Folsom State Prison made history as first to have electricity
Folsom State Prison has a rich history going back to 1868, when the Board of Prison Directors selected Folsom as the site for a second prison. On July 26, 1880, the first 44 incarcerated people were transferred from San Quentin. Just 17 years later, the prison housed 900 incarcerated people.
(Editor’s note: Originally published Jan. 22, 2015, this story has been updated with additional photos.)
Long process from planning and construction to activation
While the site was chosen, construction didn’t begin until 1874 as problems between the state and the construction contractor stalled progress.
Thanks to a new contractor, the 162-cell B Block was completed in 1878. This was followed by the 166-cell A Block building being completed two years later. The unique design put both buildings inside of another building, without cells touching exterior walls.
Cells measuring 8 feet by 7 feet were secured with solid iron doors. Each one also featured an 8-inch by 2-inch viewing port. To allow more air flow, six ventilation holes were drilled into the bottom portion of each door. Cells offered no heat or plumbing while light was provided by an oil lamp.
A prison without walls
While the prison is known for its imposing granite-quarried walls, this wasn’t always the case. Originally, the prison was surrounded by towers, allowing an unobstructed view of prisoners as they worked. The walls would come much later.
The prison yard sat on 52 acres of mostly high ground. Originally, plans called for a wooden stockade surrounded by granite walls.
In 1893, after visiting the prison, Folsom Telegraph editor Thaddeus McFarland gave it his seal of approval. “For a prison without walls, it is doubtful any prisoner will escape. It is likely he’ll remain there until the term of his sentence has expired.”
It took more than four decades for the prison to be surrounded by solid walls.
The 1905 Biennial report on the State Board of Charities and Corrections chastised prison leaders for delays.
“The need for a wall (should be obvious). It has been urged (since) the prison was established, and if any demonstration were needed it was furnished by (last year’s) disastrous break when several escaped,” the report states. “With a wall around the prison, these men could not have escaped.”
By 1909, construction on the wall was underway and was completed in 1923.
A legacy of dams
The American River provided a natural barrier for the prison, while also supplying power and a way to transport logs from upriver.
Gaining control of the Natoma Water and Mining Company, Horatio Gates Livermore and his family in 1866 decided to dam the river. This was part of Livermore’s long-range plans to transform Folsom into a manufacturing center.
Logging began in June 1890 and a year later the first log reached the prison dam. Running into difficulty with the rocky bottom of the river, Livermore sought to use the canal running alongside the prison to allow the logs to continue their journey downriver. Prison officials were reluctant to adjust the gates at the canal for fear it would interfere with power generation.
In 1896, the company built a sawmill operated on electric power. The mill could cut 75,000 board feet of lumber per day. The mill shut down in 1899 after heavy rains and a swollen river forced 3 million feet of logs over the dam.
Central to the plan was a dam of granite and concrete at Folsom to provide a “still pond” to hold logs floated down from Livermore’s logging operation. From the dam, a 40-foot canal followed downstream for a mile and a half, creating an 80-foot fall of water to generate power.
Dam construction began in 1867 but ran into trouble. They looked to the prison for labor, offering land near the prison as compensation.
Construction of the present-day Folsom Dam and power plant, just upriver from the prison, was completed in 1956 by the Army Corps of Engineers.
Did you know?
- During its early years, Folsom Prison had two temporary Wardens: John McComb and Thomas Pockman. The first official Warden was Charles Aull, appointed in 1887. He served as Warden until his passing in 1899. Thomas Wilkinson replaced him as Warden.
- Folsom Prison was the first prison in the nation to have electric lights.
- The first ice shipped from Folsom Prison was January 1894. The prison’s ice plant was so successful the State Legislature appropriated $162,000 for purchasing additional ice-making machinery. The plant is credited with contributing to the development of California’s fruit-growing industry, making it possible for the fruit to be transported to markets throughout the U.S. By 1909, California fruit growers were shipping a $12 million orange crop to the east, packed in ice. By 1930, it had grown to $100 million, according to “A History of Folsom,” by Wray Barrows.
First Folsom Prison warden brought recreation to incarcerated
Folsom Prison Warden Charles Aull, appointed in 1887, was known for being strict, but also had innovative ideas to improve the prison.
Aull was no stranger to law enforcement and corrections, having served as Captain of Turnkeys at San Quentin as well as Stanislaus County deputy sheriff.
“The earliest proponent of recreation at Folsom was Warden Charles Aull. Starting in 1894, he organized baseball teams with games being played on Saturdays, Sundays and holidays,” according to the Sacramento Public Library.
He served in the post for nearly 12 years until he fell ill.
“He is looked upon as the foremost of America’s criminologists,” reported The San Francisco Call, April 11, 1898. “From the moment he took office, he instituted a system of discipline unequaled at any penal institution in the Union. Folsom Prison is the dread of evil-doers in the State, and yet prisoners are treated with the utmost kindness. Some of the most desperate criminals have been given into his charge, (but) seldom were the rules (broken). Folsom Prison, as conducted by Warden Aull, is looked upon as a model institution of its kind.”
Seriously ill for weeks, Aull was brought to San Francisco’s Grand Hotel so he could be closer to his physicians.
Aull died the following year after having suffered for months with a “disease of the kidneys,” according to news reports.
- 1858: San Quentin overcrowding forces Legislature to act, approving a branch prison but site selection was a decade-long process.
- 1868: Folsom selected as site of branch prison for San Quentin.
- 1874: Prison constructed started but stalls over quarrels about contractor payment.
- 1878: Construction resumed and first cell block completed by end of the year.
- 1880: First 44 prisoners received from San Quentin.
- 1885: First female prison received on Nov. 7. Note: Only six women were ever housed at Folsom Prison and none since 1929.
- 1890: First stone for the Prison Powerhouse was laid in March.
- 1891: Prison Power House construction completed.
- 1893: Folsom Prison became the first prison in the nation to have electric lights.
- 1894: An ice plant at the prison power house became the first prison industry established at Folsom.
- 1895: Rock Crushing Plant using convict labor began operation.
- 1903: Greystone Chapel completed.
- 1907: Construction began on the State Hospital for the Criminally Insane at Folsom Prison. Like the rest of the prison, the building used granite quarried by convict labor. Facility construction was handled by convicts under the direction of the state engineer.
- 1909: Granite wall construction began. Prison purchased locomotive engine No. 2083 from Southern Pacific Railroad for $4,850.
- 1911: While the State Hospital for the Criminally Insane was incomplete, cells were still used for low-level incarcerated population. The state’s plans for the hospital were abandoned in 1914 and the derelict building was torn down in the 1950s.
- 1916: First Folsom Road Camp established.
- 1923: Granite wall construction completed.
By Don Chaddock, Inside CDCR editor
- Sacramento County Historical Society
- Sacramento Public Library
- Folsom Historical Society
- Folsom Prison Museum
- “A History of Folsom” by Wray Burrows
- “Images of America: Folsom Prison,” by Jim Brown, retired employee
- “The Lower American River: Prehistory to Parkway” by the American River Natural History Association
- and California State Archives.