Original publish date: July 16, 2020
A couple of weeks ago, with Covid-19 restrictions finally easing up, I traveled west on the National Road to Terre Haute with my wife Rhonda and friends Kris and Roger Branch to see a couple of Hoosier legends that I hadn’t seen in almost a decade. Jim and Cathy Albright welcomed our little band of intrepid historians into their home to catch up and listen to stories as only they could tell them. Jim was the last guard off the Island prison in San Francisco Bay known as Alcatraz. No, it doesn’t mean that Jim was the last man to board the final boat off the island when it closed on March 21, 1963, rather, Jim and his wife Cathy remained living on Alcatraz for weeks after it’s closing. As detailed in part one of this series last week, when the prison closed, the Albright’s daughter Donna Sue was only 11 days old and suffering from a foot abnormality that required surgery. The child could not be moved in her fragile condition, so the family remained on the island for 3 more months before leaving on June 22, 1963.
Social distancing guidelines and masks in place, we sat down for a talk about “The Rock.” Ironically, the couple celebrated their 65th anniversary in April during Indiana’s stay at home lockdown period. And Jim Albright knows a thing or tow about lockdown. On their 60th anniversary the couple renewed their vows on Alcatraz, “The biggest surprise I had when we got remarried out there was that she said yes the second time,” Jim says with a smile. Cathy recalls that she can still gaze up at their old apartment in Building 64 and see the curtains she made hanging in the window, although, “You can’t go into the building now, the floors and stairs are all falling apart and it’s not safe,” Cathy says.
From time-to-time, the couple still visit different civic organizations and talk about their years at Alcatraz. “You name the organization, we’ve spoken to ’em.” Jim says, “We have been going back to Alcatraz every year in August for a long time now. (Cathy recalls that first visit was on the 35th anniversary of the prison’s closing-“to the day”-she says) We take the train out but we are going to cancel this year because of the virus.” Jim recalled his first visit to his old island home so many years ago, “John Cantwell (NPS Ranger) offered to escort us around the island and it turned out to be a six-and-a-half hour tour.” To which Cathy laughs and says, “That’s because you were talking so much.” Jim’s recall of events on the island is remarkable. During that first tour, Jim shared details which Ranger Cantwell had never heard before. According to the former guard, Cantwell remarked, “Jim, we’ve had a lot of guys come back here, but they don’t remember the things that you do.” Jim continued, “That’s because wherever I went on the island, and we went EVERYWHERE; the east gun gallery, up on the roof, the old officer’s dining room, every time that I go somewhere, when I step in it seems to trigger something, and I remember…”
Cantwell took them to the old Industries building where there were “Great big, probably 8 foot by 10 foot, photographs of the prison and Jim was in several of them, so that was neat to go see that.” Jim says with a chuckle. Cathy adds, “He says he remembers stuff all the time, brings it up, he used to be able to tell you every inmate that was in there when he was there…their name, number, where they worked, where they lived.” Jim chimes in, “But I can’t anymore. It’s all gotten away. When I went there on August 24, 1959, that was my original starting date, and the low number of the inmates at that time was a guy named Clark, number 242, and of course when I left, 1576, Frank Weatherman was the high number. So we had not quite that many inmates cause if you came back, you got another number, I can think of one inmate who was there three different times under three different numbers. I come in August of 1959 and left the island June 22 of ’63.”
I asked Jim if he still had relics and souvenirs from his time as a guard and he shared that he still had his uniform but not the jacket. “I had to turn that in. I don’t know why, I was the only one left on the island and I shoulda kept it.” To which Cathy replied, “Then he found out later that they took all of those coats and stuff like that and dumped it out in the bay.” Jim adds, “Lt. Robbins came on the boat with a whole box of keys and dumped ’em into the bay. Fortunately, I was working the control center when it closed up so I have a key to the main gate. Being in the right place at the right time…I’ve also got a key to the main visiting room.”
And, since we we all seated in the Albright’s living room, I recalled that Jim had once told me that they also bought much of the de-accessioned furniture from Alcatraz. Cathy giggles as Jim reveals that the chair he is seated in, and that from which Kris was filming from, were all once located in the furnished apartments for guards and officials on the island. Jim points out, “that magazine rack, is off the island.” Cathy reports, “We bought most of it out of the warden’s house, they were selling it, when they closed the island, you could go up there and buy it and we did.” Cathy notes that the furniture is marked with a small metal tag reading “USP Alcatraz Survey” on the bottom. Jim further reports, “that tag has a number stamped on it and they had a book that they could tell exactly what that was and where it was.” He points over his shoulder and states, “That one bedroom down there, most of the furniture is Alcatraz, two or three items in our bedroom are all Alcatraz, the dining room table and chairs, a couple items out here and on the back porch. Red Ball moving company came to the island moved it for us. Everything had to go by barge over to Fort Mason”
Jim recalls that his duties were light during the three months he remained on Alcatraz as the last guard. “There were others there, we weren’t alone on the island. There was a caretaker, a few maintenance workers and the lighthouse operators. I still spent my time patrolling the island with my bullhorn cause everybody wanted to board that island so I ran around yelling ‘you gotta stay off, this is Government property.'” When Jim left Alcatraz, he went to Marion, Illinois. “That was one of the seven places,” Cathy replies. The couple settled in Terre Haute and Jim retired here. “Three miles from my door to the prison gate. Last April I’m retired 35 years and I enjoy every minute of it.” he states. When I asked if his Alcatraz service helped him later on in his career, Jim said, “Because I had worked at Alcatraz, they didn’t even question what I did or how I did it. You know, it really helped as I went to different places.”
I asked how Alcatraz compared to other duty, especially considering that the guards lived with their families alongside the prisoners. Cathy replied, “Well, we could go anywhere but ‘up top’ that’s what we called where the cellhouse was located. The only time we ever went up there was when the warden’s wife had a party and then we were escorted up there and when the party was done, we were escorted back down.” Cathy further stated that the families could travel into San Francisco whenever they wanted. “When we’d go to the grocery store, if they found out we were from Alcatraz, people would just back away from you. They had a big park there and our son would want to go so I’d let him run all over there. When the women found out that we lived on Alcatraz, he couldn’t play with them anymore. The kids didn’t care what the moms said, they’d just play, you know.” Jim recalls, “there was like twelve boats a day” going into San Francisco, “somewhere around here I still have the boat schedule. The last boat ran back at 12:20 am for the guys working midnight shift, if you missed that boat, you were in town all night.”