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Historic Fire Apparatus of the National Park Service
An ongoing series
Part I: Alcatraz's Diamond T
By: Tim Regan
Alcatraz! The name alone brought fear to those men who dared to violate the laws of the United States. For most of those that were sent to the that dreaded island to serve their time, the thought of who or what provided fire protection to the them was most likely not much of an issue. However in 1934 a new piece of fire protection arrived and was tucked away in the ramparts of the old fort walls, ready to serve at a moment's notice. This most likely came in the wake of the deadly 1930 Ohio State Penitentiary fire which killed over three hundred inmates, this prison had no fire apparatus and system for battling fires in place.
The new rig was a 1934 Diamond T…finished in gleaming red with plenty of gold leaf striping, operated by federal prison guards who were detailed to fire duty when the alarm sounded. Capable of pumping about five hundred gallons per minute, the Diamond T could throw a stream of water powerful enough to quench just about any blaze on the island.
The year 1934 was historic for the prison, as the new Diamond T fire engine arrived via the Panama Canal, along with few notable American gangsters, including Al Capone and George “Machine Gun” Kelly, both of whom would eventually spend less time at “the Rock” then the Diamond T. For twenty nine years the little engine responded to various small fires around the island and was often the centerpiece of tours for visiting dignitaries and other corrections officials of the time. For the two hundred fifty prisoners on the island and the employees and their families of the Federal Bureau of Prisons, this engine served as the sole mechanized protector from fire on the island. Finally in 1963 when the prison was deactivated by the US Government, the engine was abandoned and was relegated to its little firehouse beneath the prison walls.
In 1969, American Indian's began illegally occupying the island and over the next year or so the little fire engine was vandalized, used as target practice and left to decay in the salt air of the San Francisco Bay.
After the “The Rock” was adopted into the National Park Service as part of Golden Gate N.R.A. the Diamond T was secured as a cultural resource and mostly forgotten about for another twenty years.
Interest in restoring the Diamond T and having her placed back in full service for the visitors to the park became the mission for NPS employees Brian Johnson, Park Ranger John Cantwell, and Blue & Gold Fleet employee, Jim Adams. John Cantwell and Jim Adams worked with the folks in their shop at the Indian Springs State Prison near Las Vegas Nevada and restored the vintage engine for $100,000.
On Sept 23, 2003, nearly seventy years since she was first unloaded onto the island the fully restored Diamond T was placed by crane back to her home. The park visitors love to see here on the dock of the rock!