Thought To Be Lost Forever, Researchers Make Remarkable Discovery Under The Golden Gate Bridge

Since 1937, the Golden Gate Bridge has spanned the Golden Gate strait, connecting the San Francisco Bay to the Pacific Ocean. And while the structure is something to behold, there is more than one mystery lurking underneath it in the waters.

With the help of some underwater robots, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) has made it their goal to uncover the ghostly secrets hidden underneath the Golden Gate Bridge. What they found is eerie in the most extraordinary way.

One Of The United States’ Most Famous Landmarks

One Of The United States Most Famous Landmarks
Xinhua/Wu Xiaoling via Getty Images
Dukas/Universal Images Group via Getty Images

Spanning almost two miles across the San Francisco Bay, the Golden Gate Bridge’s rust-colored structure is arguably one of America’s most famous landmarks. People from all over travel to the San Francisco area to marvel at its engineering.

But while people look up at the bridge, they forget that the water it towers over holds more than one secret of its own. Now, with the help of underwater robots, NOAA has made it their mission to uncover stories from the past.

The Bridge Has Around 27,000 Visitors Per Day

The Bridge Has Around 27,000 Visitors Per Day
Paul Chinn/The San Francisco Chronicle via Getty Images
Paul Chinn/The San Francisco Chronicle via Getty Images

According to Bold Italic, around 27,000 visitors venture to the Golden Gate Bridge per day. That’s a lot of people marveling at what the American Society of Civil Engineers calls one of the Wonders of the Modern World.

But what people don’t think about it while they are looking up at a feat of engineering comparable to that of the Panama Canal, they forget that there is a whole other story lurking in its watery shadow.

377-Feet Deep And Full Of Mystery

377-Feet Deep And Full Of Mystery
DigitalGlobe via Getty Images via Getty Images
Gonzales Photo/Kenneth Nguyen/PYMCA-Avalon/Universal Images Group via Getty Images

At around 377 feet at its deepest point, the waters underneath the Golden Gate Bridge are bound to hold more than one ghostly tale from the past. And the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration has made it their mission to bring the eerie tales to the surface.

Now, it’s just a matter of using their remotely operated underwater robots to search the Golden Gate strait’s floor to uncover whatever time and water currents have hidden.

It Is One Of The World’s Natural Harbors

It Is One Of The World's Natural Harbors
Gili Yaari/NurPhoto via Getty Images
Gili Yaari/NurPhoto via Getty Images

The thing is, NOAA’s excavation plan isn’t as easy as it sounds. The Golden Gate strait is nothing more than a tiny, mile-wide stretch of water, connecting the San Francisco Bay to the Pacific Ocean. And it is notorious for keeping treasures well hidden under its waves.

As one of the world’s natural harbors, historians find it amazing that the Spanish conquistadors knew nothing of it, sailing right past when they first landed on California soil.

The Bay Was Hidden Until The 18th Century

The Bay Was Hidden Until The 8th Century
Marji Lang/LightRocket via Getty Images
Marji Lang/LightRocket via Getty Images

Notorious for being covered in a layer of fog for a solid amount of the time and surrounded by rocky terrain, rough waters, and more than one sea predator, NOAA had their work cut out for them.

There is a reason the Bay stayed hidden until the Spanish finally stumbled upon it in the 18th century since getting through the strait was anything but smooth sailing. More than one ship found itself smashed upon the rocks. But NOAA wasn’t going to let that stop their plan.

Many People Were At The Mercy Of The Water

Many People Were At The Mercy Of The Water
Tayfun Coskun/Anadolu Agency/Getty Images
Tayfun Coskun/Anadolu Agency/Getty Images

With the wild currents of the Pacific Ocean, disaster often struck those who tried to make it through to the safety of the Bay. Lacking navigational charts and instruments, early northern California settlers had nothing to go on but their own sight.

Which, honestly, is the best when going through an area known for its fog storms. Even so, enough made it past the strait, into the Bay, and were able to settle on the shores surrounding the harbor.

Everything Changed With Captain John Montgomery

Everything Changed With Captain John Montgomery
DEA/BIBLIOTECA AMBROSIANA/Getty Images
DEA/BIBLIOTECA AMBROSIANA/Getty Images

First settled by the Spanish on June 27, 1776, it took more than a few years for Yerba Buena to cede to the rest of the United States. Then, in 1846, Captain John Montgomery sailed to the bay, claiming the land for the United States, meeting no resistance, and planting the first American flag upon its shores.

A year later, Yerba Buena was renamed, San Francisco. And, in 1850, California became the 31st state of the United States, just in time for the Gold Rush.

The Population Kept Growing

The Population Kept Growing
Buyenlarge/Getty Images
Buyenlarge/Getty Images

Even after the hype of the California Gold Rush died down in 1855, San Francisco’s bay was still one of the most important ports around. With so many people arriving on the shores of San Francisco via ship, it was time to figure out how to conquer the harsh strait.

But it was going to be a long time before the Golden Gate Bridge became a staple landmark of the Bay Area.

San Francisco Was Behind Other Cities

San Francisco Was Behind Other Cities
Universal History Archive/Universal Images Group via Getty Images
Universal History Archive/Universal Images Group via Getty Images

Before the rusty-colored Golden Gate Bridge spanned the waters of the Golden Gate strait, people would arrive at the shores of San Francisco via boat, the easiest way to make it across the strait.

The thing is, the hidden area was hindering the city’s growth. Its isolation made it so goods were hard to get into the city. San Francisco wasn’t growing at nearly the same pace as the rest of the American metropolises.

It Was Time To Find A Solution

It Was Time To Find A Solution
Universal History Archive/Universal Images Group via Getty Images
Universal History Archive/Universal Images Group via Getty Images

So, the brainstorming began. And people began to think of a different way to get people across the Bay that didn’t involve a ferry-type service. Ironically, the thought of building a bridge wasn’t thought possible.

The uncertain foggy weather of the northern California coast, not to mention the harsh currents and tides of the Golden Gate strait, aren’t the best conditions to do construction. But that doesn’t mean people completely ignored the idea.

The 1915 World’s Fair Was Just The Start

The 1915 World's Fair Was Just The Start
Schenectady Museum; Hall of Electrical History Foundation/CORBIS/Corbis via Getty Images
Schenectady Museum; Hall of Electrical History Foundation/CORBIS/Corbis via Getty Images

While many people didn’t believe such a structure could ever be created, they knew if it were possible, it would be something incredible — large enough to span the strait and tall enough to allow larger ships to still pass underneath it into the bay.

It wasn’t until 1915, in the aftermath of The Panama–Pacific International Exposition world’s fair held in San Francisco, that the idea of a grand bridge actually started to take shape.

The Proposal: A Combined Cantilever And Suspension Bridge

The Proposal: A Combined Cantilever And Suspension Bridge
DeAgostini/Getty Images
DeAgostini/Getty Images

Engineer Joseph B. Strauss was the first to propose a combined cantilever and suspension bridge, spanning across the strait to connect San Fransisco to what people now know as Marin County.

Of course, it took a few years from Strauss’ initial 1921 idea. But after a few years, many revisions, and a whole lot of construction, the Golden Gate Bridge was built. At the time, it was the longest and highest of its kind.

Opening Day Happened In 1937

Opening Day Happened In 1937
Unknown/The San Francisco Chronicle via Getty Images
Unknown/The San Francisco Chronicle via Getty Images

The Golden Gate Bridge officially opened for business on May 27, 1937. Completed during a time of economic crisis in the United States, the bridge was a symbol of hope and progress in the Bay Area.

Today, it is arguably one of San Francisco’s most sought after tourist attractions, catering to around ten million visitors per year and carrying over 100,000 vehicles every day from the shores of San Fransico to Marin County.

With So Much Daily Traffic, What Is Left To Discover?

With So Much Daily Traffic, What Is Left To Discover?
David Madison/Getty Images
David Madison/Getty Images

With so much foot and car traffic, it seems unlikely that there is anything left to be discovered about the iconic San Francisco landmark. But that’s just on the surface. Looking underneath the Golden Gate Bridge’s watery shadows, there are still many mysteries to be solved and many relics to be found.

Now, it’s up to NOAA to bring what they can to the surface. It’s just a matter of what they’re going to find.

NOAA’s Well-Equipped For Underwater Discoveries

NOAA's Well-Equipped For Underwater Discoveries
Eva Marie Uzcategui/Getty Images
Eva Marie Uzcategui/Getty Images

The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) is a scientific agency that focuses on the conditions of major waterways throughout the world. In this particular instance, they’ve set their eyes on the Golden Gate strait and what lies underneath its watery depths.

Thankfully, the organization is full of top-tier marine archeologists and researchers, making them well-equipped to tackle their mission. But nothing prepared them for what they were about to uncover in the water.

Their Main Goal Is To Monitor The World’s Waterways

Their Main Goal Is To Monitor The World's Waterways
Hyoung Chang/The Denver Post via Getty Images
Hyoung Chang/The Denver Post via Getty Images

Part of The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s mission is to monitor the oceans and major waterways found throughout the world, including the 330,000 square miles of the Greater Farallones National Marine Sanctuary.

Scanning the sea floors in search of anything out of the ordinary is just one of their many goals. But it’s that one particular talent that brought them to the Golden Gate Bridge and the water it spans.

Between Currents And People, NOAA Had A Lot Of Work To Do

Between Currents And People, NOAA Had A Lot Of Work To Do
Masci Giuseppe/AGF/Universal Images Group via Getty Images
Masci Giuseppe/AGF/Universal Images Group via Getty Images

Between the swimmers, kayakers, tourists taking pictures, and the numerous cars crossing the bridge on a daily basis, it’s hard to imagine anything about the Golden Gate Bridge is still a mystery. Well, that’s where people are wrong.

Over the years, the swells, currents, and tides have brought more than one ship down. Now, NOAA has made it their mission to uncover some of the stories those ships have left behind.

They Found Eight Potential Discoveries Via Sonar

They Found Eight Potential Discoveries Via Sonar
Francois LOCHON/Gamma-Rapho via Getty Images
Francois LOCHON/Gamma-Rapho via Getty Images

A team of NOAA researchers began their scanning process west of the Golden Gate Bridge in September of 2014. After looking over their sonar scans of the ocean floor, they found eight possible locations worthy of a deeper look.

As it turned out, four of the eight locations were just what the team of researchers was looking for. Four of the locations they scanned were shipwrecks! Now, it was time to bring in the robots.

It Was Time To Bring In The ROV

It Was Time To Bring In The ROV
Alexis Rosenfeld/Getty Images
Alexis Rosenfeld/Getty Images

Using a remotely operated vehicle (ROV), the team went to each individual site, combing through the ocean floor to see if anything of interest was there. For a bridge that was seen as having no new mysteries it sure happened to have a lot of untold tales littered underneath its depths.

Now it was a matter of finding out the names of the ships, where they came from, and how they wound up in the waters underneath the Golden Gate Bridge.

Their First Discovery: Noonday

Their First Discovery: Noonday
Sepia Times/Universal Images Group via Getty Images
Sepia Times/Universal Images Group via Getty Images

After some digging, NOAA discovered that one of the sunken ships was Noonday, a clipper ship constructed for Boston merchant Henry Hastings. Unfortunately for Hastings, the ship went down on its fourth passage to San Fransico on January 1, 1863.

Thankfully, the harbor was in view when the ship hit a fateful rock and took on water. So, all of the men made it to safety. But that can’t be said about the ship’s cargo.

Noonday Could See The Shore But Hit A Rock

Noonday Could See The Shore But Hit A Rock
Ezra Shaw/Getty Images
Ezra Shaw/Getty Images

Seeing the harbor of San Francisco after a 139-day passage from Boston must have been a relief for the men on Noonday. But, as fate would have it, the ship would never make it to port.

Eight miles out, Noonday hit a rock and quickly began to take on water. In a desperate hurry to get off the sinking ship, Captain Hastings and his crew were able to grab a few of their personal effects, leaving the rest of the valuable cargo on board.

The Rock Was Named Noonday Rock

The Rock Was Named Noonday Rock
Kimberly White/Corbis via Getty Images
Kimberly White/Corbis via Getty Images

While all the men escaped with their lives, the ship sank about 40 fathoms. But the cargo still on board was valuable, and more than one person sought to retrieve it from its watery grave. Alas, everyone who went down into the water came back up empty-handed.

Ironically, the rock the ship hit is now known as Noonday Rock, part of San Francisco’s Farallon Islands chain. And while that landmark is well-known, the exact location of its namesake has been lost to history.

It Was Time For Further Investigation

It Was Time For Further Investigation
Heritage Art/Heritage Images via Getty Images
Heritage Art/Heritage Images via Getty Images

With the long-lost Noonday was rediscovered by a team of NOAA researchers in 2014 there was more work to be done. After looking at their sonar scans, one volunteer noticed a structure that looked to be around the same size as the sunken ship.

Not only that, but it wasn’t far from the Noonday Rock in which the ship was named after. So, using an ROV, they went to further investigate the spot picked up by their sonar equipment.

The Ship Wasn’t Visible

The Ship Wasn't Visible
Gregory Messier Courtesy of U.S. Navy/Newsmakers
Gregory Messier Courtesy of U.S. Navy/Newsmakers

Unfortunately, while the sonar might have picked up a structure, the ROV wasn’t picking up anything tangible. But one thing was clear: NOAA definitely found the 1863 sunken clipper ship’s final resting place.

During an interview with AP, James Delgado from NOAA said, “Noonday is there. The signal is very clear. But there’s just nothing sticking above the seabed.” But they weren’t giving up yet; there were still three more locations to search.

Next Up: The S.S. Selja

Next Up: The S.S. Selja
Stefan Sauer/picture alliance via Getty Images
Stefan Sauer/picture alliance via Getty Images

One of the other locations NOAA stubbled upon during their survey exposed the long-lost ghost ship of the S.S. Selja, a workhorse cargo steamer that sunk in 1910. Chartered by the Portland & Asiatic Steamship Company, this particular tanker was in charge of trade between Asia and the Pacific Northwest, namely flour and lumber.

January 22, 1910 would see the S.S. Selja making its last trade route off the coast of Portland, Oregon.

A Fateful Collision Sunk The Selja In 180 Feet Of Water

A Fateful Collision Sunk The Selja In 180 Feet Of Water
Carol M. Highsmith/Buyenlarge/Getty Images
Carol M. Highsmith/Buyenlarge/Getty Images

On that fateful day, the S.S. Selja collided with another cargo ship, the S.S Beaver. By the time the captain heard the ship’s whistle, rounding Point Reyes, it was too late. About 700 miles off the coast of Portland, Oregon, just west of San Francisco, the S.S. Selja sunk into 180 feet of water.

In a formal statement, the captain of the S.S. Beaver, William Kidston, stated, “The SS Selja sank headfirst in ten minutes from the time she was struck. She sank in 30 fathoms of water…”

They Could Explore The S.S. Selja

They Could Explore The S.S. Selja
usoceangov/Youtube
usoceangov/Youtube

While the collision caused more than one “it was his fault” type argument, it was ruled that both captains were at fault for the wreck. After the ruling, the S.S. Selja was ultimately forgotten. That is until the researchers of NOAA found something that looked like the ghost ship on their radar, just west of the Golden Gate Bridge.

Unlike the Noonday, which is buried under who knows how much sand, the S.S. Selja was out in the open and ready for exploration.

NOAA Wasn’t Stopping At The Two Ships

NOAA Wasn't Stopping At The Two Ships
Thankyouocean/Youtube
Thankyouocean/Youtube

Although the NOAA team was able to uncover the truth behind two of its sonar discoveries, there were still two more that they needed to explore. As it turned out, one was poorly preserved and littered with fishing nets that they couldn’t get a definite name on it.

The other was actually intact, but it was nothing more than an unnamed tugboat that found itself on the ocean floor after some accident.

The Area Is Full Of Shipwrecks

The Area Is Full Of Shipwrecks
NOAA Sanctuaries/Youtube
NOAA Sanctuaries/Youtube

Even though they weren’t able to name the final two boats, it still begs one huge question — why are the waters underneath the Golden Gate Bridge so full of shipwrecks? Well, one reason definitely has to do with the amount of boat traffic going to and from the port.

During an interview with Live Science, NOAA researcher James Delgado said, “We’re looking at an area that was a funnel to the busiest and most important American port on the Pacific Coast.”

There Are Around 300 Wrecks In the Area

There Are Around 300 Wrecks In the Area
Nicolas Economou/NurPhoto via Getty Images
Nicolas Economou/NurPhoto via Getty Images

According to Live Science, around 300 shipwrecks are scattered throughout the Greater Farallones National Marine Sanctuary and Golden Gate National Recreation Area. The oldest wreck on file is the Spanish galleon named San Agustin, which sank in the 16th century.

Thankfully, the most recent shipwreck was back in 1980, with the S.S. Puerto Rican explosion that happened just hours after the tanker left the San Francisco port, heading to New Orleans.

Months Before, NOAA Found Something Thought to Be Lost

Months Before, NOAA Found Something Thought to Be Lost
Education Images/Universal Images Group via Getty Images
Education Images/Universal Images Group via Getty Images

NOAA might have uncovered a few long-lost ships, but four is nothing compared to the ghost ships haunting the depths beneath the Golden Gate Bridge. Many of which have yet to be discovered, let alone explored.

But even before their 2014 survey, NOAA has been onsight, searching for the mysteries underneath the water of the bridge. And, a few months before their other four discoveries, they found something that was thought to be lost forever.

The S.S. City of Chester Took 16 People Down With It

The S.S. City of Chester Took 16 People Down With It
San Francisco Maritime National Historic Park/Wikimedia Commons
San Francisco Maritime National Historic Park/Wikimedia Commons

Lost for well over a century, the NOAA researchers came across the ghost ship of the S.S. City of Chester. During its final voyage from San Francisco’s port to Eureka, California, the steamship met its end.

Barely out of the harbor, the S.S. City of Chester collided with another ship, the R.M.S. Oceanic. The accident put a hole straight through the former ship’s port side. It sank in a matter of minutes, taking 16 people down with it.

NOAA Found The Steamship In 2014

NOAA Found The Steamship In 2014
San Francisco Maritime National Historic Park/Wikimedia Commons
San Francisco Maritime National Historic Park/Wikimedia Commons

Even though the S.S. City of Chester sank pretty much right next to the Golden Gate Bridge; it was lost for close to 120 years. But, in 2014, the research team from NOAA were pleased to announce they had successfully found the steamship.

Not only did they locate the vessel, but they were also able to explore it via ROCs. To their surprise, after all those years, the ship was in pretty good shape.

They Found One Of California’s Most Famous Shipwrecks

They Found One Of California's Most Famous Shipwrecks
Smallbones/Wikimedia Commons
Smallbones/Wikimedia Commons

But that wasn’t the last long-lost ship the team discovered in 2014. That year, NOAA released one of the first photographs of arguably one of the most famous shipwrecks to ever occur on the California coast.

In 1901, the S.S. City of Rio de Janeiro met its end, trying to navigate the narrow strait during one very foggy morning. Hitting some rocks, the vessel sank within minutes, plummeting into the cold waters of the Pacific.

Dubbed The “Titanic Of The Golden Gate”

Dubbed The "Titanic of the Golden Gate"
KMJKWhite/Wikimedia Commons
KMJKWhite/Wikimedia Commons

Sadly, there were around 210 people aboard the S.S. City of Rio de Janeiro, most of whom were immigrants looking to make a new life for themselves in the United States. Of those some 210 people, about half of them went down with the vessel.

After the ship sank to the bottom of the chilly ocean, history would remember its final voyage and dub it the “Titanic of the Golden Gate.”

NOAA Made A 3D Model Of The Ship

NOAA Made A 3D Model Of The Ship
Wang He/Getty Images
Wang He/Getty Images

Sitting under nearly 290 feet of water, the S.S. City of Rio Janeiro’s final resting place isn’t far from the Golden Gate Bridge. Considering how long it has been underwater, there was no safe way for the NOAA team to bring it to the surface. The thing is, they didn’t need to.

Using 3D modeling techniques and sonar, the team was able to carefully construct a model of what the steamship would look like today if it was still workable.

The S.S. City of Rio Janeiro Wasn’t The End

The S.S. City of Rio Janeiro Wasn't The End
George Rose/Getty Images
George Rose/Getty Images

It was an amazing feat of science, discovering a ship that was thought to be lost to the push and pull of the rigorous currents and tides surrounding the Golden Gate strait. It is not only finding the ship’s location but also constructing a working model of what that ship would look like today.

But that wasn’t the last time NOAA found something remarkable under the waters of the Golden Gate Bridge. One year later, something else came across their sonar equipment.

The Tugboat Actually Has A Name!

The Tugboat Actually Has A Name!
Frank101/Wikimedia Commons
Frank101/Wikimedia Commons

Remember that unnamed tugboat the team found in 2014? Well, in October of 2015, NOAA’s research team discovered a surprising secret surround the tiny boat. The vessel wasn’t an unnamed private ship; in fact, it had a long history.

After looking over the features of the tugboat and diving into documents, the team came to the conclusion that it was actually a ship that simply disappeared in 1921, the USS Conestoga.

The USS Conestoga Was Surrounded In Mystery

The USS Conestoga Was Surrounded In Mystery
United States Navy/Wikimedia Commons
United States Navy/Wikimedia Commons

Used as a weapons and supplies transport during World War I, the USS Conestoga was heading to Samoa when tragedy struck. Leaving Mare Island, about 20 miles north of San Fransisco, the cargo ship and her crew of 56 men simply disappeared.

Since 1921, no one has been able to locate the vessel, and it’s remained a mystery ever since. Well, at least until NOAA made their remarkable discovery and unveiled the 100-year-old vessel.

There Is So Much More To Explore

There Is So Much More To Explore
Gazeau J/Andia/Universal Images Group via Getty Images
Gazeau J/Andia/Universal Images Group via Getty Images

NOAA was able to discover something the world thought to be lost forever, a ship that vanished 100 years ago, in 1921. And if they were able to locate the USS Conestoga, what other marvels are buried under the waters of the Golden Gate Bridge?

If the NOAA team knows one thing for sure, it’s that their exploration of the Golden Gate strait is far from over. There is much more to be discovered off the rough coast of San Fransisco.

Discover The Military Facility Located Beneath Alcatraz Penitentiary

naming
Universal History Archive/Universal Images Group via Getty Images
Universal History Archive/Universal Images Group via Getty Images

Thanks to a group of archaeologists from Binghamton University, another mystery in the San Francisco Bay area has been revealed. Using laser technology the team was able to explore the ground beneath the prison’s exercise yard, and what they found might just change the way we look at Alcatraz forever.

But before revealing what the team from Binghamton University found, let’s travel back to 1775 when Alcatraz Island was first given the name we know it by today. Spaniard Juan Manuel de Ayala, who claimed to “discover” the island, called it “La Isla de los Alcatraces.” This translates to “Island of the Pelicans.” It is through this writing that we get the name Alcatraz. The island is 22 acres with two high points, one 135 feet above sea level and the other 138 feet. It is between these high points that Alcatraz Penitentiary can be seen from shore.

The First Owner

The First Owner
Robert Alexander/Getty Images
Robert Alexander/Getty Images

Before becoming a world-famous penitentiary, Alcatraz Island was owned by Julian Workman. He was a ranch owner in 1846 when Alta California governor Pio Pico gave him the island. As part of their arrangement, Workman agreed to build a lighthouse.

Workman was never able to follow through on his promise. It’s not that he couldn’t, it’s that he was never given a chance. Less than one year into his ownership California’s military governor John C. Fremont bought Alcatraz for $5,000.

Handed Over To The Military

Handed Over To The Military
Universal History Archive/Getty Images
Universal History Archive/Getty Images

In 1850, two years after California was sold to the United States, President Millard Fillmore ordered that Alcatraz Island be handed over to the military. This act turned the island into a military base, where it could be used as a defense to protect the bay.

The rightful owner of the land, John C. Fremont, expected the United States to pay him a hefty fee for the island. His investment was about to pay huge dividends. Or was it?

A Failed Fight

A Failed Fight
MPI/Getty Images
MPI/Getty Images

Unfortunately for Fremont, the United States took the land from him, arguing that the deal he made to buy it was invalid. Fremont lost the island, and he was given no money in exchange.

To try and get compensated for his loss, Fremont began a long legal battle. Along with his fellow ranchers, he fought the ruling in a case that ran through the system until the 1890s. When a final decision was made, it was declared that Fremont had no right to the land.

A Three-Year Wait

A Three-Year Wait
Wikimedia Commons
Wikimedia Commons

With Alcatraz Island firmly in the grasp of the United States, it took another three years for anything to happen. In 1853, construction finally began on a new fort under the watch of Zealous B. Tower.

Although it took a few years for construction to begin, once it did, the building process needed to be fast. In 1848 the Gold Rush began, and people were flocking to San Francisco in the thousands! In just a few years, the population boomed from 300 to 30,000.

Defending The Bay

Defending The Bay
Hulton Archive/Getty Images
Hulton Archive/Getty Images

With so many people coming in so fast, building a defensive stronghold was a major priority. Not only did the military plan to fortify Alcatraz, but they also intended to build a stronghold on Fort Point, a nearby island.

The Alcatraz project was finished first, which was a good thing. It wound up being given the strongest fortifications. At the time, no one knew it would eventually become one of the world’s most notorious prisons.

The Perfect Location

The Perfect Location
US Army Air Corps/PhotoQuest/Getty Images
US Army Air Corps/PhotoQuest/Getty Images

As if blessed from above, San Francisco Bay gave away the perfect island to build a defensive stronghold on. Engineers couldn’t believe their incredible luck. In 1852, the Pacific Coast Board of Engineers reported:

“Nature seems to have provided a redoubt for this [military] purpose in the shape of Alcatraz Island. Situated abreast the entrance directly in the middle of the inner harbor, it covers with its fire the whole of the interior space lying between Angel Island to the north, San Francisco to the south and the outer batteries to the west.”

Using What Nature Provided

Using What Nature Provided
National Park Service, Golden Gate National Recreation Area
National Park Service, Golden Gate National Recreation Area

Tasked with building Fort Alcatraz as quickly as possible, Zealous B. Tower used what nature gave him. With his men, the crew took rocks from the island to build up the walls of the fort along its coast.

Once the walls were placed, weapons could be positioned behind them around the island perimeter. These weapons were placed on the west, south, and north of the naturally-built walls. There were also 111 armed cannons on the island, making it ready for anything.

Armed To The Teeth

Armed To The Teeth
Staff/Mirrorpix/Getty Images
Staff/Mirrorpix/Getty Images

As if cannons, which were called columbiads, weren’t enough, Fort Alcatraz was also outfitted with caponiers, stone towers that projected from the shore. Anyone looking to take control of Fort Alcatraz would have been met with a degree of difficulty unmatched at the time.

One year after construction began, the citadel was finished. There were barracks located next to the fort’s lighthouse. The lighthouse was also the first navigational light ever placed on the Pacific Coast of the United States.

Defending The Lighthouse

Defending The Lighthouse
Dave Etheridge-Barnes/Getty Images
Dave Etheridge-Barnes/Getty Images

The citadel was tasked with not only defending the island but defending the lighthouse as well. To ensure success against attack, it was built to accommodate 100 soldiers, and expand to 200 when needed. The windows of the barracks were designed for soldiers to fire through.

And if the fort was taken over, there were enough supplies in the citadel for those trapped inside to survive for four months. In that time, it can be assumed, backup would arrive, or the citadel would be breached and overtaken.

The End Of The Process

The End Of The Process
Camerique/ClassicStock/Getty Images
Camerique/ClassicStock/Getty Images

Although it was intended to be a quick process, the fortification of Alcatraz Island was not finished until 1859. There were many reasons that led to this, but the biggest one was a shortage of skilled labor workers.

At the time the fort was being built, people were flocking to San Francisco in droves, but not to build a fort. They wanted to find gold and get rich quick. This meant finding people to actually work on the island was much easier said than actually done.

An Opportunity Never Used

An Opportunity Never Used
MPI/Hulton Archive/Getty Images
MPI/Hulton Archive/Getty Images

During the Civil War, 350 men were positioned at Fort Alcatraz. Their time there ended up being unproductive. The fort was never attacked during the war. There was one recorded plot by the Confederate army, but the assault never came.

In 1863, three men were detained and arrested in the plot to assault Fort Alcatraz. They were sentenced to ten years in prison – sentences they did not serve. Abraham Lincoln pardoned all three men when the war ended.

First Prisoners

First Prisoners
Paolo KOCH/Gamma-Rapho via Getty Images
Paolo KOCH/Gamma-Rapho via Getty Images

In modern times, of course, Alcatraz Island is best known for its penitentiary, and less for its military background. Interestingly enough, the two histories overlap. The first prisoners at Alcatraz were incarcerated soldiers in 1859.

During the Civil War, the stronghold was also used to imprison Confederate soldiers. Even though Fort Alcatraz wasn’t built to be a prison, the future of the island was clearly never in doubt. It was only a matter of time before that future became the present.

The “Perfect” Prison

perfect prison
US Army Air Corps/PhotoQuest/Getty Images
US Army Air Corps/PhotoQuest/Getty Images

Alcatraz Penitentiary first began holding civilian prisoners in 1934. Thanks to the topography of the island and its distance from the shore, it was the perfect place for a prison. Anyone who tried to escape would find that freedom outside the walls was impossible to come by.

The waters surrounding Alcatraz are near freezing and the strong currents are backbreaking to swim against. Overall, there have been 14 escape attempts from the prison. No one involved successfully made it to the mainland.

A Soaring Population

A Soaring Population
PhotoQuest/Getty Images
PhotoQuest/Getty Images

Before holding civilian prisoners, Alcatraz held prisoners of war. In 1867, a jailhouse was built on the fort. Thirty years later, during the Spanish-American War of 1898, the prison had a population of 450.

Over the next 15 years, the prison expanded with the addition of large concrete prison cells. That block of cells is the largest structure still intact on the island. Finally, in 1933, the military portion of the fort was decommissioned and the entire operation was handed over to the Prisons Bureau.

James A. Johnston Was A Tough Warden

James A. Johnston Was A Tough Warden
Bettmann/Getty Images
Bettmann/Getty Images

Alcatraz Penitentiary welcomed its first group of prisoners on August 11, 1934. This group was “special” and had been hand-picked by authorities to make the journey to the island. They had disrupted life at their previous penitentiaries and needed a change of location.

Watching over these men was Alcatraz’s first warden, James A. Johnston. He was known as a strict disciplinarian and was the perfect man for the job. Life wouldn’t be easy for him, but he had a crew of 155 guards to help keep the peace.

Some Famous Faces

Some Famous Faces
Donaldson Collection/Michael Ochs Archives/Getty Images
Donaldson Collection/Michael Ochs Archives/Getty Images

Once Alcatraz Penitentiary was fully up and running, it became the home of some of the country’s most notorious criminals. Al Capone and George Kelly are two of the most recognizable names, as well as one man labeled “Public Enemy Number One” by the FBI.

That man was Alvin “Creepy” Karpis, and he is one of four criminals to ever be given the title. He is also the only one of those four to be taken alive by authorities.

Any Survivors?

Any Survivors
Warner Brothers/Getty Images
Warner Brothers/Getty Images

As we said, there were a total of 14 escape attempts from 36 prisoners on the island. Of those, none officially made it to shore. Six were taken to the grave, 23 were captured alive, and two drowned. As for the other five, they are listed as “missing and presumed drowned.”

That means that while there is no proof that anyone successfully escaped Alcatraz, it is possible. Considering the conditions surrounding the island, though, it is unlikely they ever made it to the shore.

An Escape Attempt Immortalized

An Escape Attempt Immortalized
Bettmann/Getty Images
Bettmann/Getty Images

Of all the escape attempts, the 13th is the most interesting one. It involved three men: John Anglin, Clarence Anglin, and Frank Morris. They planned an elaborate escape and successfully made it into the ocean.

The attempt was immortalized on the silver screen in 1979’s Escape from Alcatraz, starring Clint Eastwood. The story doesn’t end there, though. In 2013, a letter “written by John Anglin” was delivered to the police. Is it possible these three men survived the freezing currents of the San Francisco Bay?

What Does It All Mean?

What Does It All Mean
Robert Alexander/Getty Images
Robert Alexander/Getty Images

Once Alcatraz Penitentiary shut down, it became a major tourist attraction. Tourism, of course, is not what interested the Binghamton University team led by Timothy de Smet to the island. They wanted to know what was beneath the surface.

To look beneath the surface, the archaeological team used lasers to pierce the layers of concrete. With this incredible technology, they could see underground without causing any actual damage to the highly profitable and heavily-visited location.

Bomb-Proof

Bomb-Proof
Binghamton University/YouTube
Binghamton University/YouTube

Thanks to their laser technology, the team was able to see structures from the island’s military days that were still intact. Going beneath the structures revealed even more; it showed what the team described as “a bombproof earthwork traverse.”

This tunnel was still in nearly perfect condition in 2019 and included ventilation shafts to keep anyone traveling through comfortable. These structures were part of the military stronghold and had been lost in time until de Smet and his team “uncovered” them.

Importance Of The Discovery

Importance Of The Discovery
Binghamton University/YouTube
Binghamton University/YouTube

Timothy de Smet had no idea what to expect when his team began using lasers to search under the island. He had hoped to find lost structures, but nothing in a condition so well preserved.

“We sought non-invasive, non-destructive means to ascertain if any historic archaeological remains lay beneath several parts of the island, like the recreation yard of the infamous penitentiary. We did not know what to expect,” he admitted. That’s not the only reason de Smet’s discovery was so important.

The Future Of Archaeology

The Future Of Archaeology
Gili Yaari/NurPhoto via Getty Images
Gili Yaari/NurPhoto via Getty Images

Making such a momentous discovery could pave the way for an entirely new kind of archaeological surveying — non-invasive. This, maybe more than anything, was the greatest discovery that de Smut and his team made.

The future of archaeology is now looking as bright as ever according to de Smut. “With modern remote-sensing methods like these, we can answer fundamental archaeological research questions about human behavior, social organization and cultural change through time without costly and destructive excavation.”