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Can You See the Ghost?

Aug 15 2017

 

Julia Anderson at the Alcatraz Island Electrical Shop, about which she is compiling a report this summer.   Jason Hagin
 

By Julia Anderson 
MA Art History, 2017
Cultural Resources Intern, Alcatraz Island
Golden Gate National Recreation Area

Out West Student Blog

Student Blog

Search Google for “Alcatraz haunted,” and the results that come up will tell you about the island’s legends, tourists’ ghost sightings (some including video “evidence”), and a Ghost Hunters episode. Some consider Alcatraz to be one of the most haunted places in America. When I found out I would be working there this summer, everyone I spoke to told me about the “bad energy” of the place. In the weeks I’ve been here, however, I’ve never seen a ghost. Sure, I froze with terror when I unexpectedly came across the arrangement the NPS had set up to illustrate the 1962 escape with the papier-mâché heads and tunneling spoons, and it was eerie to stand in the 19th century Citadel basement below the cell house in the obliterating darkness. But I never glimpsed a shadowy figure slinking around a corner, or felt a chilling breeze against my throat that could not be explained by the incessant winds of the bay.

As I mentioned in my earlier post, I’ve been assigned to compile a Historic Structure Report on the island’s Electric Shop, the first in the building’s nearly 100-year existence. This project will go through the Electric Shop’s history and evaluate how the building has changed through time. To that end, it will guide treatment and repair that will ensure the building’s longevity and maintain its historic significance.

In the course of my research, I quickly discovered that the site once contained a wood frame prison which held leading secessionists during the Civil War. Indeed, its brick foundations supported the island’s first permanent prison. Held in cells three tiers high, prisoners would have been shackled with ball and chain. If any ghosts were to rattle clanking chains at visitors who disturbed their purgatory, this would be the place. But I couldn’t see them. The cells had long since disappeared, and no obvious material traces remained to restrain the 19th century phantoms.

Clearly, the site has changed significantly over the years. The brick prison was demolished to its foundations around 1915 and overlaid with a wood superstructure in 1918. The site has been renovated and repurposed as a guardroom, a packing plant, a storehouse, and an electric maintenance shop. Now, the basement serves as a storage space for the Alcatraz volunteer gardening crew, and its upper floor houses mostly junk. Would the apparitions recognize the site that had once induced their anguish, or would they have disappeared with the brick prison?

Staircase outline against brick wall.   Julia Anderson
 

The process of putting together the report for this building has been a bit like conducting an autopsy. Evidence of past damage and use can be seen everywhere, like the greenish outline of a lost stairway against the basement retaining wall and the original molding framing a doorway in an abandoned room.

Recently, we realized that the wood frame apparatus was not visibly connected to the brick foundation. This could mean that the wooden structure was secured by nails that have now been weakened by the steady march of almost a hundred years. With a powerful earthquake, this wood construction could come tumbling down. What would happen to the Electric Shop’s ghosts, then?

The process of putting together the report for this building has been a bit like conducting an autopsy. Evidence of past damage and use can be seen everywhere, like the greenish outline of a lost stairway against the basement retaining wall and the original molding framing a doorway in an abandoned room. Some changes, however, have muddied the building’s historic significance. Many of the windows, for example, have been replaced with inoperative variants, and one has been completely eliminated from the outer eastern wall. Paint is peeling, wood is rotting, and a pattern of biological growth extends across the masonry.

In the building’s more recent history, the fire safety system and electrical wiring have been upgraded to adapt to modern standards, and the roof has been replaced at least once. It is true that some parts are decaying, and some have been subject to Frankenstein-like repairs. But the building is still in use, and it is still fit to house the spirits of the living and the dead.

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