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Island Prison Makes 'Endangered' List

McNeil group sees to preserve its captive history.

The McNeil Island closure as a Department of Corrections facility earlier this year ended more than a century of operation. A roster of former prison workers, historians and concerned citizens want that history preserved and presented.

The Washington Trust announced earlier this week that it agrees.

The prison buildings will be designated on the Trust’s annual Most Endangered Historic Properties List on Tuesday. The listing boosts fundraising as members of the McNeil Island Historical Society seeks ways to keep the island buildings from being left to the elements or torn down.

Prison tours like Alcatraz come to mind and stories about McNeil have a long history.

Native American Tribes along Puget Sound, mainly Steilacoom, Nisqually and Puyallup, stayed on the island during fishing and trading journeys around the waterway for millennia before white settlers arrived.

The island was named in 1841 after Capt. William Henry McNeil, a boat captain who worked for the Hudson's Bay Company, was credited for discovering Victoria and Esquimalt Harbors, as well as founding Victoria, British Columbia.

Noted pioneer Ezra Meeker homesteaded on the island in the mid 1850s before going off-island to found the City of Puyallup in 1862. The land became a territorial prison on May 28, 1875. The first inmate admitted was Abraham Gervais — sentenced to 20 months for selling alcohol to Native Americans.

The island — in an ironic twist of historical fate — was selected as a site for the prison because it was easily accessible since boats traveled faster than horses in those days. The costs of running a ferry to the island during modern times made the prison costly to operate compared to mainland facilities.

The territorial prison's original cell houses were standard facilities for “the Old West.” They had 48, no running water, plumbing, electricity or heating.
A second cell opened in 1911. One of the first inmates to cross the welcome mat to that facility was Robert Stroud, known better as the "Birdman of Alcatraz." Stroud had arrived at McNeil Island in 1909. He went on to stab another inmate, forcing a transfer to Leavenworth, Kansas on Sept. 5, 1912.

He would find himself at Alcatraz in the 1930s after he continued to prove to not play well with others.

In the late 1970's, the Federal Bureau of Prisons decided to close the facility. The state negotiated to take over the facility to house its convicts. The facility  transferred from a federal institution to the Washington State Department of Corrections and became known as McNeil Island Corrections Center in 1981.

McNeil Island Corrections Center has the distinction of being the only prison in the U.S. that started out as a territorial prison, became a federal penitentiary and finally became a state corrections center. It is also the last prison in North America located on an island accessible only by boat. Notable former residents include Charles Manson and the model for Michael Corleone of the “Godfather” movie series. But there were others during its history.

grace campbell May 29, 2011 at 03:59 PM
I think it is funny for people to use the word "found"refering to the cities or towns in the above article. Didn't those places already exist before the "founders" even arrived?

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