Unlocking History

State opens first reform school, acquires ship

Drawing of San Francisco Industrial School.
San Francisco Industrial School, circa 1871.

Establishing the first reform school

By Don Chaddock, Inside CDCR editor

San Francisco tried to deal with a growing problem of trouble-causing youth in their rapidly growing city. The city set aside land on which to build a reform school. When efforts to move forward with the school stalled, the state stepped in. On April 15, 1858, the California Legislature passed the Industrial School Act and the San Francisco Industrial School opened a year later in 1859. This new private-public hybrid institution set the stage for what would eventually become the Division of Juvenile Justice. This is the second in a four-part series on the history of DJJ. (Read part 3)

“Under the act, San Francisco was to support the privately chartered institution with an initial construction allocation of $20,000 and a subsequent monthly allocation of $1,000 contingent on $10,000 in matching private donations. … To ensure the participation of local officials, the act mandated that three members of the San Francisco Board of Supervisors serve as ex officio Industrial School Board members,” wrote Daniel Macallair in the UC Davis Journal of Juvenile Law & Policy, Vol. 7: 1, 2003. “The San Francisco Industrial School was the inaugural and most significant nineteenth century event in the establishment of California’s juvenile justice system.”

The first year saw 60 boys and five girls admitted to the school. Only 12 committed crimes. The others were committed for “leading an idle and dissolute life.” According to Macallair, this meant the children were considered to have little guidance at home. Of those admitted, the average age was 12 and two of the children were under 5.

According to reports, the children’s day began at 5:30 a.m. They were given breakfast and taken to work with a “pick and shovel in grading the hill in the back of the building,” according Macallair.

They had a meal at noon. From 1:30 to 2:30 p.m., they returned to work. School, from 3 to 5:30 p.m., required the youths to carry their tables and benches from the cafeteria to the school’s one classroom.

The lone teacher’s desk was a barrel and board. Supper was served at 6 p.m. From 7 to 8:30 p.m., they returned to the classroom. Finally, they crawled into bed at 9 p.m.

State opens its own reform school

The early 1860s was a time of upheaval. California had only been a state for a little more than a decade. The official California capital city had yet to be determined and wouldn’t be named until 1879. Multiple cities vied for the designation, hoping to land state facilities to better their chances. It was in this setting that California established the State Reform School in Marysville in 1860.

“The city of Marysville is to be the location of the reformatory institution for misguided youths,” reported the Marysville Daily Appeal, April 11, 1860. The bill stated, “There shall be erected upon the land conveyed to the city of Marysville, a State Reform School, for the instruction, employment and reform of juvenile offenders.”

The school was constructed in 1861 and opened near the end of the year. It’s the same year the Civil War tore apart the country.

“The object of the institution is to reform, if possible, youths between the ages of 8 and 16, who (are) convicted of offences against the laws, and thus amenable to be sentenced to be imprisoned for a stated time,” reported the Sonoma Democrat, Nov. 21, 1861. “Judges and Justices may, at their option, sentence all such offenders to the Reform School or to the usual punishment provided by law. Should any youth sentenced to a term in the School prove to be incorrigible, after a fair probation, he will be remanded to the State Prison or jail. … From this brief sketch of the object of the institution, it will be seen that it is a very important one – well worthy of fostering care of the State. … In the Reform School they will be furnished with enough work to keep them from being idle, and instructed in the duties that they owe to themselves and to others.”

The new school housed eight boys in April 1862 and 13 later in the year. Meanwhile, San Francisco’s reform school housed many more children at a significantly reduced per-inmate cost.

“The San Francisco people regret to see so pretty a plum as the State Reform School would be to them, slipping from their grasp, and have made another effort (to acquire the school),” reported the Marysville Daily Appeal, April 3, 1862.

San Francisco saw merging the two schools as a way to save money while attracting additional state funds.

“The Assembly has just passed the General Appropriation bill, which appropriates $10,000 to the State Reform School. If that State School is transferred to San Francisco, this money will of course be transferred with it,” the paper wrote.

The newspaper criticized the state’s support of charitable organizations using taxpayer funds.

“These special appropriations (for charity-run orphanages) amount to $33,000. They are made in behalf of noble objects, and the institutions which are named to dispense them are undoubtedly worthy of State aid,” the paper reported. “But the State cannot this year afford (the expense due to) the calamities of civil war and the floods. The State has her own benevolent institutions to support, which this year demand unusual expenditures. The … Reform School must be cared for and the state is not in a condition to dissipate its scanty means upon outside charities.”

San Francisco lobbied for the school to be relocated.

“The Assembly passed an act (Assembly Bill 505) providing for the removal of the inmates of the State Reform School (in Marysville) to the Industrial School, San Francisco,” reported the Marysville Daily Appeal, March 22, 1866.

An 1867 report to Gov. Frederick F. Low showed the school was still running in Marysville. Some of the listed expenses include “kerosene and wick, $74.62; blacksmith and wagon-work, $237.75; harness and repairing, $115.25;” and “heading and threshing, $74.” Total annual expenditures were roughly $10,500.

By 1868, the Marysville reform school was a “deserted village,” according to newspapers.

“At the rates paid the Industrial School for ‘boarding’ the Reform School boys, placing the number at 50, the total amounts in two years to $18,000. The State might as well keep house,” wrote the Marysville paper, April 22, 1868. “There is a valuable library at the Reform School which we should make an effort to obtain for our schools, if the Reform School is to be dismantled.”

The Secretary of State was given charge of the Reform School property and it was shut down.

“Amid soaring costs and growing controversy, the Marysville Reform School was closed in 1868 by legislative decree,” wrote Macallair in the UC Davis publication. “Marysville’s remaining youths were transferred to the Industrial School.”

The Jamestown floats in a bay circa 1880s.
The USS Jamestown, US Sloop of War, 1883. (Photo: U.S. Navy History and Heritage Command.)

Former warship becomes floating school

The USS Jamestown, a decommissioned war vessel, was used by the state to help train wayward youth in maritime jobs, marking the second time the state used a ship as a floating correctional facility. The first was the Waban, which housed inmates as they constructed San Quentin. The state used other ships as well during those early years.

The Jamestown that would eventually incarcerate 100 youth from San Francisco and 100 youth from other counties, already had a long and colorful history.

In 1844, the ship was commissioned and used as the flagship of Commodore Charles Skinner in command of U.S. naval vessels.

During the Ireland potato famine in 1847, the ship was used to transport food to the starving people of that country.

At the outbreak of the Civil War, the Union needed ships and turned to those sitting unused. The USS Jamestown, having been decommissioned, was once again brought in to serve its country, cutting off vital war supplies to the Confederacy by blockading southern ports. The Jamestown captured five ships during its yearlong service in the Atlantic, from 1861-62, before heading to the Pacific to guard against Confederate privateers. The sloop of war was decommissioned in 1871 where it would have stayed if California hadn’t coming calling.

After five years of disuse, the ship took on a new role as a job training center for wayward youth. In 1876, it was officially reactivated for use as a state public maritime school. The ship was to be managed and operated out of San Francisco, with reimbursement funding coming from the state.

Youth offenders served aboard ship to learn a nautical trade for a two-year training period, but the rehabilitative program didn’t last long.

“The (ship) was for all practical purposes a floating reform school until it was returned to the U.S. government on Feb. 28, 1879,” according to the book “Welfare Activities of Federal, State and Local Governments in California, 1850-1934.”

The ship continued to serve in various capacities until 1913, when it was destroyed by fire in the Norfolk Navy Yard.

In 1892, the San Francisco school was ordered to close its doors. The state’s vision for the future of juvenile rehabilitation included the construction and operation of two new reform schools.