Unlocking History

Ships served as first prisons for fledgling state

Rush for gold leaves bay congested with abandoned ships

At one time, California prisons relied on ships for transport, supplies and housing the incarcerated population.

When gold was discovered in the California foothills in 1848, the rush was on to get to the west coast. In their haste to reach the goldfields, crews abandoned scores of ships in San Francisco Bay. The fledgling town had become a bustling city almost overnight. To accommodate the massive population explosion, buildings were hastily constructed. With lumber scarce, and cost prohibitive to ship from the east coast around Cape Horn, the city turned to the most obvious place for readily available resources – the vessels drifting in its bay. According to reports, there were more than 800 ships abandoned in Yerba Buena Cove.

Derelict ships were hauled out of the water and turned into buildings. Some served as saloons and hotels while others, such as the Euphemia, became floating prisons. As the city sought to expand to accommodate the population explosion, developers began filling in parts of the shallow bay.

“The first filling in of a water lot in San Francisco was done by Captain Joseph Folsom on the north side of California street west of Sansome,” reported Theodore Henry Hittell in the History of California, published in 1897. “(Many) old hulks or dismantled vessels, that had been drawn up on the mud flats at high tide and converted into business places, were shut in. There were some 20 of them thus utilized. (The brig) Euphemia … continued to be used as a jail for several years. Another was the ship Apollo, which was anchored near the southwest corner of (Jackson and Battery streets near the brig). It had been used as a store ship, but when Battery street, on being piled and capped, closed it in, it was converted into a lodging house and drinking shop called the Apollo Saloon.”

County jails were first state prisons

In 1850, the state adopted a provision to incarcerate lawbreakers in county jails, designating all of them as state prisons.

“Until a State Prison is provided, the County Jail of each county shall be deemed the State Prison,” according to the Statutes of California, passed at the first session of the Legislature, December 1849 to April 1850.

This meant the Euphemia as well as Sacramento’s prison ship, the La Grange, were briefly state prisons. But, there weren’t the first ships used as prisons in California.

According to records, “the first ship ever used in the state of California as a prison brig was the bark Strafford. It was brought here from New York in 1849, and was moored in the Sacramento river opposite the foot of I street. It cost $50,000 but while lying at the foot of O street, it was sold at auction (for) $3,750. In March 1850, (the owners) rented the vessel to the county for a prison brig,” according to the History of Sacramento County, by William Ladd Willis, 1913.

By May 1850, one of the partners took sole ownership, turning the ship into a cargo vessel. The Strafford went to sea but never returned.

Soon the county purchased the La Grange and it was moored opposite H street. It lasted almost a dozen years when heavy rains and flooding in early 1862 caused the bark to sink.

State acquires its own prison ship

Removed from the San Francisco Bay’s “forest of masts,” the Waban was acquired for use as the first official state prison.

The incarcerated men and women in the Waban, under state contract with James Estell, slept aboard ship at night, going ashore during the day so they could build the first San Quentin prison cells using stone. While this bit of state prison history has been retold for more than 150 years, the prison system’s maritime history doesn’t end there.

As a coastal state, with a large system of rivers, California relied heavily on ships for trade, transportation and incarceration.

Ships used for housing, cargo, travel

Records at the California State Archives show convicted men and women were kept on board numerous ships during the early years of the state correctional system.

The Waban is the one known by most, purchased by San Francisco Sheriff John Coffee “Jack” Hays and sailed to Angel Island in December 1851 with about 40 in the holding cells.

But first, the ship needed to be converted to a prison. For that, Sheriff Hays needed lumber. A receipt for the wood is held at the San Francisco Maritime Museum.

“Lumber receipt (SAFR 18805, HDC 453) is handwritten on blue printed letterhead made out to Mr. J.C. Hays, Sheriff of San Francisco, for ‘5550 feet of rough redwood lumber at a cost of $416.25.’ The receipt is undated and a ship name is not mentioned. However, there were ships that were converted into a prison, including the Waban and the Euphemia. The lumber could have been used to convert one of these ships into a prison. Likely it is for the Waban conversion since it was bought in 1851 and made into the first California State Prison,” according to the San Francisco Maritime Museum.

Hays was a former Texas Ranger who came to California in 1849 during the Gold Rush.

Point San Quentin wasn’t first choice

The state believed Angel Island, with its existing quarry, would work well as a site for the prison. Unfortunately, federal land claims scratched that plan. Despite being incarcerated on a ship, there were numerous escapes and problems. The state voided the contract with Sheriff Hays, awarding it instead to James Estell and his partners.

The new contract holders sailed the Waban to Point San Quentin in 1852, where the state purchased land to construct the prison.

In 1854, a newspaper reporter visited the site of the prison.

“Taking a Whitehall boat at daylight, from the foot of Washington Street, we started (for the) prison,” reported the Daily Alta California, Dec. 1, 1854. “In about two hours and a half we reached the prison landing, where we were received by Estell, in whose company we visited the prison building, and saw the convicts at their labor.”

According to the newspaper account, “There are now sentenced as convicts about three hundred persons. About half of these are at San Quentin and the remainder on Marin Island.”

Marin Island featured a quarry. There was also another quarry about an eighth of a mile from San Quentin, which had yet to be secured by a wall. Towers and posts scattered the surrounding hillsides, giving guards a good vantage point of the inmates when they were not in the cells of the single prison building.

(Note: Prior to 1944, the official job classification for a Correctional Officer was Guard.)

Life on land and sea in 1854

“The guards are composed of picked men, and are commanded by Capt. Asa Estes, an old mountaineer, a cool, firm and determined man,” the paper reported. “The prison is situated upon a hill, overlooking the bay and is a solid, beautiful piece of masonry. It is built of stone, with walls three feet and three inches in thickness, two stories in height, and without a particle of wood work in it, the ceilings being (of) arches. The upper story is divided into 48 cells and the lower story is a long hall intended for an eating room, and the rooms of the guards and officers of the prison.”

Without a wall separating the prison from the wharf, some incarcerated people tried to escape by sneaking onto ships.

“On several occasions upon a pre-concerted signal, (convicts) have rushed upon and disarmed a guard, when they have made a break either through the lines of the guard, or at a boat which was lying at the wharf, or on the beach and taking a chance of being shot down, have thus taken their departure,” the newspaper reported. “At other times, some of them have managed to elude the vigilance of the guard by taking advantage of the dense morning fogs and skulking between the posts. Sometimes when through the thoughtlessness of visitors, land on the prison grounds, or of those adjoining, a boat has been left unguarded, some of the prisoners have made a rush into the boat and pushing off have (hollered) to the guards to fire at them if they wished while they were pulling away with all their might.”

Island serves a worksite for incarcerated and staff

“In the afternoon we rowed over to Marin Island where about 150 are engaged in quarrying stone under the immediate superintendence of Lieutenant Gray. Here the prisoners are watched over by 14 guards, who stand on the brow of the hill, overlooking them continually. Here some of the most desperate scoundrels in the world are at work,” according to the 1854 newspaper account. “Among the desperate villains whom we saw were ‘Coyote’ Charley Bowen, alias ‘Black Jack,’ sentenced to 20 years confinement; ‘Miguelon,’ a Frenchman who boasts of his murders; Adams, the burglar; ‘Cock Eye Fury,’ a notorious robber and burglar, who has once escaped, and many others.”

In 1855, the Report of the State Prison Directors indicated there were “392 confined in the prison, with the exception of 85, who are quarrying stone at the Island, and remain on the Prison Ships; the balance, 317, are confined in the prison, which has but 48 cells and one long room.”

The San Quentin prison warden on Jan. 31, 1856, was F.S. McKenzie with a salary of $291.66. The physician was J.H. Harris, paid $208.33. The report didn’t list the length of the pay period.

The report also lists prison officials stationed at the island. G.M. Whorter is listed as “Deputy Warden at Island” while J.S. Lisle is listed as “Lieutenant of Guard at Island.”

Mentions of state-owned ships at the prison fade after the reports of 1875 but San Quentin still received supplies via ship, even as late as the early 1900s.

“Nearly all freight from and to the prison is carried by a steamer, which makes irregular trips and carries no passengers,” according to the 1898 report of the Board of Prison Directors. “All contract goods are delivered at the prison wharf.”

By Don Chaddock, Inside CDCR editor

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