine casemates; one each at Point San and at Island. Mendell took charge of the San Francisco project and for Alcatraz selected the magazine in the unfinished casemate to be the operating room. He described this brick magazine as measuring 28 by 15 feet in dimension, with exterior walls 10 feet thick, and interior walls 6 feet thick. The major modifications required were flooring, increased cover (roof) on the arch, and a shaft and cable gallery measuring by 3 feet, for leading the cable from the magazine to the water's edge. Mendell estimated the cost of these expenses at $1,000.

In his annual report for fiscal year 1891 Mendell said that the modifications had been completed. He described the construction of the cable gallery: "The dimensions chosen for the tunnel were 4' x 5', but these figures were exceeded at places. Work was begun on September 3, [1890], and in November the project was completed with the exception of some additional concrete protection overhead where a tailor shop stands at present. It was not thought necessary to line the tunnel as there is an apparently good roof of natural rock. Upon further consideration however, it was thought advisable to line the tunnel with brick arch [which has not yet been done]. Further correspondence concerning this mine casemate has not been found. It is quite probable that it was abandoned shortly after Mendell wrote the above report. When the Spanish-American War broke out seven years later, San Francisco Harbor was mined for the first time in its history. But the two casemates used to control the mines were the original one at Point Jose and another at Point Cavallo, adjacent to Lime Point, with the mine field running between them.

Armament Changes 1876-1894

Alcatraz's armament during the last quarter of the 19th century, although small in quantity, continued to play a significant role in San Francisco's harbor defenses. It will be recalled that in 1876, at the time of the Centennial, five 15-inch Rodman smoothbores were mounted at the northwest end of the island. Three years later, when the top carriage of one of these guns in Battery 5 broke, it was replaced with the carriage of the Rodman standing on the old experimental wooden platform in Battery 2. This event reduced the armament to four center-pintle 15-inch guns mounted (two each in Batteries 3 and 5) and five dismounted. Also in storage were three 200-pounder Parrott rifles left over from Civil War days. In Battery 11, at the southeast end of the island, two front-pintle stone platforms stood without weapons.

In 1881 the garrison on Alcatraz Island received two siege rifles and four 42-pounder howitzers. However, Mendell considered these to be outside his engineering responsibilities, and no further history of these weapons has been found except that the two rifles were mounted somewhere on the island in February 1882. Toward the end of 1885 the engineer supervised the mounting of a fifth 15-inch Rodman in Battery II for drill purposes. Because the carriage was too low, the gun could not be made serviceable and was soon dismantled.

When Maj. Gen. Nelson Miles commanded the Military Division of the Pacific, 1888-1890, he asked the Engineer Department to mount 8-inch converted rifles on Alcatraz and at Point San Jose for target practice. Until then the troops of both posts had had to travel to Fort Winfield Scott in order to drill with these weapons. Two of these rifles were mounted at the southeast end of the island on the undeveloped site of Battery 13 in early 1892. They stood on wooden platforms and no earthworks protected them. As of April that year, Alcatraz's armament amounted to: four 15-Inch Rodmans, center-pintle, mounted two 8-inch converted rifles, mounted five 15-inch Rodmans, unmounted three 200-pounder Parrott rifles, unmounted.

In 1893, the engineer received three new reinforced carriages, front-pintle, for 15-inch guns, and by June 1894 these had been placed; one in Battery 4, and two in Battery 11 and the Rodmans mounted thereon. This brought the total number of guns mounted to nine, a number that was not to be exceeded.

Alcatraz Disarmed

Spanish-American War

The war with Spain brought a flurry of activity to strengthen San Francisco's defenses in 1898. But Alcatraz did not share in the slight increase in armament, except for the construction of two platforms for 8-inch converted rifles, on which the guns were never mounted. By the end of the century it was quite clear that the era of smoothbores was definitely over. Already powerful rifles of a new breed were appearing on the California coastline, and plans for these guns for Alcatraz were already on the drawing boards. In 1900 the Ordnance Department dismounted one of the 15-inch guns in Battery 5 and sold its carriage. At the same time the three obsolete 200-pounder Parrotts and their carriages were disposed of by sale. Finally, on December 31, 1901, the annual armament report for Alcatraz announced that no coastal guns whatsoever stood mounted on the Rock.

The Fate of the 15-Inch Rodmans

A postscript to the history of Alcatraz's 15-inch Rodmans appeared in Popular Mechanics magazine in 1920. The 1892 plan of the unfinished casemate had a note on it that a 15-inch Rodman had been placed in casemate 8. This was an error on somebody's part. The gun positions at the northwest end of the island were renumbered at that time and a 15-inch gun was placed in position 8, in Battery 4. The writer of an article described the way that the army allegedly disposed of the immense guns (which were too heavy to move economically) by placing them in the island's only real tunnel, packing them with dynamite, and shoving the handle of a blasting machine down:

The explosion that followed was terrific. Alcatraz Island and all of San Francisco trembled. Every window in the power house and other near-by buildings was shattered. When the engineers went into the tunnel, after the smoke and dust had cleared away, all that was to be found were scraps of the gun, splinters of the plank that had lined the tunnel, and tons of loose rock that had formerly been the tunnel wall. When the debris was all cleaned out, the biggest piece of the gun that could be found weighed 840 pounds.