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Category Archives: Artifact
Alcatraz these days is a bustling place of projects. The big project of repairing the west side wall of the cellblock is very apparent but visitors can’t see the work being done as the scaffolding is wrapped in white plastic.
The other significant project that was just completed at the end of December was in full sight of visitors and left a dramatic difference to the island. The Eucalyptus grove at the south end of the island (just off the dock), was removed. The project had been two years in the planning and finally had enough urgency and funding to make it possible. The trees, originally planted by the military in the early 1920s, had reached maturity and were a safety risk of falling.
Marin County Arborists were trusted with the tree removal. The company had previously worked on tree removals on the island and was familiar with barging equipment over and working around visitors.
Sixteen blue gum eucalyptus trees and two non-historic Monterey cypress trees were removed and chipped over three weeks.
The chips were hauled to the Parade Ground to be stored until the National Park Service’s archeologist had a chance to examine the bare slope for evidence of military construction. We received the ‘all clear’ within a day of the trees being removed and we set to work!
First, chips from 18 trees is a heck of a lot more than I could envision! The recommendation from consulting arborist was to put the chips back on the slope to a depth of 4”, place jute netting over top and anchor wattles horizontally across the slope to stabilize the slope. The slope had been eroding badly for years, so this would be the perfect opportunity to stop the erosion.
Volunteer groups were enlisted to manually place the chips on the slope. With bucket brigades and teamwork, the slope was covered over a month. The Golden Gate National Parks Conservancy’s Stewardship Team (of which the Alcatraz Gardens is a division within the company’s organization) were set to take a day off from their normal sites and lend a hand. To sweeten the deal, an overnight was planned (and what better way to say thank you than a night in solitary?).
The effort was a huge success with people filling
buckets, people carrying the full buckets to the bottom of the slope, to the chain of people to send the full buckets up the slope, and empty bucket retrievers! Maria Durana captured the well-oiled machine of the bucket brigade:
Once the chips were in place, the jute netting could be placed on top. The rolls were heavy and we soon figured that cutting them first was best.
Aside from the Stewardship Team, four corporate groups and the regular drop-in garden volunteers pitched in to help spread the mulch. In total 900 yards of jute netting was placed and 750′ of wattles were installed.
The slope will be replanted with Eucalyptus cinerea ‘Pendula’ in September 2017 in keeping with the historic look of the island.
On another note of discovery, the perimeter wall of the Parade ground was further revealed along with the basement of one of the former cottages. And a new fern was found growing! With more years of planning to come, hopefully this neglected garden are will be the next focus of garden preservation.
Past garden manager, Carola, is quoted in Alcatraz’s Discovery film as saying the gardening is like ‘garden archeology’. Her words perfectly described the work of clearing vegetation and finding artifacts and landscape features that had lay hidden underneath ivy and blackberries for decades.
Her words are still very true today. The garden crew has been in over their heads clearing ivy from trees and uncovering terrace walls.
Using the Cultural Landscape Report for Alcatraz Island as a guide, permission was granted by the Park Service to clear overgrowth from known garden areas that no one had worked in since the prison closed in 1963. As part of the approval, garden volunteers and staff attended a lecture by National Park Service Archeologists, Leo and Peter.
With broad reaching strokes, Leo and Peter described their work across the park. San Francisco has a rich history with native settlements, missions, military history. Every time significant ground disturbance is done in the Park, this duo is on the scene. Some finds are accidents whereas others are known sites of interest. Leo described what to do in case items were found –
-take a photo with a point of reference in the background, not to zoom in on the object but give an easy way to find where the object had been found.
-fill out the paperwork that marks on a map where the object was found, and describe the item and the circumstances under which it was found
A key point was to distinguish between a single item found and a ‘feature’. A feature, as we now know, is considered a group of artifacts. In the case of finding a feature, the objects should be left in place and give Leo a call.
All of the objects found are taken to the Presidio archives where they are cleaned, recorded, and added to the collection. For garden artifacts, Leo has been marking the locations of the items on an overall map. Overtime, the pinpoint locations of objects give a big picture of significant areas, slow archeology in a sense.
Most people think of Alcatraz as only a federal prison, but the island has layers of history that equals the city of San Francisco, where the story of the gardens is woven throughout. Seeing the island through Leo’s eyes was really, well, eye-opening. Landscape features that we always walk by, were given an explanation, or at least a theory that made us all think – ah, that makes sense. For example, many parts of the island had a whitewash over the bricks, stone and concrete. The whitewash façade has fallen away in many areas, but the anchor holes of the façade remain.
Today, the holes look like planting pockets. We had always wondered about the evenly spaced shallow holes. They obviously weren’t big enough for a large plant with roots, or even to hold moisture during the dry summer. With Leo giving his theory of the holes being the anchor points, the holes suddenly made sense. By chance, the cliff below the Warden’s house is being stabilized with the addition of fake rock being anchored with long bolts – just like was done long ago.
One of the coolest objects found was an arrowhead several years ago, and another arrowhead showed up a few months ago. Leo explained that the arrowheads can be dated by using the fact that glass absorbs water at a specific rate for locations.
Other features of the island, are fun to speculate over – the bluestone found on the island is only found in a few locations around the Bay Area, Angel Island and Corte Madera. Not only did significant labour went into gathering the bluestone and hauling it to Alcatraz, but seeing it used for building reflects a known time period and a recycling of building material as well. Leo’s passion was evident as he said ‘some we will never learn but there is meaning in it all’.
Our take away lesson from Leo’s talk was to “overly thoughtful and nerdy about everything you find”.
The late Carola Ashford, the garden’s first Project Manager, described gardening on Alcatraz as ‘garden archeology’. Peeling back the layers of overgrowth from years of neglect would always reveal artifacts – forgotten items from the prison days. As we approach our tenth year, we are still finding items. But not all of our findings are artifacts from long ago.
This past week, while weeding
around the metal detector at the base of the recreation yard steps, Barbara, discovered a message in a bottle!
The crew of volunteers and I all gathered around, we all wondered what could be inside.
Prying open the Boylan Bottle Works Root Beer bottle (luckily one of the gardeners travels with a bottle opener), we teased out some moist papers. We speculated it was a time capsule or perhaps a million dollars left to care for the gardens. We were a bit off with our guesses; but the contents of the bottle did make us smile.
Dated April 26th, 2011 -the bottle held the message ‘I love you. Let’s find this and laugh’. The note also had a big imprint of lipstick lips. We all did laugh at the find and it was fun to think that a visitor had left this behind for someone to find one day.
The bottle also contained a BART ticket, a business card from Millennium, a vegetarian restaurant in San Francisco, and napkins from Extreme Pizza. Perhaps the bottle held the best memories from the person’s trip to San Francisco?
Whatever the reason for leaving the bottle, it was exciting to find.
This week was a turning point in spring with the Chasmanthe floribunda being cut back on the west road terraces. After blooming in February, the leaves of this South African bulb is left is photosynthesize to store energy in the bulb to bloom next spring. Like other bulbs, such as tulips and daffodils, the leaves should be left until they die back completely; however, on the west road terraces, the chasmanthe is cut back just as the tips are starting to turn yellow.
Why do we cut the foliage when they are still green?
The leaf stalks are cut to the ground and which are then cut into 4” pieces by volunteer crews. The pieces will be composted and break down much faster if they are cut when they are still green. The moisture content in the leaves helps them break down much quicker than if they were brown and dry. We have experimented in past years with letting the foliage die back completely, then cutting it back and feeding it through our chipper. Not only were the dried leaves hard to cut with hand pruners; but the dried leaves wrapped around the chipper blades; which then lead to hours taking the chipper apart and sharpening the blades.
This week, method – a company that is dedicated to producing earth and people friendly cleaning products – volunteered in the gardens and helped with this yearly task. A fun bunch, the group enjoyed views of the Golden Gate Bridge while they worked.
One lucky employee, Jonathan McCarren even found a very rusty trowel with the wooden handle rotted away. Jonathan’s find will be passed onto the National Park Service archives and his name will become part of the records. The group speculated what the inmate who last touched it had being doing and why the trowel had been left behind?
Fitting for a cleaning company, they swept the roadway after they were done and left the gardens pristine.
Volunteers have been steadily working the past three weeks stabilizing the inmate built terraces on the west side of the island. The garden area referred to as the laundry terraces, was developed and tended by penitentiary inmates after the 1930s and was cared for until the maximum prison closed in 1963. The original terraces are still standing and survivor plants dot the terraced hillside. However, the terraces and the access stairs are in need of repair.
Working within the parameters of the West Side Treatment Plan that was developed and approved by the National Park Service in 2009, we have permission to stabilize these historic structures. Under the guidance of the National Park Service’s historic architect
and mason, all repairs done to the terraces must match the existing historic materials. Most significantly, the mortar that we use to cement the concrete blocks back together must be accurate. For this, we mix the mortar using a ratio of 8 parts sand to 2 parts Type 2 Portland cement to 1 part lime. The volunteers love this part of the Alcatraz experience. One of my long-time volunteers explains that to be a gardener out here, you are also a carpenter, a mason and a plumber.
These historic terraces are closed for public accessed and we are only able to work in this area from September to February. A large colony of Brandt’s cormorants call this area home the other months of the year and this vital nesting site would be disturbed. Still, it is important not to allow these terraces to further degrade and we will be working diligently over the next few years to make the necessary repairs.
Interestingly, a volunteer group, the Bay Area Whaleboat Association, weeded the terraces December 10 and uncovered never seen before inmate graffiti. They found numbers etched into cement that formed a basin underneath a spigot – perhaps the numbers correspond to inmates that did work in this garden area? The Federal inmate records held at the National Archives in San Bruno will hopefully yield some answers.
Carola Ashford, the garden’s first project manager, described the garden work as “garden archeology”. And, it certainly is. The garden restoration is about to enter its ninth year and we are still discovering the gardens.
The Discovery film that greets island visitors introduces the idea of Alcatraz being a layered cake of history with each era built upon the previous. Looking closely, an observant person can see where the layers meet.
The military mainly used bricks in the early construction of the island fortifications. The bricks are like ingredients in the layered cake history, each adding to the flavor of history.
The bricks themselves are rich in history and have their own stories about where they were made and how they arrived on Alcatraz. Brick companies often stamped their name in the bricks and in the gardens, nine types of named bricks have been recorded. Many of these bricks were re-used in the construction of the 1940s era garden pathways mostly found in the Officers’ Row gardens.
One of the early bricks is stamped ‘COWEN’. This firebrick was manufactured by the Joseph Cowen & Company at Blaydon Burn in northeast England between 1816 and 1900. It is a mystery how a brick from northeast England ended up in a garden pathway on Alcatraz, perhaps the brick came as ballast in a ship and was then destined for building a growing San Francisco.
An interesting brick is stamped simply ‘CH’, standing for City Hall. Bricks for city hall were manufactured by several companies in Oakland and San Francisco in the 1870s. Usually, bricks are stamped with the manufacturer’s name, not the destination of the brick. City Hall was destroyed by the earthquake and fire in 1906 and the bricks were located to Alcatraz in an effort to clear up the rubble that littered the city.
‘CARNEGIE’ bricks date between 1902 and 1911 and were made at Carnegie, in San Joaquin County, California. Many companies had their beginnings related to the gold rush and the Carnegie Brick and Pottery Company is no different. Founded in 1902, railroad workers found a seam of coal and while mining for the coal, discovered clay. With a building boom in San Francisco, building materials were in high demand and by 1910, 110 000 bricks a day were being made and were distributed all over California. The factory supported a small town but sadly, the bank that held the mortgage failed and the plant soon closed. The site is now part of the Carnegie State Vehicular Recreation Area.
The Livermore Fire Brick Company also has bricks on Alcatraz and the beginnings of this company illustrate the entrepreneurial characteristic of California’s early business men. In 1908 a group of businessmen proposed to develop Livermore’s first non-agricultural industry. Their plan involved the donation of 5 acres of land with the condition that all workers would live in the town, thereby boosting the local economy. An additional ten acres was purchased by the businessmen for $2650. The town then decided to use the remaining money from their Earthquake Fund to purchase the community’s share in the plant. A clause was added to the purchase of the land that the plant was to revert to town property if the plant was to be used for anything other than manufacturing. The brick plant was in operation from 1910 to 1949. A source of clay was never found locally but the company was able to ship their bricks to Sacramento, Washington State, Mexico and Honolulu. The company began experimenting in 1914 using diatomaceous earth and replaced the use of cork in lining commercial refrigerators.
LINCOLN fire bricks were made between 1890 and 1943 by the Gladding McBean & Company in Lincoln, Placer County, California. Founder Charles Gladding came to Sacramento after serving in the Civil War. He had heard about clay being found and travelled to Lincoln to take samples. The clay was found to be of excellent quality and the supply was good. He enlisted the help of his friends from Chicago and in May of 1875, the company was started. The company started to make sewer pipes and soon located an office on Market Street in San Francisco. They decorated the building with terra cotta trim and soon became known for architectural terra cotta facades. The company expanded to produce fire bricks, roof tile, chimney pipes and garden pottery. Their roof tiles were used at Stanford University and they continue to supply tiles for any current work. The company is still going strong.
Other bricks on the island are SNOWBALL, from the Derwenthaugh Fire Bricks Works in England; M.T. & CO dated from the 1860s; DFC and WEMCO from the Denver Firebrick Company. More remains to be researched about these companies and their bricks. For brick collectors (yes, there is such a thing), a great resource is Dan Mosier’s website ‘California Bricks’. Randy, a long-time garden volunteer has taken a deep interest in the bricks and is constantly on the lookout for new bricks that that we have not seen yet.
While Alcatraz is a relatively small 22.5-acre island, a few historic gardens tended long ago remain hidden; they have yet to be cleared of overgrowth vegetation, documented, and perhaps one day restored.
This past weekend, volunteers from the Bay Area Whaleboaters Association worked to reclaim a set of terraces that lead from the dock to the parade ground. These terraces were first gardened by Freddie Reichel in the early 1940s. Mr. Reichel was the secretary to Alcatraz Warden Johnson. Impressed with the gardens left by the military, he worked in his spare time to maintain their beauty. He began to tend these terraces behind his home.
Prior to any removal of vegetation, we investigate the history of the area. There should be some documentation that the area was once a garden. Evidence of a past garden can be found in historic photos, oral history interviews, old maps of the island, and existing ornamental plants and hardscape features. In this case, old photos, surviving ornamental plants, and extensive terraces confirmed our belief that the area had once been gardened.
The Whaleboaters revealed dry-stacked terraces and cleared the staircase that was becoming covered with eucalyptus leaves. They made a few interesting discoveries – a pink radio, several rubber boots and surviving ornamental plants such as Euonymus japonica and an unidentified rose.
The Whaleboaters did a fantastic job revealing this hidden corner of the island. From the dock, visitors can see for themselves the newly revealed terraces and the staircase that once led to the parade ground.