Rehabilitation of the Alcatraz Water Tower

People group together in front of graffiti faced water tower
Members of the Native American community, with National Park Service and commercial  painting employees, gather to recreate the water tower's historic graffiti.



Project Background

Between 2011 and 2012, the National Park Service rehabilitated the island's 75-year-old water tower. The Alcatraz water tower is a 250,000 gallon elevated steel water tank designed in 1939 by the Chicago Bridge and Iron Works. In 1940, the Federal Bureau of Prisons purchased the tower and contractors erected it on the island. Since the Prison closed in 1963, the empty steel water tank and tower had not been maintained and has experienced significant deteriorated from exposure to the harsh marine environment.

tall rusty metal tower with sky

In order to access the tall structure, workers erected a complex scaffolding system. Because contractors had to sandblast paint and metal corrosion off the steel structure, they wrapped the entire water tower in white containment wrap to trap the lead based paint debris and fragments so that it could be safely removed from the island. Where they had to, steelworkers and bricklayers replaced the structural steel on legs, the tank siding, bowl and roof. The entire structure was prepared and coated with a marine-grade epoxy based coating system and the interior of the tank was coated with a rust preventative.

Native American Occupation Evidence

What made this rehabilitation project especially interesting was that the water tower played a special role in Alcatraz history: It was an important site during the Native American occupation from 1969-1971 and displayed a political message painted by members of the "Indians of All Tribes" group. For this project, the National Park Service consulted with the local Native American community and was able to enlist the help of relatives of Richard Oakes, a key figure in the "Indians of All Tribes" Occupation.

Because Alcatraz is a National Historic Landmark and the political message was a significant historic feature, the park service fully documented every detail of the original work before it was painted over. Once the contractors had finished repainting the water tower with the marine-grade paint, Richard Oakes's daughter and grandson, and others that were present on the island during the Native American Occupation era, were invited up to the top of the water tower to recreate the original lettering.


The Park has many Alcatraz Island documents that provide more in-depth information about the island's historic buildings and cultural landscapes.


Last updated: August 28, 2019

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Alcatraz Island
Golden Gate National Recreation Area
201 Fort Mason

San Francisco, CA 94123


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