By Don Chaddock, Inside CDCR editor

Editor’s Note: Situated on the San Francisco Bay, the state prison came to rely on ships for trade, transportation and incarceration. Originally, three other ships were designated “the State Prison” prior to the Waban, which is commonly known as the state’s first prison ship. Inmates were also employed at a quarry on East Marin Island, kept on the ship at night, and had other posts in ships around the bay. Youth were also placed on an old sloop of war in the late 1800s to teach them maritime skills. The second installment of Unlocking History looks more closely at the maritime history of the state prison system.

The rush for gold

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.

1855 Lithograph Of Ships Turned To Buildings Courtesy Of Uc Berkeley, Bancroft Library

An 1855 lithograph shows ships used as buildings in San Francisco. Courtesy UC Berkely Bankcroft Library.

“The first filling in of a water lot in San Francisco was done by Captain Joseph L. Folsom on the north side of California street west of Sansome,” reported Theodore Henry Hittell in the History of California, published in 1897. “The work was very expensive but the property appreciated in value so rapidly that the cost was found to be a good investment and others imitated the example. Meanwhile as the wharves extended out into the bay and cross streets were built on piles between them, thus enclosing blocks of water, a number of 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.”

In 1850, the state adopted a provision to house inmates 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, for a short time, served as the state prison as did Sacramento’s prison ship, the La Grange. But 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, the ship was bought out by one of the partners and turned 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.

The prison brigs in San Francisco and Sacramento were soon replaced by the Waban, secured from the “forest of masts” for use as the first official state prison.

The inmates 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 prison cells using stone they had quarried. This bit of state prison history has been retold for more than 150 years, but the prison system’s maritime history doesn’t end there.

As a coastal state, California once relied on ships for trade, transportation and incarceration.

Ships used for inmates, cargo, travel

Records at the California State Archives show inmates were kept on board numerous ships during the early years of the state correctional system. The Waban is the one known by most, secured by San Francisco Sheriff Jack Hayes and sailed to Angel Island with about 40 inmates. To convert the ship to a prison, Hayes needed lumber.

“Lumber receipt (SAFR 18805, HDC 453) is handwritten on blue printed letterhead made out to Mr. J.C. Hayes, 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.

1855 Receipt For Ship Licenses

An 1855 document shows three ships, the Marin, the Pike County and the Mariposa.

The state believed Angel Island, with its existing quarry, would work well as a site for the prison but federal land claims scratched that plan. There were numerous escapes and problems so the state voided the contract with Sheriff Hayes. James Estell and his partners secured the state prison contract, sailing the ship to Point San Quentin in 1852 where the state purchased land to construct the prison. That’s typically where the tale ends regarding maritime activities for the prison system, but records show there is much more to the story.

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 prisonward,” 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 and there was also one 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.

“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 inmates from the prison wharf, some tried to escape by sneaking onto ships.

“On several occasions upon a pre-concerted signal, (inmates) 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 halloed to the guards to fire at them if they wished while they were pulling away with all their might.”

The newspaper called for action from the legislature. “The great (need) at the prison, is a wall enclosing the prison building and a large portion of the ground.”

Inmates, staff work on island

“In the afternoon we rowed over to Marin Island where about 150 are engaged in quarrying stone under the immediate superintendence of Lieut. 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.”

Another official state document refers to inmates housed on “ships.” The document also notes inmates working on Marin Island.

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 as of 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, but it was most likely per month.

The report also lists prison officials stationed at the island. G.M. Whorter is listed as “Dep. Warden at Island” while J.S. Lisle is listed as “Lieut. 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 report of the Board of Prison Directors, 1898. “All contract goods are delivered at the prison wharf.”