Category Archives: Gardens of Alcatraz

Blooming Times

When the Garden Conservancy started work to bring the Gardens of Alcatraz back to life after forty years of neglect, one of the fascinating aspects of the project was the plant life still surviving on the island. In 2005, an island wide survey was done and we found just over 200 different species of plants!

As most gardeners are also ‘list makers’, and like keeping track of new plantings and when the plants bloom, we started to keep track of the flowering times.

Beginning in 2009, we made simple lists by the season of what was in bloom. Our spreadsheets have gotten a bit more elaborate since then. We still list each species of plant, but also record which garden it is blooming in, if the blooming is just starting, in full bloom, or is fading.

Comparing the same months and the same gardens over the years tells us some interesting facts.

The most obvious is that we have WAY more plants blooming on the island now that we did in 2009! We do try to be consistent when we take our observations – so we aim for the same week each month. In 2009, we reached our peak number of plants in bloom in the spring with 80 different plants blooming. This year, in May, we reached 156 different plants blooming – almost double from only four years ago!

The gardens are pretty much all over the island, creating microclimates of sun versus shade, leeward versus windward, and watered plants versus ‘on your own’ plants. The survivor plants are great for looking at how these microclimates affect the blooming times under these conditions.

Persian carpet is a historic island plant that can be found in most of the restored gardens around the island. The Persian carpet on the south facing slopes began to bloom in February this year but in December 2010, we had a scattering of blooms in all the different gardens. The Persian carpet finished

Persian carpet. Photo by Shelagh Fritz

Persian carpet. Photo by Shelagh Fritz

blooming on the south facing slopes last month but is still going strong on the East facing slopes. Planting the same plant with different sun exposures not only lengthens the blooming time, but it also allows more visitors to the island see this wonderful historic plant in bloom.



Another garden survivor that has had some subtle changes to its blooming time is Centranthus ruber, Jupiter’s Beard. In 2010, it started to bloom in the spring as it normally does and then finished in late September. Comparing the bloom times of 2012, the centranthus bloomed every month of the year!

Centranthus ruber. Photo by Shelagh Fritz

Centranthus ruber. Photo by Shelagh Fritz

We will also have to now start tracking the weather conditions and the amount of rain and fog to really get a better picture of why the plants are blooming at such different times.

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Gardening with non-Natives

Earth Day typically involve activities that focus on native plants and restoring habitats, but the day was also an opportunity to demonstrate that gardeners can landscape with drought tolerant non-native plants that are not invasive. Hosting a garden table with Alcatraz Cruises’ Earth Day celebration last week was a chance to highlight plants growing on Alcatraz, that while not native, are extremely well suited to the climate they have been thriving in.


From over 200 species of plants that survived the closure of the prison five plants were chosen to be on display. Each of the five plants has different adaptions to coping with drought, wind, poor soil and sun exposure.


The first plant always receives a lot of attention – Aeonium arboreum, or hens and chicks as most people call it. This succulent is able to store water in its fleshy leaves, and will drop the lower leaves when water becomes scarce. Producing few seeds, the plant mainly propagates itself by the forming roots along its stem. The roots will grow downwards, seeking any soil to root into. The plant is able to thrive in poor soil; I have even seen a massive clump of aeonium growing out of 5 inches of debris that had accumulated on top of a tunnel entrance.


Hens and Chicks. Photo by Shelagh Fritz

Hens and Chicks. Photo by Shelagh Fritz

Another popular succulent is Persian carpet. This little beauty is coloring the hillsides of the island pink right now. As tiny as the leaves are, they store water and the slightly dimpled leaves reflect light. The ice plant is great for stabilizing poor soils. Although an ice plant, this little guy is not the common invasive ice plant that is often seen along freeways.


Nasturtium poking through Persian carpet. Photo by Shelagh Fritz

Nasturtium poking through Persian carpet. Photo by Shelagh Fritz

A common garden plant in the 1940s and 50s was Pelargoniums, commonly known as geraniums. Pelargoniums are from the Southern Hemisphere and are from the

Pelargonium quercifolium - Oak leaf geranium. The leaves have a unique fragrance and are slightly sticky. Photo by Shelagh Fritz

Pelargonium quercifolium – Oak leaf geranium. The leaves have a unique fragrance and are slightly sticky. Photo by Shelagh Fritz

Mediterranean regions of South Africa. Five different cultivars survived on the island. The rough leaves reflect light, as well as the plant will drop its lower leaves when stressed by drought. It is not known exactly how, but the scented leaves of pelargonium are thought to be a survival mechanism.


Another survivor is the common garden nasturtium. It is surprising that the fleshy green round leaves are able to cope with the strong winds and lack of water, but these annuals have been self-seeding since they were introduced in 1924. They are able to complete their life cycle by the time water is becoming scarce in the soil.


Many visitors are surprised to see Calla lilies

Calla lily. Photo by Shelagh Fritz.

Calla lily. Photo by Shelagh Fritz.

thriving in the gardens. The callas, growing from a rhizome, are able to grow with the rains and then store energy for next year’s growth. The arrow shaped leaves will even funnel water to the roots. As we don’t water our callas, they do go dormant, the green leaves fading to yellow.


Growing a garden with just native plants is a wonderful goal, but gardeners can also select suitable plants for their area that are not native. Taking a walk around Alcatraz this month really shows how dramatic creating garden on a bare rock with non-natives can be.

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Test Your Knowledge

Upon arriving to Alcatraz, many visitors are surprised at how, well, BEAUTIFUL, the island is. The gardens are a stark contrast to what they were expecting to find – a barren island in the middle of San Francisco Bay that has the world’s most famous prison. Test your knowledge about the gardens with these questions, I bet you learn something new.


1.  In 2005, a plant inventory was done of the surviving vegetation on Alcatraz. How many species of plants were found?

A. Less than 50

B. Between 51 and 100

C. Between 101 and 200

D. Over 200


2.   True or False – the island has no source of freshwater other than fog drip and rainfall.


3.  True or False – all of the island’s soil was imported.


4.  True or False – the gardens have plants from every continent except Antarctica.


5.  True or False – inmate gardener, Elliot Michener,

Inmate gardener, Elliot Michener. Photo courtesy of J. Simpson.

Inmate gardener, Elliot Michener. Photo courtesy of J. Simpson.

was so attached to the gardens he created during his 9 year stay, that upon his transfer to Leavenworth Prison in Kansas, he requested to come back to Alcatraz to finish his sentence.


6.  True or False – today, the garden volunteers have a worm farm in the rose terrace greenhouse.


7.  The nasturtiums seen growing on the island today were introduced:

A. 1924 by the California Wildflower and Spring Blossom Society

Nasturtium. Photo by Shelagh Fritz

Nasturtium. Photo by Shelagh Fritz

B. A seagull dropped the seeds

C. 2003 when The Garden Conservancy began clearing overgrowth


8. Alcatraz Island is 22.5 acres in size. The gardens make up:

A. 500 ft2

B. 1 acre

C. 2 acres

D. 4.5 acres


9.  True or False – During the island’s days as a military prison, there was a mule stable on the west lawn.


10.  True or False – Penitentiary guards would sometimes fish from the Alcatraz dock. They would use the fish heads to fertilize the island’s roses.


11.  True or False – Penitentiary inmates tended flower gardens and would leave buckets of flowers on the dock for guards’ families.


12.  The garden restoration began in 2003 and relied heavily on volunteer gardens. As of January 2013, garden volunteers have logged:

A. 1000 hours

B. 10 000 hours

C. 30 000 hours

D. 40 000 hours


13. True or False – once you are on the island, the garden tour is free.


14. The military and penitentiary encouraged inmates to garden, mainly to give the inmates something to do. A number of greenhouses were constructed on the island to help grow plants. Today, there are 2

The Warden's greenhouse. Photo courtesy of GoGa.

The Warden’s greenhouse. Photo courtesy of GoGa.

greenhouses on the island, but how many greenhouses once stood on the island?

A. 2

B. 4

C. 6

D. 8


15.  Today, Alcatraz is a protected sanctuary for many kinds of water birds who return to the island every spring to nest and raise their families. A few of these birds began coming to the island during the 40 years when the gardens became overgrown. Which birds come to the island because the overgrowth provides ideal nesting sites?

A. Seagulls and Brandt’s cormorants

B. Pelicans

C. Snowy egrets and black crowned night herons

D. Pigeon guillemots and penguins


16.  True or False – there are still more gardens to restore on the island.


17.  True or False – the military had vocational training for inmates to become gardeners.


18. The slope in front of the cell house was planted in 1924 to give a friendly look to San Francisco. The slope was restored in 2007 and the Persian carpet iceplant is blooming bright pink once again. The slope can be seen as far away as:

A. As you approach on the ferry

Pink persian carpet showing a cheerful face to San Francisco. Photo courtesy of J. Simpson.

Pink persian carpet showing a cheerful face to San Francisco. Photo courtesy of J. Simpson.

B. Fisherman’s Wharf

C. Crissy Field

D. The Golden Gate Bridge

E. Space


19. What is the secret ingredient in our award winning compost?

A. Bird guano

B. Oxalis

C. Anchor Steam hops

D. Love


20.  True or False – there is always something blooming in the gardens, regardless of the time of year.





1. d; 2. True; 3. True; 4. True; 5. True; 6. True; 7. a; 8. d; 9. True; 10. True; 11. True; 12. d; 13. True; 14. c; 15. c; 16. True; 17. True; 18. d; 19. c; 20. c


How did you do?

15-20 correct answers – You should become a docent!

10-14 – Very good!

6-9      – Pretty good.

0-5      – Come join us on a tour!







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Clearing 40+ Years of Overgrowth

It’s a fun time to be a volunteer in the gardens with working on the big projects for this winter. Many of the volunteers got hooked on gardening on the Rock because of the initial uncovering and ‘discovering’ of the forgotten gardens. For people that loves getting dirty and feeling like you are making a difference – this is the time to get involved!


The lawn, which is being prepared to be planted in the Fall of 2013 with native grasses, has become neglected and the ‘green’ of the lawn is all from non-native grasses and oxalis. But even this green vegetation died during the dry summer, leaving a barren looking backdrop to the manicured gardens.


To prepare the area, the first layer of mulch layering has been laid down, and to my dismay, birds have pecked their way through the compost and the cardboard to reach the soil, allowing light to the oxalis that we are trying to suffocate.  Those darn birds! I’m hoping to place another layer of cardboard and mulch in the coming week.


Beginning to lay down cardboard to smother the oxalis and weed seeds. A layer of mulch is then placed on top of the cardboard. Photo by Shelagh Fritz

Beginning to lay down cardboard to smother the oxalis and weed seeds. A layer of mulch is then placed on top of the cardboard. Photo by Shelagh Fritz

The finished cardboard and mulch layer. Photo by Sarah Mendel.











In the meantime, the volunteer crew is working away at clearing the forty plus years of overgrowth on the north end of the historic lawn. The overgrowth is being tackled from all sides, and today we finally made it to the base of the large Albizia tree that is in the middle. Another few hours were spent digging up ivy roots and before we knew it, it was 2pm already! As we worked, one of the volunteers wondered out loud if the author of Jack in the Bean Stock was a gardener that had pulled ivy. Some of the ivy shoots were easily 20 feet long!

Marney tackling the overgrowth. Photo by Shelagh Fritz

Marney tackling the overgrowth. Photo by Shelagh Fritz

Clearing ivy is pretty addictive – the work is slow but methodical.

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A New Shortcut to Explore

I’ll let you in on a little secret – now is the best time to visit Alcatraz. The Thanksgiving crowds have gone home and the holiday season hasn’t started yet. The ferries are not packed, which means you can buy a ticket the day of. And even better, the island is lush and green, the daffodils are blooming and the hummingbirds are zipping around.


Daffodils blooming in Officers' Row. Photo by Shelagh Fritz

Daffodils blooming in Officers’ Row. Photo by Shelagh Fritz

The island feels almost tranquil, especially the gardens. Normally quiet, even during the summer, the Prisoner Gardens on the west side of the island typically only sees visitors when the weather is particularly beautiful. In the winter, it is possible to work for hours in the gardens without saying hello to anyone. So, I had a bit of a surprise while working yesterday on the west side – the gardens actually felt busy. I wondered what was going on and then I realized – people were on the wrong side of the gate – in the CLOSED area!


Following the stream of people, I entered the Laundry Building and spoke to the National Park Service Intern, Nora. It seems like the Park decided to open the building doors and let visitors experience this normally ‘off limits’ shortcut.

 A new shortcut takes visitors through the Laundry Building. Photo by Shelagh Fritz

Through the eyes of the inmates - from inside the Laundry Building inmate gazed at the gardens and city beyond. Photo by Shelagh Fritz

Through the eyes of the inmates – from inside the Laundry Building inmate gazed at the gardens and city beyond. Photo by Shelagh Fritz

This additional visitor access is pretty special – not only do visitors get to see more of the island, but now they can walk around the island through the Laundry Building instead of backtracking. The visitors are also walking in the steps of the inmates – walking through the gardens and seeing the city in the distance while on their way to work in the Laundry Building.


The cliché of being so close yet so far, probably never had a better example.


Even though you will not need to book ahead to visit during the winter months, don’t leave it until the last minute. This area will close for February 1 as Brandt’s Cormorants return to nest in a nearby area.

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Honoring Antonia Adezio, Garden Conservancy President

This week the Garden Conservancy celebrated ten years of our West Coast Council programs. We also gathered to honor Antonia Adezio, our President, who is stepping down in December.

Antonia addresses the close-knit community of gardeners. Photo by Emily Riley

Antonia addresses the close-knit community of gardeners. Photo by Emily Riley

We reflected on our goal of having a bigger impact on West Coast gardeners. Looking around the room Wednesday evening at the close-knit community of gardeners, the Garden Conservancy has certainly excelled at this. In a way, it reminded me of what Freddie Riechel, the first secretary to the Warden challenged himself with when he took on caring for the gardens on Alcatraz back in 1933. Riechel reached out to expert horticulturists to keep the tradition of gardening on the Rock going. The Garden Conservancy has done the same, seeking advice from the West Coast Council and professionals to create educational programs to connect experts to local gardeners and to further develop preservation project gardens.


A packed room of Garden Conservancy supporters celebrates ten years of being in San Francisco. Photo by Emily Riley

Antonia joined the newly founded Garden Conservancy in 1989 at the request of Frank Cabot. With the organization firmly established on the East Coast, the board of directors determined that in 202, the organization was ready to have a regional office based in San Francisco. Shortly after, the Garden Conservancy was enticed by the National Park Service and the Golden Gate National Parks Conservancy to form a partnership to restore the Gardens of Alcatraz. The neglected historic gardens quickly became a passion for Antonia. As part of the evening’s ceremonies, I had the honor to present a brief history of our work on the island and to highlight our accomplishments with bringing the gardens back to life.


Presenting our work for the Gardens of Alcatraz. Photo by Emily Riley

Antonia’s leadership throughout her time with the Conservancy has shaped the success , especially with Alcatraz, and her vision will be continued as we carry on. I like to think that every garden holds onto some characteristic of their caretakers, even as the caretakers move on. I see this especially in the old gardens on Alcatraz – the surviving apple trees that still bear fruit, the inmate built terraces, and perhaps the greatest mark left – the decision by the Garden Conservancy get involved to restore the gardens for the future enjoyment for all.


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Screen printing our t-shirts

I’m constantly learning new things about gardening and Alcatraz, even after working in the gardens for close to six years now. On a recent trip to pick up my order for more volunteer shirts, I finally met David, president of Plum, a company in Emeryville that prints our t-shirts and hoodies. David invited me to take a look behind-the-scenes to see the screen printing process.

T-shirts being screen printed on a rotary printer. Photo by Shelagh Fritz

David has owned the business for 35 years, first starting to print shirts for museums. A connection then led to the Golden Gate National Parks Conservancy, the non-profit organization that manages the bookstores throughout the Golden Gate National Recreation Area. In fact, sweatshirts for Muir Woods had just come off the line. Plum also prints shirts for various humane organizations.

The screen printing is fairly simple

Plum staff holds up the Alcatraz printing screen. Each color is applied separately. Photo by Shelagh Fritz

and hasn’t changed that much since the Chinese invented the process hundreds of years ago. Garments are placed on an automatic rotary printer, with each arm having a screen. The first step in the process is to separate each color in the design to exactly abut each adjacent color so that the colors do not actually touch each other; each color segment is printed separately. This step is now done on the computer, but in the early days of the company each color was hand cut. Each color is then shot on its own screen. Setting up the screens so that this can be achieved is a critical part of the screen printing process. The attached screen forms open areas of mesh that transfer ink which can be pressed through the mesh as a sharp-edged image onto the garment. A fill blade or squeegee is moved across the screen stencil, forcing ink into the mesh openings. The garment is then taken off and is placed on a drying conveyor belt. Depending on the types of inks used, the drier is set at 325 Fahrenheit and dries the shirts in one to four minutes.

Printed t-shirts going through the dryer at 325 Fahrenheit. Photo by Shelagh Fritz

David estimates that that they can print over two thousand shirts on one machine in one day!

Elliot Michener, our inmate gardener, would surely have been impressed with the setup. Elliot was a skilled printer himself at a newspaper; or perhaps he was not that skilled afterall, as he tried his hand at counterfeiting money but obviously was caught.

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Small Changes, Big Challenges

Gardens are all about change – hopefully for the better, but they are never still. With any change, it can almost be expected to face challenges; and this is especially true when you are gardening on Alcatraz.


This week, the gardens saw the installation of a new pipe railing, albeit a pipe rail that was historically there, but had long ago disappeared. The Officers’ Row gardens, opened to the visitors on mid-day Wednesdays suddenly had the new addition seemingly overnight. The approval and installation of the pipe rail was the easy part; getting the pipe rail to the island proved to be the real challenge.


A Federal Prison era photo showing the Warden’s Irish setter sitting beside the railing. Photo courtesty of Chuck Stucker.

The pipe rail is evident in several photos from the Federal Penitentiary days, and with the obvious hazard, it was approved by the National Park Service review board fairly quickly.


The metal pipe rail was assembled off-site by Heavy Metal Iron and was planned to be brought to the island on an early morning boat. However, at the last moment, the 14’section was denied passage and another plan had to be drawn up. A second attempt was made. This time, the railing was scheduled to be on the early morning barge; but was hampered by the landing at Pier 33 being repaved. The third attempt took advantage of the monthly barge that sails out of Pier 50 and the railing was delivered safe and sound. Success!


Once the railing was on the island, it still had to be hauled up the switchbacks to the gardens. The guys had planned ahead and had brought a dolly to support the railing as they walked up the hill, and the exercise proved to be a good workout.


Hauling the metal pipe rail up the switchbacks. Photo by Shelagh Fritz


Installing the railing was pretty simple – coring the concrete to sink the posts, double checking that the railing was sitting level, filing the metal to have a snug fit and then a quick set mortar was used to hold the railing posts in place.


The crew had to bring all their own tools to place the railing, and be sure not to forget anything! Photo by Shelagh Fritz


The railing looks like it has always been there and I’m sure the seagulls will be happy to christen it when they return in February.

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The Gardens of Alcatraz Logo

The garden volunteers are easy to spot on the island with our maroon colored t-shirts and sweatshirts. Proudly worn, our dark maroon uniform with the purple iris cannot be purchased but must be earned by volunteering five times in the gardens. Another source of pride is how faded the t-shirts become –the more faded the clothing becomes indicates a longer tenure, even the holes caused by names tags is something volunteers point out to each other.


 But how did our t-shirt come to be? Why was an iris chosen to represent the volunteer gardeners and the restoration work?


I spoke with Bill Prochnow and Vivian Young, graphic designers for the Golden Gate National Parks Conservancy to learn more.


The logo was developed in 2004 after Alcatraz poster by Michael Schwabbthe restoration project began in November 2003. In keeping with the existing park logos created by Michael Schwab, the iris graphic was designed to be fairly simple with bold colors and a strong black border. The Douglas iris drawing had already been designed by Vivian in 2004 for another project within the park, but had not been used. With iris being one of the survivor plants on the island, the decision to use the iris to represent Alcatraz was logical. Coincidentally, Douglas iris had been planted on the island by a group of BoyScouts in the early years of the island becoming a National Park, but had perished over the years. Amazing, a new clump of Douglas iris found its way to the island along the Main roadway and has flowered for the past two years.

The Gardens of Alcatraz volunteer t-shirt.Superimposing the iris image on the outline of the island’s silhouette tailored the graphic to represent the gardens. Reading into the images, the creation of the final graphic is perfect for the Gardens of Alcatraz – the harsh prison is softened by using yellow and the iris (the plants) dominate. A contrast to what visitors to the island expect to see.


The maroon color of our t-shirts was chosen by the late Carola Ashford, the gardens first Project Manager, simply because it was her favorite color. With a gift for color combination, she chose well as the maroon blended perfectly with the yellow and purple.

The start of the project was focused on removing vegetation to restore the gardens; so the wording on the shirts was worded ‘Alcatraz Garden Restoration’. The wording has since changed to ‘Gardens of Alcatraz’ to reflect that now there are gardens again to see and enjoy.

While our volunteer t-shirts still must be earned, we now offer a light lavender color version of our t-shirt for purchase in the island’s bookstores and online. The sale of our t-shirt helps to support our preservation work on the island.


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How does ‘stuff’ get to the island?

 Curious visitors sometime ask ‘How does stuff get to the island?’ While picking up a truckload of chicken manure from a nearby store, I thought “Maybe I’ll do a blog about following the manure from the store to the island”.


I completed my purchase and then proceeded to Pier 50, home of WestStar, the barge company that runs the monthly supply run out to the island. The bags of manure were unloaded by hand into wooden boxes and then stacked with the rest of the Alcatraz supplies in the warehouse. Supplies can be dropped off and stored in the warehouse a few weeks prior to the barge run.


Storing supplies in the Pier 50 warehouse. Shelagh Fritz photo


I arrived bright and early this past Tuesday

Early morning coffee and donuts. Shelagh Fritz photo

morning at Fort Mason at 3:30am to carpool with other Alcatraz staff back to Pier 50 to board the tug that tows the barge (after a mandatory stop for coffee and donuts). Donning life jackets, we hopped from the dock onto the barge and then climbed down a ladder to get onto the tug. Once aboard, we tucked into the donuts for the 30 minute trip to Alcatraz. I was hoping for a view, but the only view was out the bathroom window porthole, which someone had creatively drawn a few fish.


Forklift being unloaded. Photo by Shelagh Fritz

Pulling up to the Alcatraz dock, the barge was secured and we climbed onto the Alcatraz dock. According to Patrick McAllister, Director of Alcatraz Operations for the Golden Gate National Parks Conservancy, this month’s barge supply was fairly small compared to others. A typical barge brings over bottled water, merchandise for the island’s three bookstores, empty dumpsters, and various construction equipment and building materials. The uploading of the barge is orchestrated to be finished by the time the staff boat docks at 9:00am.

The two big safety lessons were 1) watch the hook from the crane and 2) make sure your feet are clear of the palette when it is set down.

Two forklifts were unloaded first, and started to shuttle supplies to where they needed to be on the island. McAllister developed a rough system to avoid the supplies from piling up in the vincinty of the dock. As palettes were lifted one by one by the barge crane onto the Alcatraz dock, the forklifts kept up a relay back and forth. WestStar workers hooked each palette to the crane while Parks Conservancy staff waited on the dock to unhook the ropes that held the palettes.


Palettes being lifted. Photo by Shelagh Fritz

Soon, the barge was empty; and then materials that were being shipped back to the city were loaded. Empty water bottles, full dumpsters and a generator along with stacks of empty palettes were being shipped back. The most interesting was seeing the generator being roped onto the hook and then lifted onto the barge.


In the beginning of the garden restoration, all the supplies for the gardens were imported this way – countless bags of gravel for the rose terrace, concrete mix for the new railings, the greenhouse kit, even plants if they were dropped off the day before at Pier 50. It is an amazing amount of effort that it takes to keep the island going. Today, it is relatively simple, the barge itself has only been postponed a few times due to bad weather. I can only imagine what an undertaking getting building materials to the island when it was a military fortress in the late 1800s, before the convienance of tugs and forklifts.

The manure made it! Photo by Shelagh Fritz

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