Alcatraz achieved fame as a federal penitentiary from 1934 to 1963. The island in the middle of San Francisco Bay served as a maximum security prison. Before that it was an army post that included a military prison. Marin County figured into the opening day of the federal prison.
On August 11, 1934, the first 137 prisoners arrived by rail at Tiburon in locked and sealed prisoner passenger cars. From there they were loaded, still in the sealed rail cars, onto barges and transported to the island. Most of these first prisoners were regarded as the luminaries of the criminal world and consisted of a group made up mostly of bank robbers and murderers. Through the years, Alcatraz housed some of the most notorious criminals in the country including Al Capone, Robert Franklin Stroud (the “Birdman of Alcatraz”), George “Machine Gun” Kelly, and many others with well-earned nicknames.
Alcatraz Federal Penitentiary was famous in part because no prisoner was known to have ever successfully escaped. According to the Federal Bureau of Prisons there were a total of 36 prisoners who made the attempt. Of these, 23 were caught alive, six were shot and killed, two drowned and five are listed as “missing and presumed drowned”.
However, the military prison, in operation from 1868 to 1933, presents a less than sterling security record. Under military control Alcatraz Island could not be considered a place of maximum security. Inmate escapes were attempted with regularity and often succeeded.
In 1887 Sgt. John Lowder described the prison: “Alcatraz is not a prison in the sense of a penitentiary. In the army the island ranks only as a military post, and is not a recognized prison, it being only an unusually large guard house, where men are kept for longer periods than at ordinary guardhouses…. Guard duty is performed by the regular [army] post guard, mounted each morning at 9 o’clock, and composed of men with whom many of the prisoners have served, side by side, for years….One sentry paces to and fro on top of the citadel, from which point he can see any small boat that may approach the island….No craft can land anywhere at Alcatraz without the sergeant of the guard or a sentinel being on hand when the landing is effected….This vigilance prevents all escapes and guards against either soldiers or outside parties smuggling liquor in for the convicts.”
The army did not keep a record of all escapes but enough were noted to indicate that the vigilance referred to by Sgt. Lowder was not as successful as he suggested. Confirmed escapes from the military prison were noted five times between 1878 and 1898. An episode in 1890 was a particularly fascinating affair. The May 6th San Francisco Call described the incident in an article titled A Chase on the Bay.
The chase involved the stern-wheel steamer Sonoma and two prisoners who escaped in a boat stolen from the Engineer’s warehouse. At 6:45 a.m., the Sonoma, operating in place of the government motor launch General McDowell that was undergoing rehabilitation, was making its scheduled call at Alcatraz to pick-up guards with prisoners who were to work on Angel Island and the Presidio.
As the crew of the Sonoma was securing her lines, the military officer-of-the-day ran to the pier to tell the captain about a prisoner escape. He said the men, who had fled only fifteen minutes earlier, stole a boat from the Engineer’s warehouse but had no oars or sail because both were locked in storage. The officer surprisingly had no boat to pursue the fugitives so he loaded a squad of armed soldiers onto the steamer and ordered the captain of the Sonoma to mount a chase.
A steamer loaded with soldiers chasing a small boat with two desperate prisoners furiously rowing with pieces of rough lumber presented a most unusual sight for the scores of commuters on the ferries from Sausalito and Tiburon. The tide was running very strong, judged to be about seven knots toward the Golden Gate and the open ocean, making the escapees’ plight to reach the Marin shore even more desperate. The Sonoma in full steam got within a quarter mile of the stolen boat. The frantic escapees with makeshift oars redoubled their efforts.
As the Sonoma got closer and closer, the two escapees -with freedom in mind- made it close enough to Marin to wade ashore at Lime Point. The pair was last seen scrambling up a bank and disappearing into the hills of the Marin Headlands.
Meanwhile, the Army’s casual attitude toward prison escapees was confirmed in a quote made later by one of one of the soldiers involved in the chase: “We could easily have picked them off with our rifles, but we had no orders to shoot.”
The escaped prisoners were known to be “hard cases” who failed in two previous attempts to escape. It was thought that a posted reward along with the fact that both men were clad in prison clothing would end their freedom in short order. However, their fate is unknown to this day. What we do know, however, is that the “Chase on the Bay” 127 years ago provided an unlikely source of entertainment for many early morning Marin ferry commuters.