Footprint in the Bay
The young lieutenant of engineers leaned over his sketch of the little island. It was an oddly shaped piece of land, vaguely resembling a deformed footprint. Slightly more than 22 acres in size, the sole residents seemed to be screaming birds.
He made a notation above the topographical map he was preparing: “This Island is chiefly composed of irregularly stratified sandstone covered with a thin coating of guano. “ In fact, nearly the entire surface had been smeared with the droppings of uncounted generations of birds who had roosted on the island for thousands of years. The smell was overpowering.
The lieutenant and his assistant had spent several windy days scrabbling over the crumbling cliffs of the barren island. The spring winds had blown clouds of grit and sand in their faces, and swarms of enraged gulls had hindered their efforts with the surveyors’ tools; chain and transit. The island, it seemed, was a major breeding area, and scores of nests dotted barren slopes.
The engineer had not been impressed by what he saw. “The stone is full of seams in all directions which render it unfit for any building purposes & probably difficult to quarry.” There were other, more attractive islands in San Francisco Bay. Nearby lay Wood (or Angel) Island, over a thousand acres in size, with plenty of fresh water and thick with oak trees for firewood. Yerba Buena Island (later known as Goat Island) was the most promising prospect of all, enjoying balmy weather and with a commanding view of the only “city on the entire Bay - a hamlet of 300 people, recently renamed San Francisco.
He concluded: “The island has no beach & but two or three points where small boats can land.”
Lt. William Warner, U.S. Topographical Engineer and West Point Class of 1835, completed his “Field Map of Isla de los Alcatrazes” in May 1847 - more than a year before California joined the United States. Legally, San Francisco Bay and the tiny bird-covered island were still part of the Republic of Mexico.
The United States Army was already interested in Alcatraz. American forces had seized California in 1846, and surveys of the new territory were being carried out in earnest. The military promptly realized that it was not climate or natural resources that make this little island special - it was the commanding location.
Sitting smack in the throat of San Francisco Bay, cannon on the island could sweep the inner harbor and the rivers that led into the heart of California. Alcatraz was the cork in the bottleneck of the Golden Gate.
The lieutenant didn’t know it, but the flyspeck island would also prove to be also an excellent place to incarcerate men.
For more than 80 years the Army of the United States controlled Alcatraz Island. In the midst of gold rush madness, work crews arrived in 1853 and began transforming the island into an “impregnable” fortress. When the post was first occupied by troops in December 1859, it was the first permanently harbor fortification on the West Coast.
During the Civil War, the island was home to 300 artillerymen who waited for an enemy that never came. They were soon joined by miscreant soldiers from other western army posts, as well as suspected Confederates sympathizers and other “copperheads” from throughout California. The prisoners, civilian and military - were all tossed into the dungeon of the guardhouse overlooking the dock.
After the Civil War, Alcatraz awkwardly took on the dual duties of harbor defense fortress and ever-expanding army prison. Between 1865 and 1876 convict laborers worked at tearing down obsolete fortifications and re-shaping the island during a defense program that would never be completed. Occasionally, the army sent bewildered Native American warriors to the island for safekeeping far from their tribes. These men were, in effect, POWs of the never-declared but bloody “Indian Wars” of the late 19th century.
But Alcatraz wasn’t just a place of prison bars and artillery. It was also home to a garrison of Regular Army soldiers and their families, and dozens of wives and scores of self-proclaimed “army brats” lived on the island throughout its history as fort and military prison. The Island became a place of startling contrasts: formal gardens and firetrap cellblocks, Gothic cottages and closet-sized solitary cells, tea parties and rock breaking details. A tiny steamer plied the bay waters between the island and San Francisco, carrying officers and their families on the upper deck, and grimy convict work parties on the lower.
By 1900 Alcatraz was obsolete as a fortress and the U.S. Army decided that the island should forevermore be dedicated purely to penal uses. Shortly after the turn of the century, the fort was officially renamed as “Pacific Branch, U.S. Military Prison, Alcatraz” then renamed again in 1915 as “U.S. Disciplinary Barracks.” Between 1908 and 1912 army prisoners constructed the world’s largest and most modern concrete prison atop the island - from frowning cell house that stands today - and then became its first occupants.
In 1934 the Department of Justice acquired the prison from the War Department and transformed it into “United States Penitentiary, Alcatraz.” The first 32 convicts were Army soldiers marooned when the military vacated the island.
During World War II the army returned, and young Coast Artillery GIs manned anti-aircraft guns on prison rooftops when they weren’t pursuing the daughters of the guards. Their stay was short, though, and by 1944 the artillerymen had been transferred to more meaningful overseas wartime roles. Finally, in the beginning, it had been soldiers who nicknamed Alcatraz “The Rock.”
"Excerpted from 'Fortress Alcatraz: Guardian of the Golden Gate,' by John A. Martini, published by Ten Speed Press, Berkeley, CA, 2004