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SACRAMENTO, Calif. (KTXL) — A ship on the Sacramento River, anchored near H Street, served as one of California’s first prisons in the 1800s. 

The California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation’s website says county jails served as prisons early in the state’s history. One of those prisons was a floating prison, the La Grange.

The ship made its way to California when a company of 63 men left Salem, Massachusetts, in March of 1849 for a mining expedition. It arrived in Sacramento later that year, was purchased, and converted into a prison. 

Living conditions inside La Grange

A report to the California Senate in 1953 details what life on prison ships was like. It mentioned the cramped conditions and how people serving time may be bunched together into one space.

Since plumbing didn’t exist on the ships, inmates used bed pans, and guards in the morning reportedly struggled to enter where the inmates were held because of the smell. According to the Sacramento Transcript, the conditions on the La Grange, however, were different when they were shown aboard.

Reproduction of an early photograph of the bark, La Grange, moored on the Sacramento River opposite H Street (California State Library)

“Imagine our surprise then when after viewing the upper deck, which was as clean and tidy as scrapers and a copious use of water could make it, we were shown below, into decidedly comfortable apartments for a prison,” the Sacramento Transcript printed

The Sacramento Transcript went on to say, “The cells and entry all bore evidence of being freshly scrubbed and a good stock of chloride of lime had been scattered over the floor.”

Notable inmates of the floating prison

A report from 1855 details some of the first prisoners who served time aboard the La Grange. One of them was Charles Currier, 22, who worked as a cabinet maker. 

Currier was sent to the ship on Jan. 25, 1851, after being convicted of grand larceny in Sacramento County. Days later, Blucher Haskell would head to the ship for the same charge after stealing jewelry. 

Haskell escaped from the La Grange weeks later when he and two other people coordinated to have a boat dropped down. He was later arrested. 

Two other inmates were Francis Brier and William Watkins, who were both 25. According to the CDCR, they were part of a burglary ring in San Francisco. 

A man from England, Robert Percy, 22, also served time on the ship.

“Percy’s victim was a friend who appears to have over-celebrated the country’s Independence Day. Seeing his helplessly inebriated friend unable to walk, Percy pilfered his pockets of cash and a check,” the CDCR said.

He took the check, signed the friend’s name, and used it to gamble. He was arrested and indicted on forgery charges in the summer of ’51. 

The end of its use as a prison

The La Grange stopped being used as a prison when it sank during the winter of 1859.  A report from the Sacramento Daily Union wrote of the sinking.

“About 6 o’clock yesterday morning the officers were aroused by the cry of the prisoners that the vessel was sinking, the water flowing in freely, and partially flooding the cells between decks,” the Sacramento Daily Union said.

At the time of the sinking, there were 33 inmates on the ship, including two women. The ship was later sold for $205. The new owners, Talbot and Harris, then sold the ship in late December to Tong Chee & Co. for $325. 

The La Grange was soon stripped of copper and broken up for lumber.