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Alcatraz 2002 Renovation

Reinforcement of the Citadel Dungeon

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Alcatraz was a barren, windswept sandstone dome, coated with guano and inhabited by seabirds, when Capt. Juan Manuel de Ayala sailed into the bay in 1775. However, shortly after the Bear Flag Rebellion brought California into American possession in 1846, a military use for "the Rock" was perceived. A brick fort and cannon battery were established to guard the bay's entrance. The centerpiece of that post was a three-story brick and granite Citadel, completed in 1859. To build the Citadel post, engineers gouged a deep trench in the rock, 50 yards long and 25 wide. Down in it, they built the first floor of the Citadel, surrounded by a dry moat. Storage chambers for coal and supplies were dug into an outside wall at the base of the moat. Wooden drawbridges, laid across the top of the moat, provided access to the top two floors of the Citadel.

The fort on Alcatraz was never tested in battle, and new rifled cannons designed after the Civil War made both its construction and armaments obsolete. However, the Army decided that this isolated island, surrounded by swift, cold currents, would now be used for a military prison.

The first convicts were simply imprisoned into a cellar under the fort's sally port, or entrance gate. But by the time the military jail was in full swing, in the late 1800s, hundreds of prisoners were placed into crude wooden barracks. The most serious offenders were crammed into tiny cells on the bottom floor of the Citadel. As the century turned, a wholesale remodel of the military prison began. The Citadel's top two floors were lopped off. Then its lower floor and moat were buried below a huge concrete slab. Atop that, the current prison and cell house were completed in 1912.

But construction design entailed flaws. The old brick Citadel's first floor was used as a foundation; porous brick from the upper Citadel floors became chunks of filler in the concrete; and -- worst of all -- the new prison's sewer used seawater carried through leaky pipes in the concrete walls.

The military washed its hands of Alcatraz and all its problems in 1934. That was the same time the federal prison system sought to establish an austere penitentiary to scare the bluster out of Prohibition-era gangsters. From 1934 to 1963, "the Rock" hosted Al Capone, Robert "the Birdman" Stroud, Machine Gun Kelly and a rogues' gallery of other notorious thugs. The period fascinates the public, inspiring more than a million tourists a year to cruise out on ferries from San Francisco's docks.

A dank, 19th century dungeon wall is about to be bathed in sunshine for the first time in a century. An earthquake retrofit for Alcatraz, approved by the National Park Service last week, will begin in late 2002. The project, which will cost $5 million, will drill through layers of history as crews shore up the crumbling prison. Starting from the roof of the federal prison that looms on the tiny island's crest, new support structures will penetrate down past a Civil War fort called the Citadel, hidden under the floor of the cell house. Down in that gloomy redoubt, eight coal bins were once gated and barred, then used as dungeons. Rebellious prisoners were chained there for bouts of solitary confinement, through the end of the military era and during the initial years of the better-known prison period. Spokesman from the Park Service state they are glad the project will help save the prison; and preserve the fort which is the oldest part of Alcatraz. The Park Service is hopeful that artifacts may be discovered, although much of the Citadel has been searched before.

After experiencing a barrage of sea winds and salt spray -- as well as episodes of arson and vandalism -- many of the structures on the island appear down-at-the- heel. The hardship of maintaining flaking concrete and rusting steel caused Alcatraz to be abandoned as a federal prison in 1963, and the decay has accelerated in the ensuing four decades. In 1999, a three-ton piece of catwalk fell, crushing an unoccupied bird watching area closed to the public. Around the same time, a 100-pound chunk of concrete plummeted from a balcony near the docks where sightseers gathered. The piece fell at night, when visitors were absent, but it still constituted a serious alert to the Park Service.

During daylight prison tours, visitors are shown through the upper cell house, where they see facilities used by notorious miscreants. These include solitary-confinement rooms of solid steel on Cell Block D. But visitors usually remain unaware that just below their feet, under the concrete floor, lie remnants of the Civil War-era Citadel -- as well as genuine dungeons where Alcatraz's most severe punishments were delivered. When the concrete prison was erected in the early 1900s, the Citadel ruins were plunged into utter darkness. The isolated chambers were fitted with steel doors and ringbolts for shackles, where the most miserable military convicts were chained. A typical prisoner's solitary stint in a dungeon lasted 19 days. The scrawl "STR," dated 1939, indicates the punishment lasted well into the reign of the first civilian warden, James A. Johnston, who served from 1934 to 1948.

Once he had more modern cells for solitary available on Cell Block D, Johnston stopped using the underground dungeons. He then had their doors removed. The Park Service historians believe that the dungeon doors were removed to prevent their future use in the penal system.

Dungeons Were Once Open to the Public

After the island opened to the public in 1973, the Park Service used to equip visitors with hard hats and flashlights and allow small tours to descend to the buried, echoing corridors. However, due to safety concerns -- as well as the difficulty of complying with the Americans with Disabilities Act -- the area has long been closed.

The dungeon chambers on the east side have prisoner ID numbers hacked into the whitewashed brick. Newer graffiti, painted with black plumes of candle smoke, is from the American Indian occupation that started Nov. 20, 1969, and lasted 19 months.

Centered within the old moat, the Citadel makes its last stand. Here, steel- lined embrasures for riflemen face into stygian darkness.

Citadel Area is Dramatic

Waves washing against exit portals of the fort's ancient sewers can abruptly shatter the heavy silence with strange echoes. Rooms of the Citadel's lower floor, used in their final incarnation as storage vaults for the federal prison above, bear more convict graffiti. Marks made by work parties include the hastily scratched outline of a woman and many scrawled names.

Historians say, they still don't like being down here by themselves -- it's just too spooky.

The feeling that one could be crushed by the huge prison overhead is pervasive.

The "rust-jacking" effect of steel expanding within concrete as it corrodes has torn multiple splits in vertical support columns. It has also shattered brick walls where they meet horizontal support beams.

In some spots, timbers and pipes have been pounded together to provide a makeshift fix, like shoring in a mine shaft. Strain gauges seek to measure ongoing sag and uplift in the overhead slab. If all goes according to plan, millions of dollars in remedies will be applied next year. Columns will get fiberglass sheaths to strengthen the roof, and skylight openings will be reinforced. Next, shear walls and bracing will be installed in the utility corridors between the cell blocks. Finally, holes will be knocked through the floor. This will allow faint, filtered sunbeams to probe down to the dank Citadel moat for the first time in a century.

Next, large thrust collector beams built near the floor of the prison will be attached to a new footing, which will be secured by columns that pass through the Citadel and, for the first time, penetrate the bedrock.

Planned Improvements Include:

-- Restoring Building 64, the Civil War-era "bombproof barracks" by the docks.

-- Stabilizing a slope above the parade ground, which leads up to the island's lighthouse.

-- Restoring the tall, steel water tower/tank that dominates the island's north end.

-- Shaping habitats for Alcatraz's nesting birds, and providing viewing blinds for the public.

-- Launching gardening projects to trim back rampant vegetation while preserving the island's many rare plants.

-- Making the island self-sufficient, with solar-generated electricity and desalinated water.

  • Opening a safe way for visitors to explore the Citadel.

-- A new construction project by the National Park Service to provide earthquake safety in the historic prison will open up the concealed Citadel to daylight for the first time in nearly a century. For safety reasons, the Park Service will be unable to allow the public to visit that area in the near term.

  • -- The cell-house stabilization project will install shear walls in utility corridors, thrust collector beams will be attached to new footing, and new columns will extend down through the Citadel area to tie the structures into the island's bedrock for the first time.

-- Alcatraz Island in 1865 as a Civil War Fort

The Citadel - a brick and granite fortress surrounded by a 15-foot-deep dry moat - was built on Alcatraz in 1859. Encircling the island and the three- story fort, batteries mounted more than 100 cannons to defend the bay during the Civil War. During this period, the island began to be used as a military prison. The prison function was to be emphasized soon there-after.

-- Alcatraz Today The Citadel was reduced to its first floor, and a large concrete prison was built above it in 1912. That prison eventually was transferred from the military to the federal Bureau of Prisons in 1934. It then housed civilian convicts, including Prohibition-era gangsters. Spanning both periods, from 1912 to 1940, dungeons in the bowels of the old, buried Citadel were used to confine the most disruptive inmates.

More Alcatraz Information

History of Alcatraz:

Alcatraz 2002 Renovation

Alcatraz - The 1700's & 1800's - the beginning

Alcatraz 1900-1950 - crime and prison escapes...

Alcatraz 1950 until today - the world changes...

San Francisco Hotel Reviews


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