The history of McNeil Island goes back well before it housed inmates. For millennia, Native American tribes along Puget Sound, mainly the Steilacoom, Nisqually and Puyallup, stayed on the island during fishing and trading journeys around the waterway before white settlers arrived, but none of the tribes claim the island as tribal land.
The island gained its name in 1841, after a boat captain who worked for the Hudson’s Bay Company in present-day DuPont. Captain William Henry McNeill was credited for discovering and founding the city of Victoria, British Columbia. The island name dropped the second “l” with the passage of time and was standardized. Noted pioneer Ezra Meeker homesteaded on the island in the mid-1850s before going off-island to found the City of Puyallup in 1862. The island became a territorial prison on May 28, 1875. The first inmate admitted was Abraham Gervais – sentenced to 20 months for selling alcohol to Native Americans.
An ironic twist of historical fate is that the island was selected as a site for the prison because it was easily accessible since boats could travel faster than horses in those days. The costs of running a ferry to the island during modern times made the prison too costly to operate compared to mainland facilities and led to its closure.
The original cell house of the territorial prison was standard facilities for the “Old West.” It had 48 cells with no running water, plumbing, electricity or heating.
A second cell opened in 1911. It was state of the art because it had electric lights. One of the early inmates to cross the welcome mat to that facility during that time was Robert Stroud, known better as the “Birdman of Alcatraz.” For the record, Stroud never even had any birds at Alcatraz, and his love of the feathered fellows actually started in McNeil, where he was serving time for manslaughter only to kill an inmate in 1909 and won a trip to the infamous prison in Leavenworth, Kansas. Killing a guard there landed him a trip to the famous island prison off the shores of San Francisco in the 1930s.
Flash forward to the 1960s. Mass murderer Charles Manson was sent to McNeil in 1961 for crossing state lines for the purpose of prostitution and forging a government check. He was serving a seven-year sentence and learned how to play the guitar at McNeil, a hobby that led him to Hollywood in search of a record deal by rubbing elbows with the Beach Boys. That deal never came, so he formed “the family” instead and went down in history with his murderous “Helter Skelter” rampage as the 1960s ended.
“The island is only 20 minutes from the mainland, but damn, to be so close yet so far is frightening,” Manson would later write. “The return trip takes years, and sometimes never happens for the guys who go there to serve time… I pictured myself trying to swim the water, escaping the island. Nope! Too deep, too cold and too far, I would need something that floated. Escape is a dream, not a reality.”
One of Manson’s best friends on the island, and who actually gave him guitar lessons, was Baker mobster Alvin “Creepy” Karpis. In April 1962, with Alcatraz in the process of being closed, he had been transferred to McNeil.
Lost in the discussion about McNeil Island is the story of Roy Gardner, the last of the great train robbers of the 1920s. Newspapers across the West dubbed him the “Smiling Bandit,” the “Mail Train Bandit” and the “King of the Escape Artists.” Gardner is said to the most hunted man in Pacific Coast history, alongside famed hijacker D.B. Cooper.
Gardner found himself at McNeil, serving a 25-year sentence for robbing a mail truck in 1920. He openly said, “I’ll never serve it,” as the sentence was announced. He was right… sort of. He would not serve it at McNeil for long. Gardner and two drug smugglers he was shackled to grabbed a guard’s gun while the train they were riding slowed into the Portland depot. He was captured a year later and escaped the same way on his second train trip from California to Washington. He even bragged about his deeds to the guards as they made fun of the fact that they were entering the Rose City. He told them he would tell them how he was going to escape this time right after he went to the restroom. A guard even escorted him in handcuffs to the bathroom, but he took the officer’s gun just like he had the previous year. He then simply stepped off the train just north of the Columbia River.
He was recaptured and finally made it to McNeil on June 17, 1921, mentioning to the warden that he would not be staying long as the guards handed him over to the prison.
Gardner made good on his claim when he escaped on Sept. 5, 1921. He was watching a baseball game in the prison yard. Guards were so wrapped up in the game that they did not notice that he and two former Fort Lewis nurses-turned-inmates escaped by clipping their way through the prison fence.
They would have all made good on their escape had the sharp-shooter in the nearby guard tower cared about the game. But he did not. He was eyeing his post as usual. He left one of the former soldiers dead and a lead round from his Springfield in Gardner’s leg. But Gardner still managed to elude capture.
Gardner then swam from Fox Island to the mainland. Nothing was heard of Gardner’s whereabouts until someone robbed a Southern Pacific train at Maricopa, Ariz. on Nov. 3, 1921, and he was listed as the bandit. A botched robbery a week later proved that when Gardner was arrested with another 25 years added to his sentence. This time, he went to Leavenworth Penitentiary. A few prison shuffles later, and he found himself at Alcatraz. He was released in 1939. Some $250,000 of his loot still lies hidden, some of which is rumored to be in Pierce County.
In the late 1970s, the federal Bureau of Prisons decided to close the facility. The state negotiated to take over the facility to house its convicts. The facility transferred from a federal institution to the Washington State Department of Corrections and became known as McNeil Island Corrections Center in 1981.
In late 2010, the state announced plans to close the penitentiary by 2011 and saving $14 million in the process. The last inmates left on April 1. A high-security treatment facility, called the Special Commitment Center, for violent sexual offenders remains on the island and is run by the Department of Social and Health Services for sex offenders who have served their prison sentences but have been civilly committed to mental health treatment because they have been deemed likely to reoffend. It houses about 300 patients. Only one is a woman.