More than one million visitors cross the choppy waters of the San Francisco Bay by ferry every year to visit Alcatraz Island. Though it’s had many uses, the small island is best known for housing the famous Alcatraz prison from 1934 to 1963. Naturally, when the National Park Service opened up Alcatraz to the public in 1973, people flocked to the Rock to see the prison that had held infamous gangsters such as Al Capone and Machine Gun Kelly.
The tallest structure on the island and, therefore, usually one of the first things visitors see, is the water tower. Built in the 1940s, the water tower was part of a $1.1 restoration project that was completed in the spring of 2012 to help preserve the historic resources on Alcatraz.
After reading about the project on a website, Patrick Heltsley, vice president of the maintenance division for Pittsburg Tank & Tower Group, called the general contractor to inquire about the job. The general contractor had the task of securing Alcatraz structurally but was hiring subcontractors to complete specialized work. With their expertise in the field of tank restoration, PTTM secured the contract for restoring the water tower.
Heltsley flew to San Francisco to meet with officials before he delivered a budget for the product. He was part of a group that toured the Alcatraz grounds to get a better idea of what was needed to restore the water tower.
“We got to go to places that are never seen anymore,” he said.
Water Tower Restoration
Pittsburg sent two crews to work on the tower. Longtime PTTG foreman Mark Garrett helped oversee the project. Work was delayed at the onset due to the presence of gulls that used the water tower as a nesting place. Everything got rolling once the birds were out of the way.
“We had to restore the tank to make it look like its current condition but structurally sound,” said Heltsley.
The A36 steel parts were fabricated in Pittsburg’s Henderson shop and then shipped to Alcatraz. Crew members patched holes in the tank and reinforced the catwalk and handrails with the steel.
Leg braces were replaced out of flat bar and made to look like the cross members on an old lattice leg tank. In some cases, pieces missing from the tank were not restored so the water tower would match a certain historical time period. For instance, an overhang was not installed when a new roof went up because the park services wanted it to look as it had during the Native American occupation in the early 1970s, Heltsley said.
Occupation of Alcatraz
A group of Native Americans occupied Alcatraz for approximately 19 months to protest federal policies related to American Indians. The Native Americans cited the Sioux Treaty of 1868 (also known as the Treaty of Fort Laramie), which stated that all abandoned federal lands were to be returned to the Native people who once occupied it.
From Nov. 20, 1969, until U.S. Marshals removed the remaining occupants on June 11, 1971, dozens of Native Americans called Alcatraz home. While on the island, Native Americans painted on the tower the words “Peace and Freedom. Welcome. Home of the Free Indian.”
Decades later, the park service decided it wanted to preserve this bit of history and launched the restoration project.
Finishing the job
The water tower hadn’t held water since the prison was shut down and needed a lot of maintenance. Holes riddled the steel. There was so much deterioration that not all of the tank could be patched.
The tank was fully contained as crews worked. Steel had to be brought up through the containment, positioned, and then welded into place without burning the containment. There were benefits to this method.
“It was nice because you could walk and touch every square inch of the tank,” Heltsley said. “They had so much containment and staging built around the tank that you could touch anywhere you wanted, work anywhere you wanted.”
Inside the tank, 100 percent epoxy paint was used over fiberglass sheets that helped reinforce the structure.
“The work went great,” said Heltsley. “The painters that were out there was a really good group.”
Once the Pittsburg crews were finished and had gone home, artists painstakingly recreated the Native American’s message. The original message was measured and photographed as a reference.
“Preserving history, to me, is very important,” said Heltsley. “I think it’s great fun to just be part of a project like that.”
Pittsburg Tank & Tower Group, which is celebrating its 100th anniversary in 2019, has worked on several projects to preserve various water towers. Most of these towers are in small towns that have turned their no longer functional water towers into billboards advertising their towns. PTTG has also worked on other government-owned water towers in historically significant areas like Plum Island.
“We’ve done some pretty neat jobs over the years,” said Heltsley. “We’ll take on about anything, that’s what I like about our company.”