Building Blocks of History

 

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.

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Camouflaged weeds

Plants never stop amazing me. With their power to harness energy from sun and give us oxygen as a by-product; they provide us food, clothing, and beauty. Yet a group of plants that only gets noticed when it is the wrong spot deserves a bit more respect. These would be the weeds of our gardens.

The past rainy winter and spring produced weeds continuously. The weeds are well adapted at growing quickly to complete their lifecycle and set seeds to start the next generation before 1) the dry summer begins and 2) before being noticed and be pulled by a gardener. As I worked my way through the gardens over the past couple of months, I was impressed by how smart some of the weeds were for being able to hide themselves in amongst similar leafed plants.

Epilobium growing with Fuchsia 'Grand Harfare'. Photo by Shelagh Fritz

I found fireweed, Epilobium, growing amongst Fuchsia ‘Grand Harfare’ and Jupiter’s beard, Centranthus ruber. Not until the weed had outgrown its hiding place and was flowering that it called attention to itself. The fuchsia’s leaves have an almost identical vein pattern to the epilobium and the pinky hue of the fireweed accented the coral tones of the fuchsia. The fireweed was able to disguise itself with the jupiter’s beard by being a light green that matched well, again, the leaf shape was almost indistinguishable.

Epilobium with Centranthus ruber. Photo by Shelagh Fritz

 

 

 

 

 

 

Solanum americanum, American nightshade, is a very common weed on the island. It is very easy to pull when young but once established, the stems usually break off when pulled.

Solanum growing with Coreopsis 'Nana'. Photo by Shelagh Fritz

I found a young plant growing with tickseed, Coreopsis ‘Nana’. The deep green of the leaves of both plants is very much alike. Perhaps the ‘smart’ nightshade did not

 

realize that it was trying to camouflage itself with a dwarf cultivar and it quickly outgrew its companion.

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New Historic Photos Come to Light

  

  ‘How do you decide what to plant?’ is a common question that I get asked by visitors to the island. With choosing the right plant for the right place in a cultural landscape there are a few more considerations than your average backyard.

We aim to give ‘the look and the feel’ of what the gardens would have looked like during the days of the military era (1853-1933) and during the maximum security federal prison era (1934-1963). Detective work by Carola Ashford in the early days of the project built up a collection of historic photographs that we rely heavily upon. Using these photos, along with oral history interviews and historic letters, we were able to create gardens that echo the color schemes, textures and purpose of the original gardens.

Amazingly, historic photographs that we have never seen

Kathe standing in their garden. Photo by Al and Mildred Kaepple

before are still coming to light. Kathe Poteet had her early childhood years on the island in the 1950s while her father worked as the business administrator.

Kathe recently passed along a collection of photographs her parents had taken of their home on the Rock.

The photos reveal the Parade Ground, an area that has not been restored yet, to have once been a well-tended neighborhood with roses and hydrangeas at the foundations of the homes surrounded by manicured lawns. Many of the photos show Persian carpet, Drosanthemum floribundum, spilling over the seawall and the grove of Eucalyptus by the dock is still young.

The south end of the island in the 1950s. Photo by Al and Mildred Kaepple

The south end of the island today. Photo by Shelagh Fritz

 

Kathe is planning on attending the Alcatraz Alumni Weekend in August when past residents visit the island to share their experiences with visitors. It is through this once-a-year occasion that we have been able to compile an extensive collection of landscape photos.

I hope to meet with Kathe to find out more about the people in the photos and about her father, who obviously had a green thumb.

Al Kaepple in front of the family home. Photo by Al and Mildred Kaepple

Looking at the photos, the pride the residents took in tending their gardens is clear; it is easy to imagine calling Alcatraz home.

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The Mapping of Alcatraz

Spanish discovery and exploration of the San Francisco Bay Area and its islands began in 1769. The English surveyed the Bay in 1826. Early maps of Alcatraz can be viewed on the National Park Service website.

Cartography has come a long way since the Spanish and English mapped Alcatraz in the mid 1700s. This week, Robert Warden, the Director of the Center for Heritage Conservation (CHC) and Professor of Architecture at Texas A&M University has been on the island with his associates Dr. Julie Rogers, Associate Director for the CHC and Lonnie Champagne along with Director Dr. Tanya Komas and her students from the Concrete Industry Management Program at Chico State University, to demonstrate the uses of laser scanning.

Students laser scanning Officers' Row. Photo by Shelagh Fritz

Laser scanning or Light Detection and Ranging (LIDAR) is a method of producing millions of points in 3D space that represent the size and shape of objects as large as landscapes and as small as nails.  The product is called a point cloud, which can look like a 3D photograph if there are enough points.  It produces points by bouncing a laser beam off of objects – like buildings – and calculating the angle and distance of the object from the scanner. It works very much like a typical survey total station in concept with the exception that scanners can calculate tens to hundreds of thousands of point locations per second rather than the single point from a total station.  Multiple scans are carefully pieced together to form a complete 3D point cloud of the object.  Scanners, like cameras have differing technical specifications that make them useful for different purposes.  The challenge of recording historic buildings and sites like Alcatraz is the necessity for accuracy at large and small scales. Typical accuracy for the Riegl 390 used for this session is 6mm.  

 As I was speaking with Robert, his students were scanning the Warden’s House and within 30 minutes, an image was produced that could show me the individual bricks in the fireplace, looking down into the building.

Robert explaining the laser scanning. Photo by Tanya Kamos

Laser Scanning has been in use since the 1970s but only in the last fifteen years has the development of laser digital technology allowed it to be adapted for preservation and engineering purposes.

On Alcatraz, this technology will be useful for documenting the historic site accurately. Mapping the gardens in the early days of the Historic Gardens of Alcatraz Project was difficult with the overgrowth entanglements that obscured the fine details in the landscape.

With laser scanning, details such as gradient changes, precise distances and documenting the current state of the historic features can be done. Laser scanning is quick and accurate. In additional to documenting the landscape, the information gathered from laser scanning can produce accurate interpretive models and be useful for maintenance of the aging structures.

 
 

 It will be exciting to see where this new technology will lead us.

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Marking the Passage of Time

Summer is slowly showing itself on the island and the change of seasons can be seen in the blooming gardens.

A section of the main road, as visitors walk from the dock to the cell house is affectionately called the ‘fern wall’, even though in summer there is no evidence of ferns anywhere. The granite blocks that form this retaining wall was built in the early military days and was softened by moss and ferns that came to the island likely as spores in the imported soil.

The fern wall in 1924. San Francisco library photo

As the winter rains cease, the native fern, Polypodium californicum turns a golden  brown and then go dormant. The fern wall undergoes a dramatic change from lush green to vivid pinks as the Jupiter’s beard, Centranthus ruber, bursts into the season. At the base of the wall is a collection of Pelargonium that are survivors from the prison days – ‘Brilliant’, ‘Mrs. Langtry’ and P. quercifolium that add to the hue of pinks.

Fern wall in the spring. Photo by Shelagh Fritz

Fern wall in the summer. Photo by Shelagh Fritz

To be accurate with historic photos of this wall, last year, we planted plugs of Persian carpet, Drosanthemum floribundum in the cracks of the granite blocks that will eventually cascade down the wall. With living walls being the current trend in gardening, this wall on Alcatraz was way ahead of its time.

The wall in the 1940s. Photo by Joseph Simpson

When the fog rolls in, the intent of the original gardeners to create cheerfulness on a barren island must have been no easy undertaking. I also cannot help but wonder if the inmate gardeners marked the passage of time with the changing blossoms.

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Tool shed has a new look

On the west side of the island, tucked under the New Zealand Christmas tree, Metrosideros excelsa, is the historic tool shed, originally built by inmates in the 1950s. The tool shed has a million dollar view towards the Golden Gate Bridge and the Pacific Ocean beyond. Without a doubt, this view was a constant reminder of a world beyond the reach of the inmates that worked in these gardens.

View of the Golden Gate Bridge and the Marin Headlands. Photo by Shelagh Fritz

The toolshed in 2009. Photo by Robin Abad

The tool shed, like the gardens, was abandoned in 1963, and could not escape the weathering effects of Pacific storms and the relentless summer winds and salt air. The tool shed was repaired by the National Park Service in the late 1970s and again by garden volunteers in the spring of 2010 with help from the National Park Service maintenance team. The tool shed was in a bad state of repair with the roof falling in and most of the wood structure rotting away. The cement block base walls were still in fair condition and only needed minor patches. Just like the inmates had used scrap lumber on the island in the original construction, we scouted re-use stores to find a door, suitable windows, and flashing for the roof. This past month, garden volunteers applied primer and a fresh coat of ‘Presidio White’ paint to finish up the restoration.

Garden volunteers applying the final coat of paint. Photo by Shelagh Fritz

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Cheerful face towards San Francisco

Has anyone been curious why the hillsides of Alcatraz are turning pink?

Pink drosanthemum blooming on the cellhouse slope. Photo by Shelagh Fritz

Pink iceplant, Drosanthemum floribundum or Persian carpet, has been very prominent this past week from Crissy Field, Fisherman’s Wharf and on a clear morning, even from Doyle Drive coming into the city.

The planting of the tiny succulent was part of a beautification effort undertaken by the military in 1924 after being pressured by the vocal citizens of San Francisco to landscape the barren the island. Inmates took part in the planting and soon, carpets of pink cascaded down the steep hillsides, not only stabilizing the soil but providing a cheerful look desired by San Francisco. It is somewhat ironic that a gentle soft pink was chosen to mask the harsh prison.

Historic view of the Persian Carpet from the parade ground. Photo by C. Stucker

Neglected cellhouse slope in 2007. Photo by Shelagh Fritz

With 40 years of neglect, the iceplant on the cellhouse slope suffered and was soon choked out with oxalis, wild radish and grasses. In 2007, this historic garden area was restored.

 

 

Stabilized slope newly planted with iceplant plugs, October 2007. Photo by Shelagh Fritz

The slope was stabilized with jute netting and cuttings of Drosanthemum from elsewhere on the island were established on the slope.  Coaxing the drosanthemum to take root and to keep the slope free of oxalis has been no easy task. Staff and volunteers have invested countless hours into weeding over the past four years, but seeing our efforts from across the water, well over a mile, is quite awarding.

The slope this week. Photo by Shelagh Fritz

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Alcatraz’s bearded iris are blooming

Bearded iris has been a long-time garden favorite that even found their way onto the most notorious prison island. There are five cultivars of bearded iris that are survivors from the prison days, blooming every May without fail. One survivor, Iris ‘King’s Ransom’ blooms twice a year, early spring and again in the fall. The other four cultivars are still unidentified, and we are working at finding out more about them.

Survivor bearded iris in Officers' Row. Photo by Shelagh Fritz

 My favorite iris is in bloom right now in Officers’ Row. This clump of iris was entirely covered by ivy and blackberries until 2003, when they were cleared and began to flower again. The 3’ flower stalks are heavy with lavender blooms that catch visitors by surprise with their bubble gum fragrance. Another survivor iris smells like root beer, clearly not your average modern iris.

Up close. Photo by Shelagh Fritz

The only thing better than five cultivars of bearded iris is more bearded iris! The Garden Conservancy’s first preservation project, the Ruth Bancroft Garden in Walnut Creek is a garden haven for heirloom bearded iris. Ruth Bancroft’s collection matches the time frame of the penitentiary gardens, and so Alcatraz has received divisions of her iris for the past four years. We now have just over 30 cultivars of heirloom iris in a wide range of vibrant colors and rich scents. The iris are not troubled by the dry summers, winter rains or the salt breezes and fog. Occasionally, there will be aphids on the leaves but these are easily washed away.

Ruth Bancroft Garden iris. Photo by Shelagh Fritz

The iris will be in bloom for only another two weeks, so now is the time to walk your nose around the island finding these heirloom garden beauties.

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Egrets in the overgrowth

The historic gardens played a vital role for the residents that called Alcatraz home. The plants softened the barren rock and created purpose for the inmates that tended the gardens. Today, the gardens continue to play a role in creating homes on the island.

 The overgrown vegetation created habitat for bird life. Snowy egrets have moved into the escaped fig tree, Ficus carica, and albizia trees on the west side of the island. These once endangered birds arrived two weeks ago to begin their nesting rituals. Perched in the overgrowth, the birds are first heard and then seen. Unsuspecting visitors stop in their tracks and puzzle over the sounds.

Snowy egret.

Working so close to these amazing birds is a great privilege, and the volunteers do their best to mimic them. Click on the videos below to hear the egrets, and the volunteers with their entertaining sounds.

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Marney and the egrets_IMG_0589

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Island Edibles

 Alcatraz has an amazing collection of plants that can be categorized many different ways – natives, drought tolerant, historic – but with popular interest focused on landscaping with edibles, Alcatraz can check this box as well.

 Today, looking around the island, there is an assortment of edibles. There are the obvious miner’s lettuce, chickweed and oxalis and but there are also a few surprises.

The inmate gardens on the west side of the island have the surviving fruit trees. Originally planted in the 1940s, the apple, fig and walnut trees continue to thrive. The apple tree reliably produces a slightly sweet and very dense fruit while the fig tree is always loaded with an abundance of figs that never quite ripen in the cooler ocean breeze. For many visitors, this is their first time seeing a fig tree.

Apples on Alcatraz. Photo by Shelagh Fritz

Fig tree with fruit. Photo by Shelagh Fritz

 

The west side inmate gardens also hold the original artichoke plants, Cynara cardunculus. The perennial thistles are forming their seed heads right now which contain the tasty artichoke hearts. The silvery artichoke leaves blend with the silver blue of Echium candicans, Pride of Madeira, on the toolshed terraces. Once in bloom, the artichoke has a typical thistle flower – iridescent purple and pink.

Alcatraz artichoke. Photo by Shelagh Fritz

Tropaeolum majus, nasturtium, was introduced to the island in 1924 by the California Wildflower and Spring Blossom Society. This cheerful rambling vine continues to seed itself around the island. The leaves and flowers are edible and have a peppery taste – perfect for a salad or to decorate a cake. The seeds can be pickled and taste like capers.

Nasturtium. Photo by Shelagh Fritz

The military era also introduced Agave americana, century plant, to the island. The spikes on the leaf tips were likely ideal for keeping inmates in but the popular agave syrup is also made from this plant.

Agave americana. Photo by Shelagh

We have few records of past gardeners raising vegetables for their own use; with dreary summer fog the residents chose to mainly grow bright colored cutting gardens to brighten the landscape. There are a handful of photos and references to Victory Gardens tended by children on the parade ground and of tomatoes growing in Officers’ Row. As a token to past gardeners, there are two tomato plants in the greenhouse, providing a lucky volunteer a little snack while they work.

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