I Hear The Train Comin…
Although I’m sure the world outside these prison walls is likely to forget and ignore the human beings banished to these small plots of land, to be abandoned by society, convicts have actually contributed to civilization in mostly untold stories in history. Here are a few that may be of interest:
The 1849 Gold Rush in the Sacramento California area caused quite a boom in business and building. Some men envisioned more wealth through business than struggling in the mine claims. Horatio Livermore headed the Natoma Water & Mining Company, which intended to build on the American River a dam and network of canals, flutes, aqueducts, reservoirs, and pipes to supply all the water needed for manufacturing, mining, agriculture, and domestic purposes. However, since most able-bodied men in the area were working a mine stake, the company encountered great difficulty hiring laborers.
On June 30, 1868, the Natoma Water & Mining Company struck a deal with the California Board of Prisons because California was looking for a site to build a second prison to relieve the overcrowded San Quentin State Prison located just north of San Francisco. In exchange for the deed to 350 acres, which supposedly covered all granite quarries needed for prison purposes, the state agreed to pay the Natoma Company $315,000 in convict labor, payable at a rate of 50 cents per day for each convict employed on the Folsom Dam project and canals owned by the company.
Labor contractors from San Quentin Prison blocked this deal being approved by the state legislature for about six years. Actual construction of Folsom Prison began in 1874. The first two cell blocks were built from native granite easily quarried with the added benefit of only having to be transported a few hundred yards to the new cell block site. There were difficulties in handling these tremendous blocks and slabs of granite, but by utilizing the available convict manpower and using hoists and wenches, the granite stones were muscled into place. The testament of the granite’s worth is evident by the fact these cells are still being used today.
Earlier, in 1866, Horatio G. Livermore and his two sons had planned a great water-powered sawmill near Folsom. The flow of the American River would be used to float the logs to the sawmill and then also to power the sawmill.
Construction on the dam and canals at Folsom began in 1867, with the building of a two-mile long, standard-gauge railroad which ran from the Sacramento & Placerville (Central Pacific) depot, to the granite quarry near the dam site. Construction expenses exceeded the $100,000 capital and in 1868, work stopped with only the foundation of the dam completed.
After the prison land deal with the state in 1868, the Natoma Company plan was to use the convict labor to complete construction of the dam and canal to provide water to power its sawmill.
A dispute between the Folsom Prison warden and Mr. Livermore ended up in court for a few years. The argument was settled and Folsom Prison got the shortline railroad. The first locomotive on the Folsom State Prison Railroad (FSPRR) was leased from the New Jersey Locomotive Works. It was originally built for the Sacramento Valley Railway as their #3, the L.L. Robinson. Just before the FSPRR leased it, the L.L. Robinson had been running as the #2 engine on the Sacramento & Placerville Railroad.
As the FSPRR #1, the L.L. Robinson allowed the convicts to finish the 89 foot high Folsom Dam and to start digging the canal along the American River towards Folsom. The railroad ran along the bank of this canal, aiding in the construction of the 50-foot wide, 8-foot deep canal which is lined with granite blocks.
The Natoma Water & Mining Company became the Folsom [town] Water Power Company in 1881. Mr. Livermore and his two sons soon revamped the plans for the water-power operated sawmill. In anticipation that electricity was the power source of the future, the Folsom Water Power Company convinced the California Board of Prisons Directors that electric power could play a major role in the maintenance of the prison in the coming years.
In March of 1882, the Prison Directors agreed to erect a power house on the prison property, so when the dam and canal were completed, the hydro-electric power could be generated to light the prison and furnish power for machines, hoists, wenches and pumps. The state was granted permanent right-of-way on the company’s railroad tracks, which ran from the town of Folsom to the dam site. The tracks were extended to the quarry and up to the prison, in order to transport granite blocks to build more cell blocks and buildings. As the prison grew, the FSPRR became very busy. The railroad was the main entry point for all food, supplies and raw materials used at the prison industries. The convicts also came in by train in a special coach car with rings on the floor to attach their leg-iron chains.
The power house, which had been under construction for nine years, was finally done in 1891. The entire project was under the supervision of Charles Mathewson, an engineer and master mechanic. All the electronic equipment was served by hydro-electric power via six turbine water wheels, which generated up to 134 hp each and drove two 100-hp air compressors. Two of the power house turbines were used during the day to drive air compressors, which operated hoisting engines, drills, and pneumatic tools at the quarry. At night, the same turbines operated a pump which raised the prison’s water supply to the water tower. Turbines also furnished the power for the electrical lighting through the prison and bordering guard towers.
Horatio Livermore died in 1892. His surviving sons lost interest in their lumber business and sawmill plans. The success of the prison’s power house caused Livermore’s sons, who still ran the Folsom Water Power Company, to build it’s own power house about two miles down river to generate electrical power for the Sacramento Electric Light Company.
Never before had electricity been transmitted more than a few miles, so the Folsom Water Power Company’s ambitious plan to furnish the city of Sacramento, California, which was 22 miles away, with electricity was met with much skepticism. Critics all predicted electrical output could never be fully utilized. Even the Niagara Falls Power Company had, up to that time, declined to attempt supplying Buffalo, New York with electricity because the city was too far from the power source. The scientific community and that world doubted such a feat could succeed at Folsom. How wrong they were! The General Electric Company believed that transmitting electric current over 22 miles could be done and invested over $20,000 worth of machinery and equipment in the project. Without this gamble, completion of the first long distance transmission line from Folsom Dam would not have happened.
The Folsom Water Power Company went “on line” in 1895 and served until 1952 when it was replaced by modern facilities. Today that old power house is a historic landmark. Its brick structure at the water’s edge is maintained by the California State, Beach & Parks Division.
Folsom Dam was completed in 1893. Having taken 23 years to finish, it was built entirely of granite blocks, weighing up to 12 tons each, brought over from the Folsom Prison quarry. A total of 520,349 man-days of convict labor went into building the granite dam.
Once the dam and canal were completed and after the opening of the power house, both convict labor and electricity became available for other uses.
In January 1894, an ice plant was opened at Folsom Prison. A daily output of three tons of ice was produced at a cost of $1.50 per ton. Prison officials, seeing the output was more than enough for the prison’s needs, decided to sell the surplus. The ice was manufactured by means of an upright compressing engine, a pump, condenser, and four freezing tanks. As fast as the ice was frozen, it was taken from the tanks and stowed in an ice house in blocks weighing 900 pounds each. The ice was packed in sawdust until it was shipped. With the increasing demand for the prison’s ice, the plant expanded to increase revenue. The ice was not only supplied to local businesses and private homes, but also to fruit growers for use in Southern Pacific rail cars for produce railed to eastern markets.
In 1895, the state purchased two rock crushers from Union Iron Works of San Francisco and built rock crushing plants at the request of the California Highway Department to furnish granite rock and gravel for use in street paving. These stone crushers were the largest available at the time. The crushers were fed by hand-pushed mine type carts on a network of narrow-gauge tracks. The granite came from the prison quarry where cons hand sledged the “big ones into little ones,” then loaded those into hand carts to be fed into the rock crusher. The prison’s locomotive and leased fleet of dump cars, loaded at the rock crusher gravel loader, then transported to the town of Folsom. From there it was shipped to its final destination at the buyer’s expense.
In 1900, Folsom Prison retired the L.L. Robinson and leased Southern Pacific 4-4-0, #1212. That became FSPRR #2. This engine served until 1906 and was followed by three nearly identical Southern Pacific 4-6-0s. The first was Southern Pacific #2000, which actually served from 1905 until it was scrapped in 1908. The second engine, S.P.#2066, was used for just one month in 1909, after which it was returned to S.P. as junk. The third 10-wheeler, S.P. #2083, was bought in October 1909 and served the FSPRR well for years as its second #1. When the #2083 finally wore out in the 1920s, an Alco-Cooke 0-4-0T ready-built contractors engine was purchased to become FSPRR’s third #1. This Alco-Cooke was the last steam engine used by FSPRR. A 35-ton gas-mechanical Plymouth was acquired from the U.S. Army to become the final #1.
By the 1950s, the prison railroad could no longer compete with highways and trucks. About the only thing the train was used for was occasional inbound freight cars bringing raw materials to the prison industries. The little Plymouth handled those occasional cars, so the Alco-Cooke 0-4-0T was sold to a quarry near Oroville, California. This engine eventually became the property of a rail fan and is still in existence in a shed on a farm near Willits, California. Rail service finally ended in 1961, and the Plymouth and rails were sold as scrap.
In 1955, a gigantic new Folsom Dam was built upstream from the original dam convicts built. The remains of the original dam can still be seen from atop the new dam. The old dam was so well built, the new contractors couldn’t destroy it even with explosives. The modern workers had to dismantle the center of the old dam, one granite block at a time, leaving the wings as a monument to the convict workmanship.
When the prison first opened in 1880, there was no plumbing in the cells. There were two wooden buckets assigned to each cell. One was for drinking water and the other was for toilet use. An unwritten rule in each cell was the man who used the waste “slop” bucket was responsible for cleaning it. Because these first cells were built with solid iron doors, there was no ventilation, so the use of the “slop bucket” was discouraged, except in dire emergency. The cons would normally use the outhouse at their job sites. Kerosene wall lanterns came well after the prison opened and were later replaced by electric lights. Originally, convicts were supplied a single candle, which had to be used sparingly and calculated to the fraction of an inch in order to get through the month until another candle would be issued. A local newspaper reporter was permitted to inspect the cell blocks prior to the prison opening. He informed his readers, “God help the criminals doomed to confinement in these cells. They will never see any other light but that which a flickering candle produces.” That candle was also their only source of heat in the winter.
Humor was seldom evident in early Folsom Prison. Yet the cons had a good laugh on Warden Charles Aull on March 11, 1898 when U.S. Secret Service agents surprised an enterprising group of convicts at work in the prison’s blacksmith shop who were making counterfeit coins. Guided by an experienced counterfeiter, this nefarious crew had operated for over a year, until a rat informer alerted authorities.
The coins were mostly used to buy alcohol and some extra choice food items from some of the guards. These counterfeit coins were so good, they circulated throughout the state without detection. Although the Secret Service closed down the operation, the convicts all through the prison couldn’t help expressing great pleasure in putting one over on the warden and guards. That pleasure was short lived, as the warden’s retaliation was swift and terrible.
On May 22, 1920, three cons made a daring and spectacular escape from Folsom Prison. After overpowering the engineer and fireman of the prison locomotive, they drove the train at full power through the iron gates at the rear entrance to the prison grounds. The break occurred at 12:45 p.m., just as all the convicts were returning to work in the granite quarry following the noon meal. Two convicts, George Clifford and Eugene Quijada, jumped into the cab of the engine brandishing prison-made knives to attack the engineer, J.P. Lucas, and the inmate fireman, Wheeler. Carlos Otto, a third con involved in the break, was unarmed when he jumped into the cab a moment later. Engineer Lucas grabbed a hammer, but jumped to the ground when Clifford came at him with a knife. The inmate fireman, who was serving a life sentence for murder, resisted. After a knife fight with convict Quijada, inmate Wheeler was stabbed and thrown from the engine. With Lucas and Wheeler removed from the cab, convict Otto sprang to the throttle and opened it wide. The locomotive leaped forward and raced at full bore through the prison gates and to the abandoned quarry a few hundred yards away. Once in the quarry, the three cons jumped from the engine and with lighted torches, set fire to the brush and an oil tank in order to create a smoke screen to hide them from view of the perimeter tower guards. However, the smoke dissipated too quickly. Convicts Clifford and Quijada were cornered by civilian prison employees before they could get out of the area. With civilian employees firing at them, both cons threw down their knives and surrendered.
In the meantime, convict Otto started up the hill from the quarry. With bullets from the guard tower rifles ripping into the earth in his path, Otto wouldn’t turn back. He made it safely over the hill where he disappeared into the heavy brush. A posse was formed and sent in pursuit. The entire area was searched for two days with no trace of Otto. Apparently, he made it.