by Paul R. Spitzzeri
The first three parts of this extended post, inspired by recent news of archaeological work that revealed, under the yard of the federal prison on Alcatraz Island, remains of tunnels and structures for a Civil War-era Army fortification, covered the story of the involvement of the Workman and Temple families in ownership and claims of ownership in Alcatraz from 1846 to 1860.
Briefly mentioned was that the United States Army built some fortifications on the island before the Civil War era. In the Homestead’s collection is a “Letter from the Secretary of War Transmitting Information in Regard to Fortifications Being Erected at Fort Point and Alcatrazas Island, California.” Dated 17 March 1854, the document was submitted by Secretary Jefferson Davis, who, seven years later, became the president of the Confederate States of America during the war.
Fort Point, now a national historic site, was established at the south end of the mouth to San Francisco Bay, with the earliest work there begun in 1853, and is basically under the Golden Gate Bridge. When this famed span was completed in the 1930s after the fort was shuttered, a movement began at that time to preserve what could be saved on the site, which was officially dedicated in 1970.
As for Alcatraz, the first effort on the island by the military was a survey conducted in May 1847, just two months after John C. Frémont made an agreement with F.P.F. Temple to buy the island for $5,000. First Lieutenant William H. Warner of the U.S. Army Corps of Topographical Engineers completed the first detailed survey of Alcatraz. Two years later, Congress made an appropriation of money for military surveys of the Pacific Coast. A three-man engineering crew made recommendations for installations throughout San Francisco Bay, including a battery on “Alcatrazos” Island estimated to cost $600,000.
Five days later, long before the report reached him, President Fillmore issued his executive order on Alcatraz reserving it as a military property. A new Board of Engineers for the Pacific Coast, headed by Brevet Brigadier General Joseph G. Totten, submitted detailed plans and estimates for the island and other fortifications in the Bay in summer 1852, calling for an open battery and barracks on Alcatraz.
In summer 1853, construction work began under the supervision of Brevet Major Zealous B. Tower, transferred from a stint at Portland, Maine. A crew of a few dozen men worked through October to build a barracks with a capacity for 100 men, a mess hall, shops, storage facilities. In 1854, on an order from Brigadier General John E. Wool, Department of the Pacific commander, to immediately install temporary batteries, some of this work was done, though the costs (not surprisingly) were rising beyond the initial appropriation.
Congress’ appropriation for the fiscal year ending 30 June 1854 was a half million dollars for all work in the Bay, half of that at Alcatraz. In the Davis report is a short statement dated 14 January 1854 in which Tower (whose initials were listed as “L.B.”) wrote Totten that he was correcting an earlier estimate for funds needed for the island for the next fiscal year ending 30 June 1855, increasing it to $350,000. He implored Totten that “the necessity for the rapid completion of this point of the defenses cannot be too strongly urged.”
This followed a report two days before by Tower, Brevet Major John G. Barnard, and Captain Henry W. Halleck about the situation at Alcatraz and elsewhere in the Bay. Halleck, who first came to California with the invading American army, mustered out and became the first Secretary of State and, as a practicing attorney in San Francisco, was a member of the committee that, in 1849, drafted California’s first constitution.
Halleck and William Carey Jones, brother-in-law of Frémont (both married to daughters of the immensely powerful Missouri Senator Thomas H. Benton), wrote influential reports on the Spanish and Mexican era land grants. It was with this expertise that John Rowland, seeking the patent for his claim to Rancho La Puente, wrote Halleck shortly after the Civil War ended in 1865 asking for advice. Halleck, who reenlisted when the war erupted, replaced Frémont as commander of Army forces in Missouri and other areas.
His considerable administrative talents led President Lincoln to name him General-in-Chief of all Union forces, but, after a little under two years, he was replaced by Ulysses S. Grant, while Halleck did what he was best suited for, administering the provision of Army forces. He was in Virginia when Rowland wrote and Halleck merely replied, “Hire a lawyer and give him plenty of money.” Rowland did just that and got the patent for La Puente two years later.
In their 12 January 1854 statement, Barnard, Halleck and Tower noted that Alcatraz was “well suited to the locality, but will involve an expenditure far beyond the original estimates.” They went into detail with suggested improvements, including an additional battery of eight guns facing directly west “towards the Golden Gate,” this providing conditions so that “San Francisco shall depend for its defence upon the fortifications on Alcatrazas.
An accompanying list of costs, including the original estimate of just north of $260,000 and adding funds for the eight-gun battery, more barracks, temporary wharves and associated structures, blasting and cutting, the likelihood of creating a new road, and contingencies (more vessels, water, office expenses, payroll and “unforeseen expenses”, so that the total reached $600,000, a considerable increase.
Small wonder, then, that, two years after this report, Frémont, through his arrangement with Palmer, Cook and Company, revived his claims over the island. With the government spending some large sums to improve Alcatraz as a fortification for the defense of San Francisco, there was considerably more value than when he made the deal with F.P.F. Temple nearly a decade prior.
For his part, Temple was keenly interested in putting forward his credentials concerning the island, which explains his letter to Volney Howard (and, perhaps, John G. Downey and a third man) shortly after seeing a Los Angeles Star article about the Palmer, Cook and Company effort. Though Howard apparently declined to get involved, Downey did not hesitate to take up a half-interest in Temple’s claim.
Then, Frémont, Downey and Temple banded together to ratify an agreement that would place Downey’s brother-in-law, William H. Harvey, as their agent to secure possession of Alcatraz and its legal sale to the federal government, presumably at a price far more aligned to its value as a military fortification. Harvey’s early death and/or other factors, including Frémont’s enlistment in the Union Army as the Civil War burst forth, appears to have ended this effort.
It was nearly fifteen more years, apparently, before another effort was made to bring forward a claim to Alcatraz. Fremont, who’d resigned from the Army after his less-than-stellar efforts during the Civil War, wrote to Joseph C. Palmer of Palmer, Cook and Company on 15 March 1874, stating:
I think that by uniting all influences and putting the fees high enough the justify the expenditure of time which it will require from counsel something may be done for Alcatrases . . . It seems to me, that, considering the fact that whatever of title there is outside of the United States [government] must be in me, Gov. Downey ought to be satisfied with [no more?] than one third. I have long since paid the purchase money and he certainly could do nothing in Washington against my title. If we can act together Gov. Downey should be conferred with in that lapse of time, as time will be an important element here.
Notably, there was no mention of F.P.F. Temple, though, in 1860, all three men were, at least briefly, partners and, two years before that, Temple sold a half-interest of his to Downey.
On 22 March, Frémont again wrote Palmer to say that he was consulting with a “Judge Black,” almost certainly Jeremiah S. Black, counsel to Secretary of War William W. Belknap, who was Attorney General under President James Buchanan (1857-1860) and, importantly, contested land claims made at the end of the Mexican regime in California. Fremont told Palmer he would “write you fully the result of my visit in respect to the Alcatrases . . .” and added “I think the Alcatrases important enough to justify any reasonable trouble . . .”
By mid-April, Frémont was in San Francisco and in touch with Downey, who tendered a proposition that Frémont accepted. After a pair of telegraphs, Fremont wrote a letter on the 16th, in which he wrote:
I concur with you also in thinking that our strength will be made most effective by bringing forward Mr. Workman, or the original grantee if he is not, provided that by so doing the legal status of the case be not injured . . . I have just telegraphed you to ask if you can bring [the] original grant, together with an affidavit from Don Pio Pico and such additional evidence in support of the title as you may be able to procure.
Frémont was heading back east and was “very desirous to put nto the hands of Judge Black the best evidence of the validity of the Alcatrases title that can be procured in order than he may lay at once the foundation on which to carry forward his proceedings immediately” during the current session of Congress.
Evidently, nothing came of the efforts Frémont made with Jeremiah Black, who lost his position with Belknap because the latter was impeached on charges of corruption, a common occurrence in the administration of Ulysses S. Grant (1869-1877).
Tomorrow we continue with the twisted tale of this all-but-known part of the history of Alcatraz Island! There is a very detailed history of Alcatraz, including the military fortifications as well as mention of William Workman and F.P.F. Temple (though incorrect in stating that they dropped out of the story “from the 1850s on”).