Military Fortress

On November 6, 1850 President Millard Fillmore signed papers to make Alcatraz government property. Plans were then made and carried out to make Alcatraz a fortification. The original budget for construction of a fort on Alcatraz were initially $300,000, but soon proved to be inaccurate.

It was recommended that two batteries be built, one at the south end and one at the north end of the island. Each battery was enclosed by a two story brick wall measuring 50×25 feet. Along with the batteries would be moats, drawbridges, soldiers’ barracks, and a guard house. Powder magazines, underground water cisterns, adn wardhouses for provisions were also among the vast building plans for Alcatraz. Construction was left to Zealous Bates Tower and 2nd Lt. Fedrick Prime as his assistant.

Before fort construction could be started some basic buildings were needed. These buildings included: wooden shops, storehouses, laborers’ barracks, engineers’ offices, and a wharf. Construction was well under way at Alcatraz, but was not coming along as quickly as Lime Point and Fort Point.

Concerns about lack of defense brought about the first armament on Alcatraz in 1854. Alcatraz received 11 guns which were temporary, but there were still no soldiers. Soon two batteries grew to three and slowly the government added more guns to the armament on Alcatraz. The number of guns on Alcatraz grew to 124 in 1861, and in 1855 permanent weapons arrived. These guns weighed 4 1/2 tons each. After each gun was mounted they were test fired.

Picture courtesy Martini, John. Fortress Alcatraz: Guardian of the Golden Gate. Pacific Monograph: Kailua, 1990.

Grand Opening
After finishing construction on the aforementioned buildings, Alcatraz was open and ready in December 1859 as a fortress and a prison. The first group of soldiers sent to Alcatraz were confined there for unknown crimes.

Although Alcatraz was open in 1859, construction continued. Before long a 5th and 6th battery were added. More firearms were sent. On July 20, 1864 Alcatraz was mounted with the biggest guns produced at that time. The 15 inch Rodman’s weighed 50,000 pounds and could fire 440 pounds of solid material three miles away.

Because of Alcatraz’s location it was soon thought of as escape proof and was used as a military prison before it ever became a Federal Penitentiary. Alcatraz became an official military prison for the entire Department of the Pacific on August 27, 1861. The military prison had between 15 and 50 men, but not all were soldiers and confederate privateers. Some were local citizens and politicians whose loyalty was under suspicion. These prisoners were confined to the basement cell room of the guardhouse. In 1862 the military prison became overpopulated and excess prisoners were housed in the Horwitzer rooms.

A Change of Plans
The end of the Civil War marked the end of Alcatraz’s defense purpose. By this time the government had spent $1,601,677 on fortifications. Most of the weapons were also obsolete. In the 1890’s the government again made plans to redesign Alcatraz, but these plans were dropped in 1897.

The Spanish-American War had an extensive effect on Alcatraz. What weapons Alcatraz did have were shipped to the Philippines and Cuba. When the war was over military prisoners were again shipped to Alcatraz. The prison population went from 25 to 441 in ten months. With this increase, extra room was needed. In 1907 the War Department decided to make Alcatraz a permanent prison assigned to serve the United States Army west of the Rockies. Alcatraz was made a state of the art prison. The construction on the military prison was complete in late 1911.

Alcatraz continued to be useful as a military prison for many years. But, soon the cost of operating Alcatraz became too high. Two people from the department of Justice were looking for a “Super Prison”. Alcatraz was the ideal location and on October 13, 1933 Alcatraz was handed over to the Department of Justice.