Originally created 01/06/02

Saving Alcatraz



SAN FRANCISCO - A dank, 19th century dungeon wall, where prisoner "STR" once scratched his initials into solid brick, is about to be bathed in sunshine for the first time in a century.

An earthquake retrofit for Alcatraz, recently approved by the National Park Service, will begin next fall. The project, which will cost $4 million to $5 million, will drill through layers of history as crews shore up the crumbling prison. Starting from the roof of the federal prison that looms on the tiny island's crest, new support structures will penetrate down past a Civil War fort called the Citadel, hidden under the floor of the cell house.

Down in that gloomy redoubt, eight coal bins were once gated and barred, then used as dungeons. Rebellious prisoners were chained there for bouts of solitary confinement, through the end of the military era and during the initial years of the better-known prison period.

"I'm glad this will help us save the prison," said John Martini, a consulting historian for the National Park Service. "Mainly, I like that it can also preserve the fort - the earliest, least-known part of Alcatraz. The project is long overdue."

Martini has already combed the concealed Citadel's halls, chambers, cisterns and sewers. He said, "I'd love it if this work uncovered serious artifacts."

Congress approved the cell-house stabilization work in 1999. However, this project is just one on a lengthy wish list of restorations the Park Service would love to see on Alcatraz, to protect its broad array of cultural and natural treasures.

Subject to a barrage of sea winds and salt spray - as well as episodes of arson and vandalism - many of the structures on the island appear down-at-the- heel.

The hardship of maintaining flaking concrete and rusting steel caused Alcatraz to be abandoned as a federal prison in 1963, and the decay has accelerated in the ensuing four decades.

In 1999, a three-ton piece of catwalk fell, crushing an unoccupied biologists bird blind in an area closed to the public. Around the same time, a 100-pound chunk of concrete plummeted from a balcony near the docks where sightseers gathered. The piece fell at night, when visitors were absent, but it still constituted a vigorous wake-up call.

During daylight prison tours, visitors are shown through the upper cell house, where they see facilities used by notorious miscreants. These include solitary-confinement rooms of solid steel on Cell Block D. But visitors usually remain unaware that just below their feet, under the concrete floor, lie remnants of the Civil War-era Citadel - as well as genuine dungeons where Alcatraz's most severe punishments were meted out.

When the concrete prison was erected in the early 1900s, the Citadel ruins were plunged into utter darkness. The isolated chambers were fitted with steel doors and ringbolts for shackles, where the most miserable military convicts were chained. According to Martini, a typical prisoner's solitary stint in a dungeon lasted 19 days. The scrawl "STR," dated 1939, indicates the punishment lasted well into the reign of the first civilian warden, James A. Johnston, who served from 1934 to 1948.

Once he had more modern cells for solitary available on Cell Block D, Johnston ceased using the underground dungeons. He then had their doors removed. Martini said, "I believe Johnston wanted to take away from any future staff the option of ever using those old chambers again."

"I've been coming for 27 years," Martini said. "But I still don't like being down here by myself. It's just too spooky."

There are other reasons to feel spooked. The feeling that one could be crushed by the huge prison overhead is pervasive.

The "rust-jacking" effect of steel expanding within concrete as it corrodes has torn multiple splits in vertical support columns. It has also shattered brick walls where they meet horizontal support beams.

In some spots, timbers and pipes have been pounded together to provide a makeshift fix, like shoring in a mineshaft. Strain gauges seek to measure ongoing sag and uplift in the overhead slab.

If all goes according to plan, multimillion-dollar remedies will be applied next year. Columns will get fiberglass sheaths to strengthen the roof, and skylight openings will be reinforced. Next, shear walls and bracing will be installed in the utility corridors between the cellblocks. Finally, holes will be knocked through the floor. This will allow faint, filtered sunbeams to probe down to the dank Citadel moat for the first time in a century.

Next, large thrust collector beams built near the floor of the prison will be attached to a new footing, which will be secured by columns that pass through the Citadel and, for the first time, penetrate the bedrock.