COLLEGE STATION – A Texas A&M University researcher is part of a team trying to uncover long-lost secrets in one of the country’s most infamous sites – Alcatraz Island.
Mark Everett, professor of geology and geophysics, has joined with colleagues from California’s Chico State University and the National Parks Service to see what is beneath layers of soil and concrete on Alcatraz, located in San Francisco Bay. At various times, the island has been home to the oldest operating lighthouse on the West Coast, a military fortification, a military prison and a federal prison.
Everett and the team are exploring the Civil War connections to Alcatraz (which is derived from the Spanish word for pelican) and how the island may contain hidden tunnels and chambers about 12 to 15 feet below the recreation yard and parade ground of the prison.
“We know from records and drawings that Alcatraz, at one time called Fortress Alcatraz, has been heavily fortified,” Everett explains.
“At one time, it had 105 cannons that were to be used to protect the Bay area. We know that the soldiers constructed what was called a ‘caponier,’ a large concrete and brick structure that extended outward so that if invaded, you could fire from different angles.
“We also know that the U.S. Army built underground tunnels and embankments, and we believe we have found the remains of several of these using ground-penetrating radar.
Everett says the team has located them beneath the recreation yard and parade ground built during the penitentiary era on Alcatraz’ 22 acres.
Because of its location away from the mainland and the cold waters surrounding it, Alcatraz was used to house Civil War prisoners as early as 1861, and by 1868 it was designated as a long-term detention facility to hold military prisoners.
It became a Federal Bureau of Prisons facility in 1933 and was used to house some of the nation’s most famous criminals. Among the many convicts who called the island home were George “Machine Gun” Kelly, Mickey Cohen, Robert Stroud, known as the “Birdman of Alcatraz,” and Al Capone.
At least 14 escape attempts were made by dozens of prisoners, but it is believed none were successful during the prison’s 29-year existence. Due to its deterioration and large upkeep (it cost more than three times to maintain compared to other federal prisons), then-Attorney General Robert Kennedy closed Alcatraz on March 21, 1963.
“One of the big problems that always plagued Alcatraz was water. It had none, and water had to be brought in to fill a water tower on the grounds,” Everett says. “Water was always an issue with the facility.
“We do believe there are considerable structures 12 feet or so under the surface that are the original fortifications and that these were covered over through the years for prison use. It’s possible there could be some of the original weapons and arms down there, too.
“We hope to return next fall to learn what exactly is down there, and it would be nice if the National Park Service is able to could recover some of it for the benefit of the general public. Alcatraz has had a very colorful past, and there could be some great history down there.”