It was the most notorious prison of its day — and it was hiding a secret double life. Researchers were scanning the old recreation yard of Alcatraz’s former federal penitentiary when something came up on their screens. Something was buried just inches under their feet on of the most heavily-explored island. And whatever that something was would change the way they understood the history of the most infamous island in the West.
A Remarkable Discovery
Alcatraz Island is one of the most popular and famous tourist destinations on the West Coast of the United States. Located just over a mile off of San Francisco’s shores, the abandoned prison is known for having housed some of the most infamous and dangerous criminals in U.S. history.
Every year, more than 1.4 million people tour the 22-acre island, hoping to get a glimpse of the dilapidated old prison blocks — or perhaps a ghost of a prisoner passed. Yet even with all of that foot traffic, there are still aspects of the island that managed to remain a secret. Something unbelievable came to light one day, when researchers found something mysterious buried deep below the island.
Setting Out On A Mission
While researchers have seemingly explored every square foot of the infamous island, some felt that there could still be secrets lurking below Alcatraz that were yet to be discovered. So archaeologist Timothy de Smet and researchers from Binghamton University set off on a mission to do what no other researching team had done: to discover if anything was hidden below the prison structures.
The team wanted to explore as much as they could without damaging the national landmark, so they made certain to plan their search using nondestructive methods. With the aid of old forgotten maps, laser scans, and ground-penetrating radar data, the team began scanning the island. While they were hopeful, they certainly did not realize just what would turn up.
Looking For Something Specific
The researchers scanning the island of Alcatraz were not sure exactly what they were hoping to find, but they had a general idea of what might be buried below. What they were looking for were any signs of Alcatraz’s mysterious past life, back before it was turned into the well-known former prison.
In 1848, during the California Gold Rush, San Francisco’s population was skyrocketing from just 300 to 30,000 (currently, the population stands at 883,305). With all of those new residents, the military saw a wide-open vulnerable point on the West Coast, and an island like Alcatraz seemed like the perfect place to set up a military base. They’d soon realize just how wrong they were.
Alcatraz As A Military Base
Alcatraz was the first island in the San Francisco Bay to be fortified, and so it was the first island where members of the military in the area were stationed. At first, the island was used to train recruits and new units for the Union during the Civil War. The island was quickly covered in 111 armed cannons lining the perimeter and looming stone towers to look out over the Bay.
There was even enough food in Alcatraz’s Citadel so that if any military members were trapped inside, they would have enough supplies to be able to feed themselves for months. However, problems quickly arose. The island was soon given an entirely new, yet much darker, life.
Struggling To Keep Up
Having an underfunded military base on an island proved to be rather difficult to maintain. As the years went on, the base’s buildings suffered water damage, and the facilities struggled to keep up with the ever-changing and evolving artillery technology of the era. After only a few years of having operated as a true military base, the idea was scrapped.
So what would become of this island if it was no longer to be used as a base? The military had other ideas. Slowly but surely, over time, Alcatraz had begun to keep military prisoners on the island. And now, it was time to step up that operation. Alcatraz was about to be turned into a full-time military prison.
Gaining Its Reputation
While it would still be a few years before Alcatraz would begin to house the most dangerous criminals in the world, the island was already starting to show signs of what it would later become. There were a few jail cells already on the island, and the military built even more, creating entire prison blocks capable of holding hundreds of people.
As the buildings suffered from overcrowding during the Spanish-American War, the prison complex on Alcatraz expanded. By 1912, Alcatraz’s fourth cell house became the largest concrete structure in the world. And then, just a few years later, it all came crashing down.
In 1933, everything on Alcatraz changed. The military passed off its ownership to the Federal Bureau of Prisons, and all that remained on the island were 32 “hard-case” military prisoners. Just a year later, Alcatraz became the first maximum-security civilian penitentiary in America, housing what were known as “the worst of the worst” criminals in the country.
As history would have it, criminals from Al Capone to George “Machine Gun” Kelly to Robert “Birdman of Alcatraz” Stroud all wasted away in prison cells on the island. But they had no idea that the whole time there was something enormous left behind right under their feet.
“Nothing” Left Behind
When Alcatraz Island was converted from a military prison into the modern federal penitentiary, there were virtually no preservation acts to protect the island’s history. So instead, absolutely nothing was said to be left behind on the island, except for a few prison blocks that were renovated for modern-day use.
“In converting the area to a prison, the vast majority of the previous military history of the island had been erased, but we wondered if perhaps something of that significant time in both the islands and American history remained, but buried and preserved beneath the surface,” de Smet said. Decades later, it was time to finally find out.
Everything There Is To Find
Even long after every single prisoner who had ever been held on Alcatraz Island had left, and long after the penitentiary had shut its doors, remnants of the island’s past remain. Today, some lucky tourists are able to explore what is left of the Citadel, but only the parts that were kept after the prison was built on top of it.
Over the years, the remnants of the Citadel were used for servant’s quarters, as storage units, and some were even used for solitary confinement. The area now called “the dungeon” was long thought to be the only remnants of the island’s military past. That all changed when de Smet and his team made their startling discovery.
Picking Up A Signal
De Smet and his team from Binghamton University felt like there was something missing. There had to have been more left behind by the military on the island; it just had not been discovered yet. They felt they had surely scanned every inch of the island. Then, one day, they decided to focus on the prison’s old recreation yard.
There seemed to be nothing special about the flat layer of concrete slab that prisoners had used for recreation back during the island’s penitentiary days. But as researchers used laser technology to scan the top of the yard, they quickly noticed something that they had never seen before come up on their screens.
Finding Something Big
Suddenly, as researchers were scanning, the lasers began to detect something just below the surface of the recreation yard. “We did not know what to expect,” the researchers said. But from the looks of it, whatever they were standing on top of was huge. However, they could not be so sure just yet.
To verify what they had found, the entire team began assembling in the recreation area. And soon enough, the data became affirmative. There was definitely something sitting right under the yard, and whatever it was had been buried there for a long time. As the investigators continued to scan, they began to realize exactly what was buried there.
Just Below The Surface
Sitting just inches below their feet, radars picked up what seemed to be a “bombproof” earthwork traverse, used by the military on the island many long years before. The military tunnel was lined with vaulted brick walls and ventilation ducts, running east to west. It had been sitting there since the 1860s — and no one even knew of its existence.
“The concrete veneer of the Recreation Yard floor is incredibly thin and, in fact, in places sitting directly atop the architecture from the 1860s,” de Smet said. But beyond just its existence, there was something else even more surprising lying in wait for researchers beneath the surface of Alcatraz.
Even though the structures that were found dated all the way back in the 1860s, the scans suggested that everything in the military tunnel was still completely intact, and incredibly well-preserved. “The remains of these historical archaeology features were just a few centimeters beneath the surface and they were miraculously and impeccably preserved,” de Smet noted.
From the scans, the researchers could see that the military tunnels were covered in a layer of concrete. At the time, this was probably done in order to prevent damage caused by erosion. But in reality, this unintentionally served an incredible purpose: helping to preserve them almost entirely just under the feet of millions of tourists. The team had made their discovery — what would they do with it?
For Alcatraz historians, this marks one of the biggest finds on the island for decades. “This really reinforces what several historians and archaeologists had long suspected,” an Alcatraz historian told The Sun. “Up until this point, we had nothing to go on except for a few visible trace remains and maps — and a lot of suspicion.”
But now that this military traverse has been uncovered, historians hope that they can learn even more about Alcatraz Island’s mysterious military past. And in the meantime, de Smet and his researching team say that their work of uncovering long-buried secrets is far from over.
Uncovering What Lies Below
De Smet and his team hope that they can use their non-destructive technology to see if any other unearthed secrets lay buried under the old federal penitentiary. From there, the team hopes to one day be able to see what lies beneath some of the other most famous landmarks in the country.
Only time will tell if there is more history left out of view from the world, waiting to be discovered right under our feet, even beneath some of our best-known landmarks. Until then, de Smet says he is not done exploring Alcatraz Island. “Below the surface, Alcatraz is still full of mysteries,” he said. “There’s still a whole lot to be learned.”
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