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Chico State students help uncover Alcatraz history

By Colin Steiner, csteiner@krcrtv.com
Published On: Feb 28 2014 07:24:00 PM CST
CHICO, Calif. -

Alcatraz is known as one of the most infamous prisons in US history but concrete industry management students from Chico State are helping to look below that most popular era of the island's past.

"People go to the island, typically, to see where Al Capone slept or whatever, it's that modern era of the prisoners. But there's so much history there from even before the civil war," said Dr. Tanya Komas, assistant professor at Chico State and concrete industry management coordinator.

As hands on experience, the concrete industry management program has been restoring and preserving cement and concrete infrastructure on the island for years now.

Some four years ago they were there when repairs were needed in the prison recreation yard.

Students removed old cracked concrete, finding beneath remnants of a mid-1800s military fortress.

"This is particularly interesting for Chico State because we have this whole major in concrete called concrete industry management ," Komas said. "And for our students to go and learn about the history of this material and some of the things we've discovered right beneath everyone's feet in the rec yard, some of the oldest concrete on the west coast -- if not the oldest."

Komas' group first discovered what used to be a military barracks, from the days when a military installation on Alcatraz Island protected San Francisco Bay.

The structure was just one of many buildings comprising the old fortress, so to dig deeper, so to speak, Komas called on colleagues at the Texas A&M University -- her alma mater.

Texas A&M geology and geophysics professor Dr. Mark Everett brought a team wielding ground penetrating radar, technology that would enable them look below the shallow earth without disturbing historical artifacts.

"They were really coming and working on our project and with our team to look over the rest of the rec yard as well as the parade ground and other areas for other fortifications that are known to probably still exist," Komas said .

It's an archeological project getting international attention.

Giving Chico State students crucial on-the-job experience while giving the rest of the world a look at California's storied past.

"It's a puzzle to put together -- how you interpret that, preserve the entire history -- layered history -- of the island," said Komas.

The Chico State concrete industry management project on Alcatraz started as a summer internship opportunity and has now become a year-round endeavor.

Komas says the project has become much more than it set out to be.

"It's life changing from just a personal growth perspective, but also getting to work with historical architects, archeologists, environmental people because of the birds, it's an all encompassing experience."