News & Tall Tales. 1800s.

San Francisco Gold Rush 1849.

Fort Alcatraz and Fort Point

The Forts were built in the 1850s to protect the entrance to San Francisco Bay from invasion by sea.

Fort Alcatraz, San Francisco.

Alcatraz was reserved for military use under President Millard Fillmore in 1850. Meanwhile, the discovery of gold in the Sierra Nevada Mountains brought growth and prosperity to San Francisco.

The lure of the Gold Rush demanded the protection of California as gold seekers flooded the San Francisco Bay. In response, the U.S. Army built a fortress on the rocky face of Alcatraz. They made plans to install more than 100 cannons, making Alcatraz the most heavily armed entity on the West Coast.

The first functional lighthouse on the West Coast was built on Alcatraz Island as well. Once fully equipped with weaponry in 1859, the island was deemed Fort Alcatraz. Having never fired its own weapons in combat, Fort Alcatraz quickly evolved from an island of defense to an island of detention.

In the early 1860s, civilians arrested for treason during the Civil War were housed on the island. With the influx of prisoners, additional living quarters were built to house 500 men. Alcatraz as a jail would continue for 100 years. Throughout history, the average population of the island hovered between 200 and 300 people, never at maximum capacity. The Rock After the devastating San Francisco earthquake of 1906, inmates from nearby prisons were transferred to the infallible Alcatraz. Over the next five years, prisoners built a new jail, designated Pacific Branch, U.S. Military Prison, Alcatraz Island . Popularly known as The Rock , Alcatraz served as an army disciplinary barracks until 1933. Prisoners were educated and received military and vocational training.

December 23, 1853, Daily Alta California, San Francisco, California

The Fortification at Fort Point.

Looking across San Francisco Bay.

The following description (more accurate than ours of yesterday) of the fortification at Fort Point (Right: Looking across the Golden Gate from Fort Point), has been furnished us by the kindness of Mr. Whiting, the engineer in charge of the work.

This work, when finished, will be the largest of the several forts, which together, will complete the defences of San Francisco.

As projected, it is to occupy nearly the whole of the promontory of Fort Point, which for this purpose is now being cut down to the level of fifteen feet above low water. This operation involves the removal of some 140,000 cubic yards of rock and earth, and its necessity arises from the fact that in general, the lower the battery the more effective its fire.

When finished, it will, together with the Barbette battery, immediately in its rear, covering the neck of the promontory, be mounted with 117 ten inch and eight inch guns, presenting formidable fronts of fire in the directions, seaward, across the Straits, and towards Angel and Alcatraz islands.

Its estimated cost is $1,000,000, which amount may probably be somewhat exceeded.

The main work is to be a castle of four tiers of guns, three in casemates, and one, the upper, in Barbette.

As the height of the castle will be but seventy feet above low water, while the crests of surrounding hills range from 180 to 400 feet, two redoubts are proposed to be placed some distance in its rear, to protect it from land attacks in that direction.

The engineer in charge is unable, at present, to say by what time these important works may be finished. Their speedy prosecution depends chiefly upon the liberality with which Congress shall advance the estimated funds.

During the past three months, over 40,000 cubic yards of rock have been removed, and accommodations, shops, etc., erected for a force of 125 workmen.

June 12, 1854, Daily Alta California, San Francisco

Fortifications of our Harbor

We are indebted to the officers of the army in charge of the military constructions in and about San Francisco, for an outline of the plans which the Government has adopted for the fortification of this harbor. It will be seen with satisfaction that the works are to be on a scale which would promise protection to our city, if indeed it can be protected by batteries which command the approaches by water, of which we have doubts: as we remember to have once heard an officer of the highest rank say, that with the aid of modern inventions an army of ten or twelve thousand French or English troops might be landed with their cannon, on almost any morning and at almost any point between San Francisco and Monterey.

The system proposed, consists of two lines or batteries inside the entrance to the harbor. The works already projected and now in process of construction, are those of Fort Point and Alcatraz Island. The first is to be by far the most important and strongest point, and when completed will mount a battery of about one hundred and fifteen guns, of eight and ten inch calibre. The fortress will present a face of four tiers of guns, the wall rising directly from the water, at an inclination of about seventy five degrees and castellated at the top.

On the other side of the channel the location has been selected at "Lime Rock Point," directly opposite Fort Point. The works here are not as yet projected, although it is probable the same plan will be adopted. This battery will mount nearly one hundred guns, of equal size with those at Fort Point. These two fortifications form the outer line of defence, and when completed will be capable of throwing from the combined metal of both, nearly one hundred and fifty feet in diameter of solid shot at one discharge.

The second point of fortification for the inner line is on Alcatraz Island. The shipping battery here will consist of about fifty guns (eight and ten inch) beside other batteries to command attacking points. These works are already in a very forward state, and if not delayed by a want of an appropriation during the present session of Congress, can be completed in the next twelve months. Two other points will be selected to complete the line of defence, the location of which has not as yet been determined upon. Point San Jose, near North Beach has, however, been recommended, and some point on Angel Island will be selected to complete the whole.

The work at Fort Point is being carried on with vigor, and the wall will be commenced during the next month. The stone is being supplied by Mr. W. B. Farwell, from extensive granite quarries at Monterey and Puerta de los Reyes. The granite is of a very superior quality, and the quarrying operations at both the above places are being carried on upon an extensive scale.

The granite from Puerta de los Reyes is but little inferior to the celebrated Quincy stone. The only difficulty met with thus far has been in the seams running through it, but which are disappearing as the surface stone is removed. At Monterey the granite is susceptible of being quarried in blocks of immense size, samples of which will ere long be brought to this city for examination. Stone from either locality can be supplied for building purposes at a lower figure than the China granite, and is nearly, if not quite, its equal in beauty and durability.

The works at Fort Point, when finished, it is estimated will cost seven hundred and fifty thousand dollars. They are directed by Brevet Major J. G. Barnard, and immediately superintended by Capt. Whiting. Those at Alcatraz are directed by Major Z. B. Turner and superintended by Lieut. Prince. As great estimates have been made for Fort Port and the Alcatraz Island, but the whole work of fortification, when completed, it is supposed will cost not less than two millions of dollars. This is an earnest of what the labor and enterprise of California may expect from the government expenditure in this quarter.

February 28, 1876, Sacramento Daily Union, Sacramento, California, U.S.A.

Soldier Sentenced

Portland, Oregon, February 27th.

A soldier named Bird, convicted by the Court-martial at Vancouver for killing Lieut. Cowan in Alaska a year ago, was sentenced to fifteen years imprisonment at Fort Alcatraz, and taken on the steamer Saturday in chains en route to his destination.

August 9, 1903, Los Angeles Herald, Los Angeles, California

Alcatraz Prisoner Makes a Daring Escape

SAUSALITO, August 8. While a corps of prisoners were being returned Wednesday evening to Alcatraz Island from Fort Baker, one of them, David Pettal, made his escape in a most daring fashion, and thus far has evaded the search made for him. When a mile from shore Pettal made a dive over the rail into the water and the authorities believe he reached shore in safety. This is the third attempt at escape since he was found guilty of desertion in August, 1902, and sentenced to two years' imprisonment on Alcatraz.

December 23, 1911, San Francisco Call, San Francisco, California


All Long Term Prisoners to Be Shipped Here From Fort Leavenworth

WASHINGTON, December 22. A sweeping change In military prison methods was instructed today by order of the war department. All of the short term prisoners of Alcatraz island, San Francisco harbor, have been ordered transferred to Fort Leavenworth, Kansas.

All of the long term prisoners in the latter prison are to be transferred to Alcatraz, which thus will be made the place of confinement for the criminal element, while Leavenworth will be the place of detention of soldiers guilty of purely military offenses. To save transportation expenses, a second criminal jail is created at Fort Jay, Governors island, New York.

The effects of these changes is to carry out the recently developed British system of treating deserters and other soldiers guilty of breaches of discipline as subject to reformatory influences and of segregating them from the absolutely criminal and vicious class.

Practicing Law in Frontier California (Law in the American West)Law in Frontier California.
Gordon Morris Bakken
The author combines collective biography with an analysis of the function of the bar in a rapidly changing socioeconomic setting. Drawing on manuscript collections, Bakken considers hundreds of men and women who came to California to practice law during the gold rush and later, their reasons for coming, their training, and their usefulness to clients during a period of rapid population growth and social turmoil. He shows how law practice changed over the decades with the establishment of large firms and bar associations, how the state's boom-and-bust economy made debt collection the lawyer's bread and butter, and how personal injury and criminal cases and questions of property rights were handled. In Bakken's book frontier lawyers become complex human beings, contributing to and protecting the social and economic fabric of society, expanding their public roles even as their professional expertise becomes more narrowly specialized.

The Naval Order of the United States has a history dating from 1890. Membership includes a wide range of individuals, many with highly distinguished career paths.

The San Francisco Commandery meets the first Monday of each month at the San Francisco Italian Athletic Club in San Francisco, California and holds two formal dinners each year.

The Project

Maritime Nations, Ships, Sea Captains, Merchants, Merchandise, Ship Passengers and VIPs sailing into San Francisco during the 1800s.




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Sources: As noted on entries and through research centers including National Archives, San Bruno, California; CDNC: California Digital Newspaper Collection; San Francisco Main Library History Collection; and Maritime Museums and Collections in Australia, China, Denmark, England, Finland, Germany, Ireland, Wales, Norway, Scotland, Spain, Sweden, etc.

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