Where the voices of Alcatraz come to life...

The First Fortifications, 1853-1863

Tower and Totten, 1853-1856

Engineer Officers, San Francisco

More than six years had passed since the Americans had seized California. The gold rush had greatly increased both the population and commerce. And San Francisco Bay, the greatest port on the Pacific Coast, was still without permanent coastal defenses on the advent of 1853. On February 7 a Senate resolution requested the secretary of war to advise it as soon as possible as to "the annual and total appropriations required to place the harbor of San Francisco in a good condition of defense." The next day Maj. John L. Smith provided Totten with the figures. Again, there was a majority and minority (Smith) estimate:

The whole board agreed that all the permanent works could be finished in five years. The majority said that $500,000 could be spent in the next fiscal year. If the work were accelerated, the cost would go up. Smith used his higher estimate to show this increase:

Shortly afterwards the Congress appropriated $500,000 for fiscal year 1854 to commence building the fortifications for San Francisco Bay.

Totten selected experienced engineers to supervise the works at Fort Point and Alcatraz. He appointed Capt. J. K. M. Mansfield as the senior engineer on the Pacific Coast and made him directly responsible for Fort Point, and he appointed Capt. James L. Mason to supervise the works on Alcatraz. Before Mansfield was ready to leave the East, he was promoted to colonel and became an inspector general. Totten then made Mason the senior engineer and filled the Alcatraz position with 1st Lt. Zealous Bates Tower.

Totten wrote Mason while the latter was still stationed at Providence, Rhode Island. He told Mason that he would carry out the approved plans for Alcatraz without variation except "such as may be hereafter sanctioned by authority from this Department. " He impressed upon Mason the need to construct the works with the utmost vigor. Congress had appropriated a very large sum of money and "any delay not inevitable, will be a fault of ours exclusively; and a very great fault--the cause, possibly, of a great calamity." Mason was to start by making an exact survey of the island so that the project might be adapted to local features.

The Board of Engineers for the Pacific Coast was to be split into two sections. Two unnamed officers were to remain in the East, while three would be stationed in San Francisco. These three, being a majority, had the responsibility of determining and recommending to Totten any modifications of the plans. The first members appointed for San Francisco were Mansfield, Mason, and 1st Lt. Henry Wager Halleck. Halleck, the brilliant young division engineer, theoretically had no responsibilities concerning the construction of permanent fortifications; he advised the division commander, whereas the fortifications engineers reported directly to the chief engineer.

Mason replaced Mansfield as senior member of the board. In June 1853, 1st Lt. Zealous Bates Tower transferred in June 1853 from Portland, Maine, to take charge of the works on Alcatraz and to become the third member of the board. Three junior lieutenants also transferred to San Francisco that summer: Frederick E. Prime, to assist at Alcatraz, and William H. C. Whiting and Newton F. Alexander, to work under Mason at Fort Point.

Tower Begins the Work

When Tower arrived at San Francisco on August 5, 1853 I he found Mason in bed seriously ill with the "Panama fever," unable to call a meeting of the board. Desiring to waste no time, Tower quickly made his first visit to Alcatraz Island and scribbled his impressions for Colonel Totten:


View of early San Francisco rendered in 1868.


Henry Wager Halleck


John E. Wool

The Island is rougher than I had anticipated: very rough, steep, and broken on the Eastern portion of the [proposed] North West Battery and where the 3 gun battery is designed to be placed. I have commenced the survey of the North West and South East portions of the Island. The constant prevalence of high winds delays this work much. . . . The sandstone composing the Island is very friable; even where hardened on the surface it can be cut with a hatchet. Wrought iron spikes can be driven into the rock without much trouble.

Mindful to the end of Totten's urgings to work speedily on the fortifications, Bvt. Lt. Col. James Mason died on September 5, 1853. Halleck, Tower, and Whiting all wrote Totten informing him of the sad event. Whiting's letter was the most poignant:

It is with great sorrow that I have to report to you the untimely death of my commanding officer. . . .

Colonel Mason during his passage to this place in July contracted the Panama fever. On his arrival here his extreme anxiety for the rapid prosecution of the important public interest with which he was charged aggravated his disease & it took a firm hold upon him. After lingering more than six weeks, & when we were in hopes that the crisis . . . had been safely passed, on the 5th inst. He grew rapidly worse and died. . . .

On the 8th inst, the anniversary of the day upon which six years before he gallantly led the forlorn hope at Molina del Rey, the remains of the distinguished Soldier were interred with the honors due to his rank and name.

Tower added that army officers, some citizens, and two companies of local volunteers (all that were available since the Presidio garrison numbered only 31 enlisted men) had escorted the remains to the wharves where they were placed on board a steamer and taken to the "Army Tomb" at Benicia.

Tower wasted no time in beginning his preliminary work on the island. He procured a whaleboat for transportation; hired civilian masons, carpenters, and laborers; and started the construction of temporary buildings. His journal of operations for August 1853 showed that the carpenters were building office furniture and repairing the whaleboat. The laborers kept busy unloading supplies from vessels and assisting in Tower's new survey. He informed Totten that by the end of September he would have completed the quarters, mess house, shops, a storehouse for cement and lime, a wharf, and a road from the wharf to the top of the island. Tower planned to construct the southeast battery first because its guns would "give a circle of fire from Lime Point entirely round to the front of the City. . . . Thus they prevent any vessels from passing between the Island and the Main.

Tower and Prime completed their new survey and forwarded the three sheets (the whole island, the northwest side, and the southeast end, all with 5-foot contour lines) to Totten on September 15, 1853. While Tower considered his work to be more accurate than the old Warner survey, he did not think the placement of the batteries needed changing. Now that he was better acquainted with the island, he believed that the board's 1852 estimates were too low, particularly for cutting the escarpment, building a permanent wharf, and excavating the ditches. He suggested that additional storerooms and barracks would be required.

Tower supplied Totten with a list of local wages and prices, reminding him "that one dollar in the Eastern Cities accomplishes as much as four or five dollars in San Francisco":

Until he completed the 100-man barracks early in October, Tower employed only 35 men on the island. Apparently they commuted daily, but by what means remains unknown (the engineers acquired a sloop about this time). By October, blasting the roadway from the wharf to the guardhouse site had progressed sufficiently for Tower to decide that he would have to build a revetment wall on the land side because of the crumbling rock. Alcatraz's unstable rock caused another problem a few weeks later.

The 1852 board had recommended that a ditch be blasted out of the rock in front of each battery in order to make it more difficult for a landing party to storm the parapets. Tower now realized that the scarp wall of the nearly completed ditch outside the southeast battery would not support the weight of the parapet. To stabilize the rock he now proposed to extend the wall to the bottom of the ditch even though the cost would be greater.

The island stone, while not as strong as a natural wall, would still be suitable for mixing with concrete for other construction elements--except for facing.

3. Temporary Armament

About to command the Department of the Pacific, Brig. Gen. John E. Wool wanted temporary batteries erected immediately at Fort Point and Alcatraz. In December 1853, Totten advised Tower that the Ordnance Department was shipping thirty-three 8-inch and ten l0-inch columbiads to Alcatraz. He directed Tower to proceed with the construction of the permanent terrepleins so that the wooden gun platforms could be laid as soon as they arrived. The parapets could be built later.

The columbiads were slow in reaching San Francisco. General Wool, impatient with the delay, insisted that the engineers erect temporary earthworks and mount such guns as were then available. A map of the island, prepared by Tower in September of 1854, showed a temporary battery at the southeast end, above the permanent works, mounting five navy 68-pounders; another temporary battery on the west side of the island' containing three 24pounder siege guns; a single navy 68-pounder on the northwest peak; and two 24-pounder siege guns on the southeast peak. In his annual report for fiscal year 1854, Tower described the construction of these temporary works: "The parapets of the two temporary Batteries are earth supported by a breast height of barrils capped with a row of sand bags." These 11 pieces modestly marked the beginning of Alcatraz as a fortified place.

4. Modifications of the Defenses

In his new role as an inspector general, Col. Joseph Mansfield visited the works at San Francisco in 1854. While he considered Fort Point to be "the key to the whole Pacific Coast in a military point of view," he thought that Alcatraz was "a highly important point in the water defenses, where two hundred guns should be mounted." Capt. John G. Barnard, the new senior member of the Pacific board, agreed that Fort Point ranked first in importance. He recommended to Totten that there be one appropriation for the works in the harbor and that two-thirds of it go to Fort Point and one-third to Alcatraz. Barnard thought he could complete the fort at Fort Point in one year at the cost of $750,000.

Tower objected strongly to this unequal division of funds. He wrote Totten separately saying that the allotments should be divided evenly between the two works. The fortifications at Alcatraz could be finished much more quickly than those at Fort Point and it was important that his project be pushed forward rapidly: "I urge this equal distribution from my desire to see the work under my charge finished so that the Dept. may say San Francisco has one work mounted with guns ready to receive a garrison to stand between hostile Ships & this large commercial City." In March 1854, Totten informed Barnard that the secretary of war had ruled in favor of Fort Point; it would receive two-thirds of the $500,000 appropriated for fiscal year 1855.

Soon after Barnard arrived, he called a meeting of the board at which he, Tower, and Halleck reconsidered Alcatraz's defenses. They agreed with Tower's earlier opinion that the 1852 estimate of $300,000 was too low. Among the modifications the board now proposed were the revetment of ditches and of the road cut that led from the landing to the guardhouse, an enlarged and relocated guardhouse that could effectively cover the road with at least 24-pounders, an additional eight-gun battery on the southwest side of the island that looked directly toward the Golden Gate, doubling the size of the barracks so as to accommodate a full garrison, a powder magazine separate from those in the caponiers, and the demolition of three rocky points on the northeast side of the island. Another minor item not considered in 1852 was office rent for Tower in San Francisco. The board's new estimate of $600,000 exactly doubled that of 1852. The chief engineer notified Tower in April 1854 that the modifications were approved. He directed that the caponiers be designed for 24-pounder howitzers, which had now been adopted for such a purpose.