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Fort Alcatraz, January 1877
My birthday was yesterday. I’m eleven now, and my only birthday wish is that I could be back on the Circle C ranch. Or maybe back at the Presidio. I’m standing at the top of the Alcatraz lighthouse. You can see everything from up here. It makes me feel more trapped than ever. Fort Alcatraz is an island right off the coast of San Francisco. It’s a terrible place, but Pa got posted here and we had to go.
From the lighthouse I can see the Presidio, the fort we just left. It’s like a dot sticking out into the Golden Gate (Note from Mrs. M. The Golden Gate bridge crosses that waterway, but the bridge was not there in 1877, just the fog.) Then the fog rolls in and covers the old fort. I blink back tears. If Tom Malloy saw me, he’d call me a ninny and a mama’s boy. I detest that ol’ Tom Malloy. He reminds me of my friend Andi’s cousin, Daniel. I lit into that bully a few years ago, after Andi’s Pa died. And Tom Malloy is just like that cousin.
I hoped Pa would still be stationed at the Presidio, which I liked a lot, before Mama got sick. Lots of room to run and play with the other army kids. A nice school at the fort too and not a long ride to the city (San Francisco). The Presidio was my second-favorite place to live (after the Circle C ranch). I could look out toward the north and see the blue expanse of water called the Golden Gate. I asked Pa why they called blue water a golden gate (cuz it sure doesn’t look like a gate into the golden streets of heaven). He said it was called “the golden gate” because everybody who came to California by sea during the gold rush had to pass through that strip of water. And since they were going after gold, it seemed like it was the “gate” to get to the gold. I reckon that makes sense.
Anyway, the Presidio had a place for Midnight to be stabled. Midnight is still stabled at the Presidio, but I’m stuck here on a tiny, rocky island with nowhere to go. Pa was sent to command this fort about a week or two after I left the Circle C ranch. He took up his post January 1, 1877.
There are no horses on Alcatraz Island. No place to go on a 12-acre piece of land that is nothing but rock. No place to escape that ol’ Tom Malloy either.
Now it’s raining, raining, raining, so I clattered down the lighthouse stairs and headed home to curl up in front of the fire. There are only about a dozen kids at this whole fort. Nasty Tom Malloy is the only boy nearest my age. I found out what Fort Alcatraz does. Pa and his 86 men don’t fight Indians here on this rocky island. This is where the Indians go when they break the law. This is also where really bad white people go when they break the law. They’re all together, and Papa is in charge. It gives me the shivers to know there are so many criminals just behind those fortress walls.
The fort didn’t used to be a prison, so Tom tells me. He loves to brag and show off his knowledge of Alcatraz. (I would rather not know anything about this place.) The fortress was built back in 1853, and it even had eleven cannons. Tom struts around like his pa is the commander. Ha! His pa is just a sergeant. But he’s been here for many years so Tom really does know a lot. He says Fort Alcatraz was once the most powerful defense of the whole West coast. (It sure isn’t now.)
It didn’t take long for army folks to realize that Fort Alcatraz was also a perfect army prison. I mean, really! It’s an island. Even if a prisoner escaped his cell, where would he go on this rock? Soon, a bunch of law-breaking soldiers from forts all over the West got sent here to be locked up. During the War Between the States, lots of Southern soldiers tried to capture San Francisco. They didn’t succeed and instead got thrown into this prison.
By the time the War ended, there were over 100 cannons. I’ve seen some of the leftover cannons. They are the only interesting part of the fort. Tom says the only time they were ever fired was when President Lincoln was killed. (That was over ten years ago.) Now, they are a playground for the little kids. I admit I sat on one too, but it was not as exciting as I thought it would be.
Right now Pa is really upset. A couple of Modoc Indians were sent here a few years ago, and one of them just died. His name was Barncho. Know-it-all Tom says he was here for stirring up trouble during the Indian Wars. That’s it? That’s the only reason? It doesn’t seem right that Barncho was locked up with some of the worst murderers in the West.
Tom knows way too much about prisons. I’m praying every night that Pa will soon be transferred off this “Rock.” (That’s Fort Alcatraz’s nickname.)