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Historic Alcatraz Island -

Somewhere between seven and ten thousand years ago, the world's most recent Ice Age ended - and the seas rose to the levels we see today. Two great river canyons, separated by a small mountain, made their way to the Pacific Ocean - bringing with them great volumes of water from the Sierra mountain range - three hundred miles to the east.


When the rising seas encroached inland - some twenty miles - these two sister canyons were flooded, and the mountain between them became an island. A very special island.


American Indians' spoken histories tell of this mountain as a rich hunting ground, and later - of a nearly barren island they could only reach in hand-crafted tule-reed canoes - presumably to gather eggs from the abundant nesting seabird colonies. 


These first explorers, of a place we now know as Alcatraz Island, would have been the men, and young men, of the local Ohlone and Miwok Native American tribes - who lived along the shores of the surrounding bay waters. The seabirds are still here.

Today, Alcatraz Island is one of the United States' most popular National Park sites, as part of the Golden Gate National Recreational Area, and has been attracting more that 1.5 million visitors - from around the globe -in recent years. 

The western history of Alcatraz island is quite complex. Most visitors are aware of the compelling period of Alcatraz history we know as the Penitentiary era (1934 - 1963).


However, many are not aware of the earlier periods of Alcatraz history, which created the special circumstances for the island to become part of the U.S. National Park system.

Alcatraz Island qualified for consideration as a National Park site in 1972, as a result of its' earlier history - as the optimum site for the first light-house constructed on the west coast of the United States (c. 1853).


In addition, this prominent - yet relatively small island - was strategically positioned at the center of the great San Francisco Bay - also, a perfect site for the U.S. Army's first military fortification constructed on the west coast. (1854 - 1857).

The development of Alcatraz Island, began as a defensive fortification built by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers - for the US Army in the early 1850's. The government's plan to create a formidable protective fortification, was a timely response to the great California , Gold Rush - which had begun in late 1848 - which saw a massive economic impact on the new western city of San Francisco.


The population of San Francisco had ballooned - from an estimated 3,000 residents in 1848 - to include an astounding influx of immigrants -'Gold Rushers' - which brought the total number of citizens to more than 30,000 by 1850!




'FORT ALCATRAZ' Guardhouse, 1857


'Early Fortress - 'China Alley', Masonry




Fort Alcatraz would serve to protect San Francisco - and it's strategic harbor - from any would-be sea-faring invaders - and guard the vast quantities of freshly minted gold coming to the new city from the 'mother-load' of the Sierra foothills.


Draw-bridges and dry moats were constructed to protect the Fort's Guardhouse, and the Citadel Fortress , crowning the island fortification.


Large caliber powder-fired cannon were installed here, including 15-inch Rodman Guns - capable of firing a 400 pound shot up to three miles - conveniently, the distance to the Golden Gate, the entrance to the appealing harbor.  At it's peak, these defensive armaments were placed around the entire perimeter of Alcatraz Island - totaling 128 intimidating  'fire-power' deterrents. 

It is safe to say that the military history of Alcatraz is more about what did not happen here, than what did, evidently as a result of the massive fortification. No shots were ever fired in anger from this bastion.


Immediately following the U.S. Civil War (early 1860's) the government feared a potential invasion by our fellow American's - the Confederate Army - who might join forces with the still disgruntled British Navy.


The most significant military action, and potentially provocative incident, took place in 1863 when a 'warning shot' was fired from the island's west gun-placements across the bow of the HMS-Sutlej, a British Navy frigate, who failed to fly it's identifying flags from its' mast. Fortunately, the shot didn't strike the vessel by 'accident'. 


The smooth-bored artillery cannon were actually quite inaccurate - even with the Fort Alcatraz troops' rigorous training, and frequent practice drills. Many cannon shot were eventually recovered from Alcatraz facing Angel Island beaches and western slopes.   

The incident was peacefully resolved when the Sutlej fired a shot which was interpreted to be a salute, and Fort Alcatraz responded with a twenty-one gun salute. Cheers, mate!

Fort Alcatraz would expand during the late 1860's and 1870's - to a formidable military presence on San Francisco Bay, successfully defending the strategic harbor from any sea-faring potential invaders. Expansion of the fortification would include the creation of a perimeter of rocky cliffs, and pain-staking construction 30 to 40 foot-high brick masonry fortification walls - intended to prevent the landing of any un-announced vessels entering the bay.


In addition,  installation of a final total of 128 large-caliber cannon, including a dozen 15" Rodman 'guns' - capable  of firing a 400 lb. 'shot' three and and one-half miles. , to the Golden Gate - were placed - mostly along the west-side of the island. 

(to be expanded)




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