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Erwin man helps Bowden remember his days at Alcatraz

By Mark A. Stevens
Erwin Record Publisher
[email protected]
Erwin resident Sandy Osgood’s hobby has taken him to an unlikely place – the nation’s most notorious prison.
It’s not anything illegal – but rather his skills as a shipbuilder that have led him there.
Osgood recently completed a 32-inch-long replica of the Warden Johnston, a boat that, from 1945 until 1963, made 12 trips a day between San Francisco and the infamous Alcatraz island prison.
“It’s exciting to have something I’ve built placed there,” Osgood said. “It’s really nice.”
Once completed, Osgood’s replica of the Warden Johnston was sent to be put on display at Alcatraz, which is, today, managed by the National Park Service. More than a million people visit the island fortress each year for tours of the prison that once held Al Capone and hundreds more of the nation’s most notorious criminals.
The chance for Osgood to have his work on display for tens of thousands to view came about after Don Bowman, a former Alcatraz resident who currently lives in Jonesborough, heard a television report about the Erwin “shipbuilder,” known to many as “Captain Easy.”
Bowden has lived in Jonesborough for about seven months, but when he was growing up, he was one of hundreds who lived on Alcatraz with family members. Ira Bowden took a job on the island as a general administration foreman and brought Don and the rest of the family to live there in the apartments provided for families.
Their only transportation to the mainland of San Francisco for shopping and for schools was aboard the Warden Johnston.
Bowden became interested in having a replica of the Warden Johnston built after seeing Osgood featured in a “Cable Country” segment on WJHL-TV.
“I was watching the news and saw Sandy,” Bowden said, “and I said, ‘Wait a minute, maybe I could get that guy to do a re-creation of the boat.’”
A few days later, Bowden and Osgood met at a café in downtown Jonesborough and worked out the details that would bring the Warden Johnston – albeit on a much smaller scale than the 65-foot boat that sailed the rough waters of San Francisco Bay – to life once again.
Both men agreed that Osgood would probably earn only about a dollar an hour for the task at hand, but both also said it was more about preserving a piece of history than making money.
“It will certainly be noted that Sandy made the model and acknowledge Erwin, Tenn.,” said Bowden, who lived on Alcatraz from 1958 to 1960.“There will be a lot of interest in a replica of the Warden Johnston.”
Osgood, a retired sea captain who has lived in Northeast Tennessee for the past decade, took up model shipbuilding only in recent years.
“I build boats that don’t have a kit,” the 70-year-old said.
Osgood originally began creating the Warden Johnston from nothing but old photos of the boat, but he eventually was able to obtain original blueprints of the ship, which helped him get the details just right.
“I’ve been a modeler for about 10 years now,” he said, “and I guess I’m getting pretty good at it.”
Every inch of Osgood’s model represents about two feet of the original 65-foot diesel-motorized boat that was built in 1945 and continued its daily transportation until the federal prison closed in 1963.
But for people like Bowden, the boat was more than a means of transportation. It was a way of life and a link to the mainland. It was as essential to the island residents of Alcatraz as were cars, buses or cable cars to the people who lived in San Francisco.
The Warden Johnston ran almost hourly from 6:30 a.m. to just after midnight each day to the Rainbow Pier at the foot of Van Ness Avenue in San Francisco. On each trip, the boat could transport about 65 passengers, which consisted of correctional officers, family members and even inmates.
“It was really cool to ride,” Bowden said. “At the time, we all liked riding the boat. It wasn’t just fun, though, it was our connection to the island.”
Bowden said Osgood’s model will bring back special memories for the alumni association’s members.
“Think of it this way,” he said. “A lot of people have fond memories of a favorite car from years ago. Well, to us, this was our car.”
Bowden, now 64 years old, was 13 when he and his family moved to Alcatraz. When his father took another job, the family left behind their island home when he was only 16 in 1960 – three years before the prison was closed.
Apartments were available to workers for only $40 a month, which included all utilities and even laundry service. After hours, family members enjoyed parties and social time. There was a community hall, a bowling alley, Ping-Pong table and a playground.
Osgood said he’s happy to be involved in a project that will mean so much to people like Bowden.
“If I ever get out to California,” Osgood said, “it’ll be nice to see something I’ve done on display for so many people to see.”