Where the voices of Alcatraz come to life...

Garrison Life on the Rock, 1859-1934

The earthquake occurred on the morning of April 18th, 1906. Every man in the barracks made a rush for the one entrance. This live weight was over double that contemplated when the building was constructed, and in addition to this live weight we had a dead weight of four billiard tables on the upper two floors. But the building survived the earthquake; the only damage that occurred was the collapse of the 6-inch sewer that ran under the floor of the casemates.

A month later the old wooden floors in the casemates were taken up, the polluted soil beneath was removed (it had become that way due to the constant scrubbing of the floors and the water leaking through), and new concrete floors were installed in the four kitchens and four mess halls. Construction of the last sets of these four company quarters was still underway at the end of 1907, when the quartermaster got permission to move the orderly rooms, first sergeants' rooms, reading rooms, and storerooms from the first floor to the third floor in order to improve lighting, since the rear retaining wall and casemated rooms cut off the light from the first floor. Then, in early 1908, the decision was made to demolish the Citadel, and the southeastern end of the barracks (designed for the fourth company) was converted into officers' quarters to replace the six sets that were in the Citadel. The bowling alley which had originally been proposed for that area, was eventually built in a new post exchange.

In addition to the barracks, prison, and enlarged hospital, a number of small improvements occurred after 1900. A new iron fence was placed around the Citadel ditch, because the old one had rusted beyond repair and created a safety hazard for the children. In 1903 new water tanks that tripled storage capacity were placed on top of the Citadel. A new smokestack was erected for the saltwater engine house on the wharf. Part of the wharf already stood on iron piles, and the quartermaster recommended that the remainder also be converted, but this would have cost an estimated $22,000, and the War Department cut back the funds to $4,000. The quartermaster did not specify exactly how he employed this sum. An attempt was made in 1904 to improve the appearance of the grounds about the barracks and officers I quarters when 50 pounds of clover and bluegrass seed were planted.


Alcatraz Island, c1903.


The aftermath of the catastrophic 1906 San Francisco Earthquake.


The bakery on top of the island burned in 1903. When the fire broke out the command was engaged in field day exercises on the east side of the island. Rival claims were made for spotting and reporting the fire. The commanding officer gave credit to these sentinels on top of the Citadel; while the post surgeon claimed that a prisoner on duty in the hospital, Robert W. Jones, gave the alarm and connected the hose to a fire plug. The doctor thought that Jones deserved some consideration for his efforts. Within a year, a bakery stood at the northwest end of the island, on the site of the old blacksmith shop. It was a frame building, 28 by60 feet I standing on a brick foundation. It had four rooms: a baking room, a storeroom, an issue room, and quarters for the baker. The baking room contained the usual furniture: an oven, dough troughs, working tables, and sinks. Cost of the construction amounted to $2,432.


Not all of the activity concerned new construction. Between 1902 and 1911 a considerable number of worn-out frame buildings were demolished. The first to go was the old blacksmith shop at the northwest end of the island. It had been built by the Engineer Department in the 1850s when work began on the fortifications in that area. Another ancient engineer carpenter shop and storehouse (on the road behind the new barracks) was demolished in 1905. The space it had occupied then became the parade ground; the former parade ground was now occupied by the second prison. Next to go were the post carpenter shop and the latrine facilities of the first prison. In 1911 the first prison mess hall (along narrow building located outside the defensive wall on the east side of the island, and lately serving as a laundry) was taken down. At the same time the old adjutant's office on top of the island disappeared. Perhaps the most dramatic example of demolition was that of the Citadel, building I, which Secretary of War Elihu Root authorized in 1908, when the decision had finally been made that Alcatraz would be the site of a permanent military prison.

Now that the old prison mess hall had been removed, there was space available for a new post• exchange to replace the exchange temporarily located in the new barracks. Two years earlier in 1909, Alcatraz had received an appropriation of $7,500 for a new PX, but at that time the commanding officer had declined the money simply because there was no room for another building on the island. The new exchange was a reinforced concrete building that rested on the old defensive wall and on concrete pillars. Later, bowling alleys and a gymnasium were built under the structure.

The 1906 earthquake caused very little damage on Alcatraz. A number of chimneys suffered cracks, and a few piers that supported several buildings had to be repaired. An estimate of the total damages came to slightly over $1,000. Lieutenant McElroy was particularly pleased that the new barracks had survived the shock so successfully. A major improvement on Alcatraz, an electric power plant, was constructed on the site of old Battery Halleck (and Mendell's Battery 2) in 1910-12. Hired civilians and military prisoners completed the smokestack in November 1910. Its construction consumed 81 barrels of portland cement, 4,000 firebricks, 1,000 fire clays, an unspecified amount of reinforcing bars and $957. The entire complex (consisting of the power plant, a laundry, and four shops) was finished in January 1912 at a cost of $34,810. The structure was made of reinforced concrete and contained a main unit, 48 by 65 feet, and a wing, 51 by 101 feet. The first floor consisted of a boiler room, 45 by 40 feet; an engine and dynamo room, 20 by 45 feet; a pump room, 15 by 30 feet; a plumbing and machine shop, by 50 feet; a blacksmith shop, 16 by 50 feet; a carpenter shop, by 50 feet. Also, the adjacent North Caponier, later converted to a magazine by Mendell, now functioned as a fuel room. The second floor of the wing, measuring 50 by 100 feet, became the new laundry for the prison. This complex wreaked havoc on the 1870s fortifications in the area (primarily Battery 2), yet the quartermaster carefully preserved some of the old masonry work, including the remnants of the caponier, passageways, magazines, and the tunnel.

The permanent prison and the garrison guard had a potential capacity of 700 people living on waterless Alcatraz - a potential never reached. In still another effort to insure an adequate water supply, the quartermaster undertook to drill a well on the island in 1912-13. In February 1913 he complained that the bits were not heavy enough to get through a hard-strata of rock that had been encountered, and he requested the services of an experienced borer to replace his amateur drillers. Reluctantly, the quartermaster general agreed that a borer could be hired and heavier equipment used. In May the post quartermaster reported that drilling had begun over again, but that a hard granitic rock had been hit at 26 feet; however, the drill was progressing through it at a rate of 5 feet per day and the hole then measured 80 feet deep. A walking beam had been employed, but it had promptly broken down. By July the well was 300 feet deep. An analysis of the water found at that level showed it to be almost as salty as seawater, and the capacity of the well was extremely limited. Several weeks later orders were received to discontinue work on the well, not because of its problems, but because the army was expecting to give up its control of Alcatraz. In effect, the well was abandoned and the residents of Alcatraz continued to rely on boats to deliver their freshwater.

For a number of years the garrison on Alcatraz had its freshwater from the Spring Valley Water Company, a privately owned monopoly in San Francisco. The company charged the government a flat rate of $114 per month for Alcatraz, regardless of the amount of water transported to the island daily by the General McDowell. In 1904 the army toyed with the idea of taking Alcatraz's water from the Presidio's independent mains, but the quartermaster on the island urged that this not be done. As long as Spring Valley allowed the flat rate to continue, the price was not prohibitive; further, there was the advantage of the General McDowell's tanks being filled at night while she was tied up at a city wharf. Were she to carry Presidio water she would have to be filled during the day, losing valuable time.

By 1905 the General McDowell had been supplemented by a second harbor steamer, the General Mifflin. Both vessels operated between San Francisco, Fort Mason, the Presidio, Fort Baker, Fort Barry, Angel Island, and Alcatraz. In addition Alcatraz had its own launch, called after itself. The General Mifflin's master caused a small stir the day his vessel hit the Alcatraz wharf causing minor damage to piles and stringers. Apparently he had a reputation of careless sailing. The depot quartermaster, who had responsibility for all harbor activities, demanded that the skipper write him a letter stating that he was capable of handling the steamer without further accident. If, said the quartermaster, he could not give such an assurance his resignation would be called for.

However, it was the handsome General McDowell that won the affections of San Franciscans and islanders alike. In 1907, in commemoration of her 21 anniversary and a new face-lifting at Mare Island, the San Francisco Sunday Call ran a feature on the ship's history. The vessel left the Washington Street wharf three times daily: 7 a.m., 11:30 a.m., and 4 p.m. Her course took her first to Alcatraz, then to Angel Island, to the Presidio, to Fort Mason, to Alcatraz again, and then back to San Francisco. On the first run of the day she discharged freshwater at Alcatraz. Every Tuesday night she made an 11:30 p.m. theater run out to the islands. Also, she was ordered out for balls and hops at any of the army posts in the harbor. Civilians could take passage on board, but they were not allowed to land on the islands because of past experiences of picnic litter I especially on Angel Island. Officers and their friends had exclusive use of the upper deck. Enlisted men and prisoner work parties were kept below. A proposed schedule for harbor traffic in 1910 showed that the quartermaster vessels were then using the Folsom Street wharf in San Francisco. The early morning water stop at Alcatraz had been eliminated by this time because of the acquisition of a water boat, appropriately called the Aquador.

In 1907 Alcatraz Island was formally dropped as an army post under the Department of California and was renamed Pacific Branch, U.S. Military Prison, under the authority of the adjutant general of, the army. Despite the fact that a new permanent prison building was erected in 1910 and about 400 prisoners occupied the cells, there remained considerable dissatisfaction within the army about this role for the island. The judge advocate general of the army got at the crux of the problem in 1913, following an inspection of the prison:

“[Alcatraz] lies directly in the path of commerce, and, surmounted as it is with the rather conspicuous new prison building is perhaps more prominent in the view of the incoming passenger and more the subject of his inquiry of residents and visitors generally any other object in the harbor. The answer they receive, that it is a prison for the confinement of our military defenders, gives an impression of the character of our enlisted personnel and of the discipline of our Army which is unfair and unjust to the service.”

At that same time the Immigration and Naturalization Service was casting about for a new immigration station in San Francisco Harbor. It considered its facilities on Angel Island to be inadequate in size and a positive firetrap. Also, it expected that the completion of the Panama Canal would increase European immigration to the West Coast. Learning of the judge advocate general's dissatisfaction with the Alcatraz prison, the commissioner general of immigration investigated the feasibility of taking over the island and modifying its structures for the use of immigrants.

The Immigration Service's investigators believed that the Alcatraz facilities could be adapted at little cost--less than $50,000. Even the prison cells could be "readily adapted for Asiatic uses" by removing the cell doors and painting the rest of the steel bars white. Polite opposition to the idea came from the Chinese Consolidated Benevolent Society in San Francisco. This organization urged that the station be moved to San Francisco proper for greater efficiency, but if that was not possible, it should be retained on Angel Island, where the accommodations were better and more space was available than on Alcatraz. The society did not comment on the proposed use of prison cells as sleeping accommodations for newly arrived immigrants from Asia. The society's objection fell on deaf ears. In October 1913 a bill was introduced into Congress transferring Alcatraz Island to the Department of Labor--a bill that had the support of the secretary of war. Throughout 1914 both Departments of War and Labor continued to anticipate the transfer of Alcatraz. Then, since Congress failed to take positive steps toward that end, the Immigration and Naturalization Service turned its attention to acquiring a station on the mainland. The military prison on Alcatraz had many more years of existence ahead of it…

The army had long taken an interest in landscaping the various posts around San Francisco Bay--all except Alcatraz. The only landscaping on the island had been the small flower gardens in the vicinity of the officers I quarters and some sparse grass on the fortifications. At one time, interested San Francisco citizens had undertaken to beautify the islands in the bay; again, Alcatraz missed out. But in 1924 the California Spring Blossom and Wild Flower Association reached an agreement with the army to turn Alcatraz into a veritable garden. Mrs. George R. Child, a landscape gardener and chairman of the association, supervised the plantings, but military prisoners leaned on the shovels. In February and March, 300 trees and shrubs, 100 pounds of nasturtium seeds, and "many pounds" of Shirley were planted. Also, mallow and cobaea were sent to the island. The association planned to climax the undertaking with a picnic on the Rock, and the Alcatraz prison band was to entertain the gathering. Presumably, the rest of the prisoners were not invited.

A detailed map of Alcatraz, prepared in 1933, showed the status of the structures on the eve of the army's departure, after 80 years of construction activity. When compared to the 1914 list of structures, it showed that the following buildings had disappeared from the scene during the past 20 years:

Building 5--Carriage Shed
Building 6--Stable (motor vehicles had replaced mules)
Buildings 36 and 37--Coal Sheds (oil had replaced coal)
Bulding 38--Boathouse
Buildings 41 and 43--Waiting Rooms
Building 59--Paint Shop

A number of new buildings had been constructed during the same period. These included; six sets of officers' quarters around the parade ground on the southeast end of the island (two of the sets being in a duplex); a large reinforced concrete quartermaster storehouse and garage adjacent to the power plant; a shop building located at the northwest end of the island; a quarry dock on the southern side of the island (the crushed rock was used on the Presidio's roads); two large underground water cisterns northwest of the prison stockade; a tennis court in a corner of the parade and a handball court southeast of the wharf; a new launch landing at the wharf; a water-level walkway from the wharf to both ends of the island; and a playground for children (near the area youngsters had set fire to a stable many years earlier). The old saluting guns on the east side of the parade ground were gone, and there was a plan to move the flagstaff from there to the roof of the prison building, almost on the same site as the first flagstaff on top of the Citadel. The Department of Justice would inherit an Alcatraz that bore little resemblance to the barren rock that the army had first surveyed in 1847.