At work on Alcatraz

Student interns put concrete knowledge to the test in repairing historic structure



PHOTo courtesy of cim

The 8:45 a.m. ferry made its way through salty bay water, pushing through fog and foam to unload its passengers on “The Rock.” But the travelers on this ferry to Alcatraz Island weren’t tourists clamoring to see the former cell of Al Capone; they were interns from Chico State going there to repair a cracking structure that has captured cons and curiosities for more than a century.

After months of mixing concrete on the salty, history-soaked island, a group of eight students were on their final week of re-creating pieces of the famous prison.

“It’s just that simple: We’re putting concrete where concrete used to be,” said Phil Petermann, a student in the Concrete Industry Management program at Chico State, which is one of only five universities in the U.S. that offer the stand-alone bachelor of science degree. “It’s really more about learning how to do it than actually just doing it.”

From June 6 to Aug. 12, eight CIM interns set out to restore a crumbling concrete staircase on the island known as the “puppy stairs.” Before Alcatraz became a federal prison in the 1930s, it was used as a military prison, and the warden at the time had a corgi that traveled with him wherever he went. So he had a small-stepped staircase built so he and his dog could travel to and from their quarters quickly.

After many years of salty air slowly seeping into the 60 concrete steps, the steel rebar framework inside them has corroded and caused many of the steps to fall apart in places.

“The whole first column holding up the first landing of the steps was knocked out as soon as we got there,” Petermann said about the 32-foot-high staircase. “It just didn’t even exist.”

Phil Petermann (front) and project manager Andrew Billingsley place repair mortar to restore some steps at the bottom of the staircase and resecure the handrail

PHOTo courtesy of cim

This is the second year that Chico State’s CIM program has sent interns to preservation field school at Alcatraz. Last summer’s internship—actually a pilot program with just five interns—helped several students land jobs at Structural, one of the world’s largest contracting firms. It also sealed the deal for the National Park Service—which oversees Alcatraz Island.

The park service was so thrilled with the pilot program that it formed an agreement with Chico State to continue the preservation field school at Alcatraz for five years, this summer being the first.

“We anticipate it going on beyond that,” said Chico State professor and CIM Director Tanya Wattenburg Komas. “There’s so much work to be done.”

BASF, a leading chemical company, signed on to supply the students, who are paid for their work, with repair materials and $45,000 a year for the five-year term. In addition, the park service has pledged another $35,000 a year in support of the field school.

The money from the park service comes from concession fees on the island, making that $3 bottled water seem a little more worthwhile since the money goes directly into the preservation of the historic site.

The facility is under constant maintenance due to the marine climate, so it’s a big employer for other concrete management companies, and Chico State clearly does not want to be seen as competition.

“We don’t ever want to be seen as a competitor to construction companies for jobs on the island,” Komas said. “The types of things we’re doing are smaller features around it that might never get fixed.”

CIM students mix a batch of repair mortar in front of the “puppy stairs.”

PHOTo courtesy of cim

The “puppy stairs,” for example, are only one of the historic features the salty rock accommodates. And because Alcatraz is immersed in so much history and biology, CIM interns come out knowing a lot more than just concrete repair after 10 weeks on the island, which has been home to a Civil War fortress, the first lighthouse on the West Coast, a federal prison that housed feared criminals including Al Capone, a bird sanctuary and the launching point for the American Indian Red Power movement.

“It’s an amazing opportunity for the students; it’s really a once-in-a-lifetime, unforgettable experience,” Komas said. “Our students have a classroom and laboratory education, but this is their opportunity to apply it in the real world. Alcatraz on your résumé is not a bad way to go.”

The students were empowered to make their own decisions on how to repair the damaged concrete, and if was done wrong they tore it up and started over. It’s all about learning, Komas said.

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“Every once in a while, you stop and just take a look around and it’ll just hit [you]. My office window is the entire Bay Area,” Petermann said. “It’s been a blast, this whole thing.”