A Brief history of McNeil Island

Posted by Ken Campbell September 22, 2012 0 Comment 3324 views

McNeil Island first opened as a territorial prison back in 1875. (Washington became a State in 1889.) The Feds took over operation of the prison in 1904. The facility went through several major changes, from State pen to Federal and back again, before finally shutting its doors for good last year.

Although the prison itself only occupied a small section on the southeastern end of the island, the entire island was prison property and considered a secure location. A perimeter road was patrolled regularly and anyone approaching the island from the water (even by kayak, as I can attest), was vigorously encouraged to revise his route. 
Peak prison population was 1,700 inmates. Al Capone was a guest here for a short time, as was the Bird Man of Alcatraz. 
Housing for employees and their families was provided and with a store, a community center and a small, one-room school, the neighborhood was home to several generations of guards and their children. 
The prison buildings still stand, though they have been stripped of anything of value by state workers and contractors as the facility was shut down. Employee housing is still there – a ghost town of boarded-up homes that are quietly returning to nature – and the roads are beginning to succumb to the expanding woods and ground cover.
At least, that’s what I can piece together from second-hand reports and speculation. 
There’s still a facility for civilly committed sex offenders that is located on the island and it houses around 300 violators who have served their time, but have been determined to be too dangerous to society to be released. That compound is located some distance away from the prison and the housing area. Another off-limits spot is tiny Gertrude Island, on the northeast of McNeil. This area is a critical habitat for harbor seals and, from what I’ve heard, is one of the largest in Puget Sound.
Because of its 135 years as a prison, of one sort or another, McNeil Island is one of the few in Puget Sound to have escaped the scars of development. There are others – Squaxin, and Vendovi come to mind – but there aren’t many.

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