Archaeologists Explore Military Facility Located Beneath Alcatraz

Alcatraz is one of the most storied prisons in American history. Built in the middle of the San Francisco Bay, the now-defunct institution is home to prison tours during the day and ghost hunting tours during the night. And now, thanks to a group of archaeologists from Binghamton University, another mystery has been revealed. Using laser technology, the team was able to explore the ground beneath the prison’s exercise yard, and what they found might just change the way we look at Alcatraz forever.

Alcatraz Translates To “Island of the Pelicans”

Before revealing what the team from Binghamton University found, let’s travel back to 1775 when Alcatraz Island was first given the name we know it by today. Spaniard Juan Manuel de Ayala, who claimed to “discover” the island, called it “La Isla de los Alcatraces.” This translates to “Island of the Pelicans.”

Low fog swirls around Alcatraz and the Golden Gate Bridge under clear skies as boats sail on the San Francisco Bay on Wednesday, September 16, 2020 in Berkeley, Calif.
Lea Suzuki/The San Francisco Chronicle via Getty Images
Lea Suzuki/The San Francisco Chronicle via Getty Images

The island is 22 acres with two high points, one 135 feet above sea level and the other 138 feet. It is between these high points that Alcatraz Penitentiary can be seen from shore.

The First Owner

Before becoming a world-famous penitentiary, Alcatraz Island was owned by Julian Workman. He was a ranch owner in 1846 when Alta California governor Pio Pico gave him the island. As part of their arrangement, Workman agreed to build a lighthouse.

the lighthouse on alcatraz island
Robert Alexander/Getty Images
Robert Alexander/Getty Images

Workman was never able to follow through on his promise. It’s not that he couldn’t, it’s that he was never given a chance. Less than one year into his ownership, California’s military governor John C. Fremont bought Alcatraz for $5,000.

Handed Over To The Military

In 1850, two years after California was sold to the United States, President Millard Fillmore ordered that Alcatraz Island be handed over to the military. This act turned the island into a military base, where it could be used as a defense to protect the bay.

john c fremont bought alcatraz for 5,000 dollars
Universal History Archive/Getty Images
Universal History Archive/Getty Images

The rightful owner of the land, John C. Fremont, expected the United States to pay him a hefty fee for the island. His investment was about to pay huge dividends. Or was it?

A Failed Fight

Unfortunately for Fremont, the United States took the land from him, arguing that the deal he made to buy it was invalid. Fremont lost the island, and he was given no money in exchange.

john c fremont fought to keep alcatraz
MPI/Getty Images
MPI/Getty Images

To try and get compensated for his loss, Fremont began a long legal battle. Along with his fellow ranchers, he fought the ruling in a case that ran through the system until the 1890s. When a final decision was made, it was declared that Fremont had no right to the land.

A Three-Year Wait

With Alcatraz Island firmly in the grasp of the United States, it took another three years for anything to happen. In 1853, construction finally began on a new fort under the watch of Zealous B. Tower.

the design of fort alcatraz
Wikimedia Commons
Wikimedia Commons

Although it took a few years for construction to begin, once it did, the building process needed to be fast. In 1848 the Gold Rush began, and people were flocking to San Francisco in the thousands! In just a few years, the population boomed from 300 to 30,000.

Defending The Bay

With so many people coming in so fast, building a defensive stronghold was a major priority. Not only did the military plan to fortify Alcatraz, but they also intended to build a stronghold on Fort Point, a nearby island.

the population of san francisco exploded during the gold rush
Hulton Archive/Getty Images
Hulton Archive/Getty Images

The Alcatraz project was finished first, which was a good thing. It wound up being given the strongest fortifications. At the time, no one knew it would eventually become one of the world’s most notorious prisons.

The Perfect Location

As if blessed from above, the San Francisco Bay gave away the perfect island to build a defensive stronghold on. Engineers couldn’t believe their incredible luck. In 1852, the Pacific Coast Board of Engineers reported:

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MBPROJEKT_Maciej_Bledowski, iStock
MBPROJEKT_Maciej_Bledowski, iStock

“Nature seems to have provided a redoubt for this [military] purpose in the shape of Alcatraz Island. Situated abreast the entrance directly in the middle of the inner harbor, it covers with its fire the whole of the interior space lying between Angel Island to the north, San Francisco to the south and the outer batteries to the west.”

Using What Nature Provided

Tasked with building Fort Alcatraz as quickly as possible, Zealous B. Tower used what nature gave him. With his men, the crew took rocks from the island to build up the walls of the fort along its coast.

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National Park Service, Golden Gate National Recreation Area/Getty Images
National Park Service, Golden Gate National Recreation Area/Getty Images

Once the walls were placed, weapons could be positioned behind them around the island perimeter. These weapons were placed on the west, south, and north of the naturally-built walls. There were also 111 armed cannons on the island, making it ready for anything.

Armed To The Teeth

As if cannons, which were called columbiads, weren’t enough, Fort Alcatraz was also outfitted with caponiers, stone towers that projected from the shore. Anyone looking to take control of Fort Alcatraz would have been met with a degree of difficulty unmatched at the time.

the citadel next to the lighthouse at alcatraz island
Staff/Mirrorpix/Getty Images
Staff/Mirrorpix/Getty Images

One year after construction began, the citadel was finished. There were barracks located next to the fort’s lighthouse. The lighthouse was also the first navigational light ever placed on the Pacific Coast of the United States.

Defending The Lighthouse

The citadel was tasked with not only defending the island but defending the lighthouse as well. To ensure success against attack, it was built to accommodate 100 soldiers, and expand to 200 when needed. The windows of the barracks were designed for soldiers to fire through.

the lighthouse could be defended from inside the citadel
Dave Etheridge-Barnes/Getty Images
Dave Etheridge-Barnes/Getty Images

And if the fort was taken over, there were enough supplies in the citadel for those trapped inside to survive for four months. In that time, it can be assumed, backup would arrive, or the citadel would be breached and overtaken.

The End Of The Process

Although it was intended to be a quick process, the fortification of Alcatraz Island was not finished until 1859. There were many reasons that led to this, but the biggest one was a shortage of skilled labor workers.

a person by a stream panning for gold
Camerique/ClassicStock/Getty Images
Camerique/ClassicStock/Getty Images

At the time the fort was being built, people were flocking to San Francisco in droves, but not to build a fort. They wanted to find gold and get rich quick. This meant finding people to actually work on the island was much easier said than actually done.

An Opportunity Never Used

During the Civil War, 350 men were positioned at Fort Alcatraz. Their time there ended up being unproductive. The fort was never attacked during the war. There was one recorded plot by the Confederate army, but the assault never came.

union soldiers during the civil war
MPI/Hulton Archive/Getty Images
MPI/Hulton Archive/Getty Images

In 1863, three men were detained and arrested in the plot to assault Fort Alcatraz. They were sentenced to ten years in prison – sentences they did not serve. Abraham Lincoln pardoned all three men when the war ended.

The First Prisoners

In modern times, of course, Alcatraz Island is best known for its penitentiary, and less for its military background. Interestingly enough, the two histories overlap. The first prisoners at Alcatraz were incarcerated soldiers in 1859.

a prison cell on alcatraz island
Paolo KOCH/Gamma-Rapho via Getty Images
Paolo KOCH/Gamma-Rapho via Getty Images

During the Civil War, the stronghold was also used to imprison Confederate soldiers. Even though Fort Alcatraz wasn’t built to be a prison, the future of the island was clearly never in doubt. It was only a matter of time before that future became the present.

The “Perfect” Prison

Alcatraz Penitentiary first began holding civilian prisoners in 1934. Thanks to the topography of the island and its distance from the shore, it was the perfect place for a prison. Anyone who tried to escape would find that freedom outside the walls was impossible to come by.

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US Army Air Corps/PhotoQuest/Getty Images
US Army Air Corps/PhotoQuest/Getty Images

The waters surrounding Alcatraz are near freezing and the strong currents are backbreaking to swim against. Overall, there have been 14 escape attempts from the prison. No one involved successfully made it to the mainland.

A Soaring Population

Before holding civilian prisoners, Alcatraz held prisoners of war. In 1867, a jailhouse was built on the fort. Thirty years later, during the Spanish-American War of 1898, the prison had a population of 450.

alcatraz prison cells n the shoreline
PhotoQuest/Getty Images
PhotoQuest/Getty Images

Over the next 15 years, the prison expanded with the addition of large concrete prison cells. That block of cells is the largest structure still intact on the island. Finally, in 1933, the military portion of the fort was decommissioned and the entire operation was handed over to the Prisons Bureau.

James A. Johnston Was A Tough Warden

Alcatraz Penitentiary welcomed its first group of prisoners on August 11, 1934. This group was “special” and had been hand-picked by authorities to make the journey to the island. They had disrupted life at their previous penitentiaries and needed a change of location.

prison guards inside alcatraz
Bettmann/Getty Images
Bettmann/Getty Images

Watching over these men was Alcatraz’s first warden, James A. Johnston. He was known as a strict disciplinarian and was the perfect man for the job. Life wouldn’t be easy for him, but he had a crew of 155 guards to help keep the peace.

Some Famous Faces

Once Alcatraz Penitentiary was fully up and running, it became the home of some of the country’s most notorious criminals. Al Capone and George Kelly are two of the most recognizable names, as well as one man labeled “Public Enemy Number One” by the FBI.

al capone at alcatraz prison
Donaldson Collection/Michael Ochs Archives/Getty Images
Donaldson Collection/Michael Ochs Archives/Getty Images

That man was Alvin “Creepy” Karpis, and he is one of four criminals to ever be given the title. He is also the only one of those four to be taken alive by authorities.

Any Survivors?

As we said, there were a total of 14 escape attempts from 36 prisoners on the island. Of those, none officially made it to shore. Six were taken to the grave, 23 were captured alive, and two drowned. As for the other five, they are listed as “missing and presumed drowned.”

prisoners plotting at alcatraz island
Warner Brothers/Getty Images
Warner Brothers/Getty Images

That means that while there is no proof that anyone successfully escaped Alcatraz, it is possible. Considering the conditions surrounding the island, though, it is unlikely they ever made it to the shore.

An Escape Attempt Immortalized

Of all the escape attempts, the 13th is the most interesting one. It involved three men: John Anglin, Clarence Anglin, and Frank Morris. They planned an elaborate escape and successfully made it into the ocean.

an escape hole at alcatraz penitentiary
Bettmann/Getty Images
Bettmann/Getty Images

The attempt was immortalized on the silver screen in 1979’s Escape from Alcatraz, starring Clint Eastwood. The story doesn’t end there, though. In 2013, a letter “written by John Anglin” was delivered to the police. Is it possible these three men survived the freezing currents of the San Francisco Bay?

What Does It All Mean?

Once Alcatraz Penitentiary shut down, it became a major tourist attraction. Tourism, of course, is not what interested the Binghamton University team led by Timothy de Smet to the island. They wanted to know what was beneath the surface.

alcatraz island has become a tourist hot spot
Robert Alexander/Getty Images
Robert Alexander/Getty Images

To look beneath the surface, the archaeological team used lasers to pierce the layers of concrete. With this incredible technology, they could see underground without causing any actual damage to the highly profitable and heavily-visited location.

Bomb-Proof

Thanks to their laser technology, the team was able to see structures from the island’s military days that were still intact. Going beneath the structures revealed even more; it showed what the team described as “a bombproof earthwork traverse.”

there is a bomb proof traverse at alcatraz
Binghamton University/YouTube
Binghamton University/YouTube

This tunnel was still in nearly perfect condition in 2019 and included ventilation shafts to keep anyone traveling through comfortable. These structures were part of the military stronghold and had been lost in time until de Smet and his team “uncovered” them.

Importance Of The Discovery

Timothy de Smet had no idea what to expect when his team began using lasers to search under the island. He had hoped to find lost structures, but nothing in a condition so well preserved.

using laser technology at alcatraz island
Binghamton University/YouTube
Binghamton University/YouTube

“We sought non-invasive, non-destructive means to ascertain if any historic archaeological remains lay beneath several parts of the island, like the recreation yard of the infamous penitentiary. We did not know what to expect,” he admitted. That’s not the only reason de Smet’s discovery was so important.

The Future Of Archaeology

Making such a momentous discovery could pave the way for an entirely new kind of archaeological surveying — non-invasive. This, maybe more than anything, was the greatest discovery that de Smut and his team made.

alcatraz island picture from the san fracisco bay
Gili Yaari/NurPhoto via Getty Images
Gili Yaari/NurPhoto via Getty Images

The future of archaeology is now looking as bright as ever according to de Smet. “With modern remote-sensing methods like these, we can answer fundamental archaeological research questions about human behavior, social organization and cultural change through time without costly and destructive excavation.”