Tag Archives: lighthouse logs

Lighthouse Keeper Records Prison Riot at Alcatraz

Alcatraz Lighthouse in 1954. Photo courtesy of U.S. Coast Guard

Alcatraz Lighthouse in 1954. Note the cell house in the background. Photo courtesy of U.S. Coast Guard

Harry Davis became keeper of Alcatraz Lighthouse, marking the entrance to San Francisco Bay, in 1938. I was recently copying his logs in the National Archives as part of a research project for the U.S. Lighthouse Society. Davis’s log followed the two-page-for-every-month format, devoting one or two lines to each day’s weather and activities. He and his three assistants spent most of their time maintaining the property and the two fog signals. Then the format changed for May 1946 with a narrative written across two pages:

May 2: 1430 hrs. Convicts on the loose with submachine gun, entire prison held at bay. Shooting is almost continuous. Island surrounded by Coast Guard and Navy boats. C.G. called by the Keeper in charge at 1445 hours.

1815 hrs. The U.S. Marines landed on the north end of island, at this writing. More wounded guards were removed to the city, total of five so far, firing is still heavy.

2115 hrs. Eight more wounded men recovered and sent to hospital. Capt. Weinhold, Lieut. Simpson most seriously wounded, Mr. Stites and Mr. Miller both killed. Total 13 wounded, two deaths.

May 3: 1100 hrs. Fire again raging in cellblocks, Marines lobbing anti-tank bombs through windows into cellblock; hand grenades being dropped through holes broken through the roof. The prison is being reduced to a shambles – numerous aircraft circling around prison all day.

1300 hrs. For the past hour they have been throwing heavy demolition shells without effect. Gen. Stillwell just arrived; they have issued an ultimatum to surrender within 10 minutes otherwise they are going to blast the cellblocks and walls down with TNT; all convicts will then die.

1320 hrs. The warden refused permission to use TNT. All firing stopped at 1330 hrs. Broke out again at 1800 hrs.

1800 hrs. The Marines are dropping hand grenades into the cellblocks through holes in the roof, quit when dark at 1830.

Guards from San Quentin State prison arrived today to assist, they are inside cell houses with Marines. Extra guards from Leavenworth federal prison arrived by plane, all are in cell house. All is quiet inside at 2040 hrs.

2400 hrs. All is still quiet in the prison.

May 4: 0820 hrs. There was a sudden burst of explosions inside, rifle and grenade fire, lasting about five minutes.

1000 hrs. The sudden burst was a cover up for the guards to break through. Three dead convicts were found, had been killed by a hand grenade, they were in C block. D Block will be rushed later to end it for good.

1030 hrs. It ‘s all over. D Block has been taken with 26 live convicts. The end of 44 hours of living hell. The extra guards from McNeils Island & Denver will be here for some time.

Alcatraz Lighthouse Keeper Henry Davis's Log for the first week of May 1946. Log found in National Archives RG 26 Entry 80. (Click on image for larger view.)

Alcatraz Lighthouse Keeper Henry Davis’s Log for the first week of May 1946. Log found in National Archives RG 26 Entry 80. (Click on image for larger view.)

The Alcatraz lighthouse was automated and the prison closed in 1963. Alcatraz Penitentiary is now a unit of the Golden Gate National Recreation area.


Flying Santa

The first mention of receiving packages from an airplane in the The Graves Lighthouse Log, 1933.

The first mention of receiving packages from an airplane in the The Graves Lighthouse Log, 1933. (Click on image to see larger version.)

While digitizing the logs of The Graves Lighthouse in Boston Harbor, I noticed several entries about packages being dropped from an airplane. The keepers at this offshore station considered this a noteworthy event and probably appreciated some Christmas cheer while separated from their families during the holiday. (The Graves was what was called a “stag station” — there was no accommodation for families.) In future years the log identifies the pilot as Capt. Wincapaw, who started the Flying Santa tradition.

In the early days of aviation, pilots, like mariners, often used lighthouses to track their location.  Lacking sophisticated navigational equipment, they sometimes relied on lighthouses to set their course in stormy or inclement weather. One such pilot, Captain William H. Wincapaw, a native of Friendship, Maine, flew a variety of aircraft, including amphibious planes around the Penobscot Bay area. In 1929, Captain Wincapaw, flying blind in a snowstorm and low on fuel, spotted the gleam of Dice Head Light, which led him safely home. To show his appreciation he dropped gifts to light stations in the Rockland area and began the tradition of the Flying Santa.

1935 log entry

In 1935, Capt. Wincapaw has to make two attempts to delivery the packages to The Graves.

The packages containing newspapers, magazines, coffee, candy, and other items were so well received and the keepers and their families so appreciative that Wincapaw expanded the tradition to include light stations not only in Maine, but all over New England. In 1938 Edward Rowe Snow took over job and continued delivering packages until 1980. Today the Friends of Flying Santa continue this tradition of showing gratitude to modern-day Coast Guard personnel and their families.

Edward R. Snow

Note the entry regarding Edward R. Snow’s participation in the anniversary of nearby Minots Ledge Lighthouse. He later took over the Flying Santa tradition when Wincapaw was transferred out of the area.

Note that some of this text is excerpted from my book Maine Lighthouses: Documentation of Their Past.