Lost New England Goes West: Alcatraz Island, San Francisco (2)

Another view of Alcatraz Island, taken around 1900. Image courtesy of the National Park Service.

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The view in 2015:

The first photo here was taken around the same time as the one in the previous post, showing Alcatraz Island when it was being used as a military prison. At the time, the island’s inmate population was rapidly growing, and within a few years many of the Civil War-era buildings in this scene would be demolished to build modern facilities. Building 64, the large building along the water in the present-day scene, was built in 1905 to house the officers who were stationed here. In 1909, the current lighthouse was built to replace the original 1854 structure, which had been damaged in the 1906 earthquake. Around the same time, the old Alcatraz Citadel, barely visible at the top of the hill, was demolished to build the main prison building. Completed in 1912, it was later converted from a military prison into a federal civilian prison, and still stands at the top of the island today.

The only building left from the first photo is the Guardhouse on the far right. Built around 1857, it is the oldest remaining structure on the island, dating back to the time when the island was used as a defensive fortification to protect San Francisco Bay. It was also used as the island’s first prison building in the 19th century, before the island’s role as a prison was expanded and purpose-built prison structures were added. Today, more than 50 years after the last prisoner left Alcatraz, the Guardhouse and the rest of the historic buildings on the  island are administered by the National Park Service, and the island is open to the public as part of the Golden Gate National Recreation Area.

This post is part of a series of photos that I took in California this past winter. Click here to see the other posts in the “Lost New England Goes West” series.

Lost New England Goes West: Alcatraz Island, San Francisco

Alcatraz Island in San Francisco Bay, around 1902-1905. Image courtesy of the National Park Service.

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Alcatraz in 2015:

Alcatraz Island is located at a strategic point just inside the entrance to San Francisco Bay. The United States acquired California in 1848, and within ten years this small island had been fortified to protect the bay from any potential threats. Known as the Alcatraz Citadel, it was finished just in time for the Civil War, and although it never saw any combat during the war, its isolated location made it an ideal place to house Confederate prisoners.

After the war, the focus on Alcatraz shifted from defense to incarceration, and from 1868 to 1933 it functioned as a military prison. The first photo was taken during this era, showing a number of buildings on the island that were used to house either the inmates or the military personnel stationed there. At the top of the hill in the first photo is the Alcatraz Citadel, which was demolished a few years later to build the main prison building that stands there today. Most of the other buildings from the first photo have since been demolished, including those along the water, which were replaced by Building 64 in 1905. This large building, which was originally used to house military officers and their families, is still standing today just to the right of the center of the photo.

When the military prison closed in 1933, the property was transferred to the Department of Justice, and in 1934 it reopened as a civilian prison for the nation’s most difficult prisoners. Considered essentially escape-proof, there were never any confirmed successful escapes, although three inmates did disappear in the famous 1962 attempt. Alcatraz was expensive to maintain, though, and it closed in 1963. After the closure, the island was occupied by Native Americans for 19 months in 1969-1971, during which time several of the buildings were burned. Later, the island was acquired by the National Park Service, and is now open to the public as part of the Golden Gate National Recreation Area.

This post is part of a series of photos that I took in California this past winter. Click here to see the other posts in the “Lost New England Goes West” series.

Portland Head Light, Cape Elizabeth, Maine (3)

Another view of Portland Head Light, probably taken around the 1870s. Image courtesy of the New York Public Library.

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The lighthouse in 2015:

The first photo here was probably taken around 10-20 years before the ones in the previous two posts here and here, and it shows the tower as it appeared following its 1865 height change.  As mentioned in more detail in the first post, the lighthouse was built in 1791, but was reduced in height by 20 feet in 1812, to the spot below the lantern where a horizontal band runs around the tower.  Those 20 feet were restored in 1865, as seen in the first photo, but the tower was trimmed down again in 1883.  Just two years later, though, enough sailors complained that it was raised 20 feet yet again, with changes such as a larger lantern room at the top and  a second gallery below it.  Since 1885, it hasn’t seen very many changes, and it remains an active lighthouse as well as a popular tourist destination along the southern coast of Maine.

Portland Head Light, Cape Elizabeth, Maine (2)

Another view of Portland Head Light, taken from the north side probably around 1890. Image courtesy of the Library of Congress, Detroit Publishing Company Collection.

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The lighthouse in 2015:

The angle here isn’t exact; the first photo was taken from the water, a little to the left of where the 2015 photo was taken.  The previous post explains more about the history of the lighthouse, which was built in 1791 on a rocky outcropping at the entrance to Portland Harbor.  The first view was presumably taken around the same time as the one on the other post, because it shows the old 1816 keeper’s house, which was replaced by the current one in 1891.

Being surrounded by water on three sides and facing the open ocean provides some dramatic views for visitors and photographers, and it probably also provided the inspiration for Henry Wadsworth Longfellow’s poem “The Lighthouse.”  Longfellow grew up in Portland, and the certainly seemed to be describing this lighthouse, writing in the first two stanzas:

The rocky ledge runs far into the sea,
And on its outer point, some miles away,
The Lighthouse lifts its massive masonry,
A pillar of fire by night, of cloud by day.

Even at this distance I can see the tides,
Upheaving, break unheard along its base,
A speechless wrath, that rises and subsides
In the white lip and tremor of the face.

The lighthouse would have looked a little different when Longfellow wrote the poem, though.  The keeper’s house would have been the same as the one in the first photo, but as mentioned in the previous post, its height was periodically changed throughout the 19th century, and did not assume its present-day appearance until 1885, three years after Longfellow’s death.  Today, with the old keeper’s house gone, the only thing left from Longfellow’s childhood visits is the section of the tower below the horizontal band a little below the lantern.

Portland Head Light, Cape Elizabeth, Maine (1)

The view of Portland Head Light, possibly around 1890. Image courtesy of the Library of Congress, Detroit Publishing Company Collection.

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The lighthouse in 2015:

Aside from perhaps lobsters and pine trees, Portland Head Light is one of Maine’s most recognizable symbols.  The iconic lighthouse is among the most famous in the world, and in the past few years it has been featured in lists such as USA Today’s “10 best lighthouses around the USA“, The Weather Channel’s “11 Amazing Lighthouses of the World“, and Mental Floss’s “10 of the Most Beautiful Lighthouses in the World.”  However, this is not a recent phenomenon; the picturesque lighthouse overlooking Portland’s Casco Bay has attracted generations of photographers, as seen in the photo from the Detroit Publishing Company over a hundred years earlier.

The lighthouse was completed in 1791, in what was at the time part of Massachusetts.  As its name suggests, Portland was, and still is, one of New England’s major commercial ports, so a lighthouse was needed to mark the southern edge of the main shipping channel into the harbor. It was the first lighthouse to be built by the United States government (all earlier lighthouses were built prior to the Revolution or prior to the federal government assuming control over lighthouses), and it was also the first of many lighthouses in present-day Maine.

As built, Portland Head Light looked very different from today.  It was only 72 feet tall, but poor construction of both the tower and the keeper’s house became evident within 20 years.  The leaking lighthouse was lowered by 20 feet in 1812, and the keeper’s house was replaced in 1816 by the one seen in the first photo.  This website provides more details, along with a few historic photos of the lighthouse, including one from 1859 that is barely recognizable compared to the two views shown above.

The tower’s height continued to fluctuate throughout the 19th century.  In response to a deadly 1864 shipwreck, it was raised 20 feet for better visibility, only to be reduced again in 1883.  Two years later, though, the third and final height change gave the tower its present appearance.  This is still noticeable today; the ring around the upper section of the tower separates the 1885 addition from the original 1791 structure.

The only obvious difference between the two photos above is the keeper’s house to the left, and this is where there is somewhat of a discrepancy with the date of the photo.  The Library of Congress estimates that the first photo was taken around 1902. However, the records indicate that the present-day keeper’s house was built in 1891, and assuming this is correct, it would make that the earliest that this photo could have been taken.  This is far earlier than most of the other photos in the Detroit Publishing Company collection, though, so the exact date seems to be questionable.

Date questions aside, the lighthouse is still an active aid to navigation for one of the busiest ports on the east coast, although the keeper’s house is no longer used as a residence.  The light was automated in 1989, eliminating the need for a full-time lighthouse keeper. so today the house is owned by the town of Cape Elizabeth, and is operated as a maritime museum as part of Fort Williams Park.

Robbins Reef Light, New York Harbor

Robbins Reef Light in New York Harbor, in 1951. Photo courtesy of United States Coast Guard.


The lighthouse in 2012:


Built in 1883 to replace an earlier structure, Robbins Reef Light is situated in New York Harbor, near the route of the Staten Island Ferry, which is where the second photo was taken.  Now deactivated, the lighthouse has clearly seen better days, especially when compared to the 1951 photo.  However, in 2011 it was sold to a museum in order to preserve the historic lighthouse.