THE ROCKAlcatraz Island - 1914

By C.H. Baily

"The Rock. " That's the way it's spoken of from Puget Sound to the canal zone, from Fort William McKinley, Maine, to Fort William McKinley, Philippine islands. Mention "The Rock" to any man anywhere who wears the uniform of the American Army and instantly he'll visualize the Pacific branch of the United States Military Prison on Alcatraz Island, San Francisco bay, for "The Rock" is one of the famous penal institutions of the world and is of peculiar interest now because, as a prison, it soon may cease to be.

Saving for the most hardened offenders and those who have seriously transgressed the law, Uncle Sam does not intend to keep his soldiers who have erred behind prison bars much longer. Deserters, men who have proved insubordinate, men who have in a thousand and one ways broken the military regulations so that courts martial have condemned them to imprisonment, are going to be given another chance to make good. They are going to be placed in disciplinary barracks where they will drill like soldiers and perform soldierly duties. Then when they show that they want to prove themselves fit to again wear the uniform they will be released, reassigned to regiments and given another chance to earn their honorable discharges. Incorrigibles and men who have committed grave crimes will be sent to Leavenworth, Kansas, to complete their sentences.

So, while penitentiary reform has been the subject of countless conventions and conferences in civil life, the United States military authorities have been quietly acting, and in one sweeping order had revolutionized the handling of criminals and near criminals in the ranks of the Army. And with the adoption of the new plan on the Pacific Coast will pass away the United States military prison at Alcatraz, for it is destined in all probability to become an immigration station.

Alcatraz Island, twelve acres in area, earned its nickname because to all intents and purposes it is one solid rock. Standing in the center of the San Francisco bay and commanding a full view of the Golden Gate, it is one of the beauty spots of the bay, for its splendid, large, white stone buildings gleam brightly in the sunlight and make a conspicuous showing for many miles. As a prison it is ideal both as to location and buildings. Around the island erratic currents sweep, making it practically impossible for a prisoner to escape by swimming, could he elude the vigilant guards. The prison buildings are new, scrupulously clean and are light and airy, with modern plumbing in each cell, electric lights and comfortable beds. There are 200 shower baths for prisoners, a library, barber shop and all possible comforts—saving liberty. The new prison buildings were only completed and ready for occupancy in February 1911.

Secretary of Labor Wilson recently visited Alcatraz and said that the tides and currents that swept around the island were as good as a forty-foot wall to the prison, but in spite of this some escapes have been recorded from "The Rock." The first of these occurred in 1862, when three prisoners from the California Volunteers filed their chains, cut their way out of their place of confinement with a hatchet, lowered themselves from the north battery by means of a rope and walked round the island to the dock. Here they stole a boat and made a clean getaway. In 1868, nine prisoners, assisted by a sentry, forced the lock of a boathouse, stole a boat, took the oars and rowlocks from the others and got away. Two of these later were caught in San Francisco. In 1903, three prisoners forged their pardons and secured their releases, but two of these were later caught. One, who was first confined for the larceny of $6000 was found working in the naval prison office at Mare Island two years after he had forged his papers. (Ed., I believe it was actually four prisoners, see "James Darling, John L. Moore, Cornelius Stokes, and Joseph White", 7 October 1903.)


In 1908, under the cover of heavy fog, a prisoner attempted to swim away from Alcatraz. He was picked up by a passing boat, the crew of which heard his cries for help. This boat was bound for Santa Cruz, and, although its master, informed by the military authorities at the Presidio of Monterey that the prisoner was on board, he escaped before the guard arrived to get him. That is the only escape recorded in recent years, although in 1912 two men sawed their way out of the prison and remained under a building on the island, where they were discovered in a state of semi-starvation. (Ed., see "Thomas V. Franey and Michael Mullin", 18 November 1912.)

One prisoner who escaped in 1901 had two life sentences to serve, although perhaps he doesn't know it to this day. He deserted in the Philippines in October, 1900, and joined the insurgents. He was captured in 1901, tried and sentenced to be hanged. The papers were sent to Washington for Presidential action and in the meantime the man was again tried and this time for murder. He was found guilty and sentenced to life imprisonment. Confined at Alcatraz pending transfer to Leavenworth, he escaped and shortly thereafter his first sentence of death came back commuted to life imprisonment, thus giving him two life sentences.

An unusual prisoner was one known as No. 346. During the Coeur d'Alene, Shoshone county, Idaho's labor troubles, United States troops were called into that territory. Many arrests were made by the soldiers of suspects accused of complicity in crimes committed before the arrival of the soldiery. These suspects were confined in a warehouse and in box cars. The man later to become later known as prisoner No. 346 was sergeant of the guard and liberated several of the leaders, allowing them to escape into Canada. He himself deserted the service that night, was captured in Montana, sentenced to thirteen and a half years' imprisonment and sent to Alcatraz, and it is alleged that the miners' union voted him $10 a day for ever day he was confined on "The Rock." He had sixteen years of honorable Army service to his credit when the disgrace came to him.

For heretofore unprinted historical data regarding Alcatraz, the writer is indebted to Colonel Charles M. Truitt of the United States Army, commandant; First Lieutenant W.T. Conway, Sixteenth United States infantry, adjutant, and Corporal Frank Schlief, Fourth Company of the United States Military Prison Guard. Corporal Schlief, with the permission of Colonel Truitt and Lieutenant Conway, spent much time preparing data from the old records on the island and has brought to light many interesting facts pertaining to its history.

Alcatraz, White or Bird Island, as it was variously called in times past, was ceded to Julian Workman by Pio Pico, Governor of California in 1846. Workman granted it to his son-in-law, a man named Temple, who in turn sold it to Fremont, Governor of California, who was acting on behalf of the United States, for $5000. Fremont, it is said, subsequently, conveyed the island to Palmer, Cook & Co. without first paying Temple the $5000. Temple sued Fremont and Palmer, Cook & Co., sought to secure title from the Federal Government through Fremont. As the property was held in the name of the United States, however, the Government retained it.

The work of fortifying Alcatraz was begun in 1854, and during the following two years the sum of nearly $2,000,000 was spent on fortification work there and at Fort Point, the last-named fort now being repaired and overhauled for use as disciplinary barracks. Temporary buildings were erected at Alcatraz at this time, a wharf built and work completed upon its batteries. A lighthouse was erected with an elevation of 160 feet above the sea level. Alcatraz thus laying claim to being the first United States fortification completed on the Pacific Coast as well as having the first completed lighthouse. All the work was completed in 1858.

The works were considered at that time to be exceedingly strong. There were three batteries mounting forty-three guns, comprising sixty-eight, forty-two and twenty-eight pounders. Later Lime Point, with fifty guns; Angel Island (Battery Reynolds), fifty guns; Point San Jose (Fort Mason), fifty guns, and Presidio Hill, 50 guns. Fort Point mounted 164 guns. At the opening of the Civil War, Alcatraz and Fort Point were the only fortified posts on the Pacific Coast, the first military organization to arrive at Alcatraz for station being Company H, Stewart's Third Artillery, in December, 1858.

The history of Alcatraz and the history of the Civil War, so far as the Pacific Coast is concerned, are closely allied. Public offices in California were largely in the hands of pre-slavery men, and secession was frequently talked in California. Many felt sure of carrying the State for the South providing they had control of the Army and the fortifications. With this in view, through influence at Washington, the two departments on the Coast were combined and put in charge of Brevet Brigadier-General Albert Sydney Johnson in January, 1861. Secretary of War Floyd had secretly sent 75,000 muskets to California without the knowledge of Congress.

Senator Baker of Oregon, fearing that the Southern sympathizers would be able to carry the states of Oregon and California, induced President Lincoln to send another officer to relieve General Johnson.


Shortly after the inauguration of Lincoln, General Scott wrote to General E.V. Sumner to be prepared to go to California. The next day an order was confidentially issued to General Sumner to repair to San Francisco without delay and relieve General Johnson in command of the department of the Pacific. He secretly left New York, under sealed orders which were not be opened until he had crossed the Isthmus of Panama and was well out on the Pacific ocean. Despite this secrecy, tidings of his appointment reached General Johnson and the San Francisco secessionists the evening before the arrival of General Sumner.

General Sumner arrived April 21, 1861, and the late editions of the evening papers contained the news that the South had begun hostilities by firing on Fort Sumter. On the 26th the news was received of the fall of Fort Sumter, but the whole Coast was informed of the following order: "In compliance with special order No. 86, War Department, Adjutant-General's office, Washington, March 23, 1861, I hereby assume command of this department. All concerned will govern themselves accordingly." The moral effect of this brief warning was to lift a load of suspense and apprehension off the minds of loyal citizens.

General Sumner immediately upon taking command called in the widely scattered troops and disposed them so as to guard the cities and forts. On the date of his arrival he telegraphed for the light battery of the Third Artillery to come by the first steamer from Vancouver to San Francisco. G and M companies of the Third Artillery were ordered from Oregon, M Company coming to Alcatraz. In May an ordnance detachment was sent from Benicia to Fort Point to mount more guns. Artillery from Fort Point and Benicia were sent to Alcatraz, and a detachment was ordered in from Honey Lake to join their company at Alcatraz.

The garrison at this time consisted of A, H, I and M companies of the Third Artillery, a detachment of Company A, engineers, composed of sappers and miners, a detachment of the First Dragoons (later the First Calvary)—all under command of Captain Harry S. Burton. The armament in April 1861, consisted of eighty-four guns and over 19,000 shot and shell.

In October, 1861, H and M companies were transferred to the East and A company went to Benicia to be mounted as a light battery.

In December, 1861, the first volunteer company arrived. This was Company G, Second Regiment of Infantry, California Volunteers, commanded by Lieutenant Wetmore. At various times during the Civil War the following California Volunteers were stationed here: A, B, C, D, E, G and I, Second Infantry: A and C, Fourth Infantry: G, E, and H, Eighth Infantry. Although these volunteers did not go East, they rendered invaluable service by garrisoning the posts and forts on the Coast, thus enabling the regulars to go East. In the early part of the war, they had many skirmishes with the Indians, kept close watch on the disloyal and guarded the overland stations.

In February, 1862, this post was designated as the depot for the First Regiment of Infantry, Washington Territory Volunteers. Here, A, B, C, D and E, Captain Barry's company, Captain Dowling's company and Captain Reyan's company were organized and sent north into Oregon and Washington Territory. Captain Whannell's company was organized here also, but it was sent to the Presidio, later becoming Company A, Sixth Infantry, California Volunteers. This was the only company of California Volunteers organized at Alcatraz.


In 1863 the headquarters of the Eighth Infantry, California Volunteers, was established there. The garrison consisted of three companies of regulars and four companies of volunteers, totaling 500 men.

A large number of civilians were sent here during the Civil War for manifestations of disloyalty, the offense most frequently charged being treasonable language. The most prominent of these were C. P. Weller and E.J.C. Kewen. Weller, a brother to former Governor Weller, was chairman of the Democratic State Committee. He was arrested and confined at Alcatraz on account of an incendiary speech delivered during the Presidential campaign in 1864. His arrest incensed the Democrats. A mass meeting was held in Hayes Park, San Francisco, during his incarceration, which violently denounced the military authorities and the Federal Government for the arrest. After a confinement of a little more than three weeks he was released after giving a bond of $25,000 to bear true allegiance to the United States.

Kewen of Los Angeles, formerly an Attorney General of the State, was confined for using intemperate language. After a confinement of two weeks he was released upon taking the oath of allegiance and giving a bond of $5,000. The month before his arrest he was elected to the Assembly and served as a member in 1863.

Source: San Francisco Chronicle, 14 June 1914, page 5.


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