After a great Thanksgiving day with family, it was time for some adventure in San Francisco. When planning a trip we always try to find new experiences for everyone. Our new son-in-law had never been to San Francisco(SF), so even though the rest of us had been to Alcatraz, we decided to go. Alcatraz is managed by the National Park Service and can only be accessed by ferry. The NP service uses Alcatraz Cruises. The ticket includes the ferry ride as well as the audio tour of the prison.
While waiting in line for the ferry, there is a scaled model of Alcatraz or commonly known as “The Rock”.
The display included information about
Alcatraz was named by Juan Manuel Diaz who called it La Isle de los Alcatraces or The Island of Pelicans. A lighthouse was built on the island in 1846. Later that year, the island was purchased for $5,000 by John C. Fremont, the Military Governor of California. In 1850, the island was set aside to be used by the military, and in 1853, work began on a fortification. By 1858, the island was equipped with 11 cannons. Due to the Civil War, the island eventually had 105 cannons and also served as a firearms storage facility.
Due to it’s isolation in the harbor, it was used to house POWs from the Civil War. Following the war, the island was designated a long term detention facility for military prisoners. The island remained under military control until 1933, when it was acquired by the Department of Justice. It officially became a federal prison in August 1934. It was designed to hold prisoners who had caused trouble at other prisons.
Armed with knowledge of the history of The Rock, we boarded the ferry. It was a very wet and rainy day, but the ride to the island was smooth. The city is located 1.25 miles across the bay.
But you could barely see the Golden Gate Bridge…
The ferry ride is about 15 minutes and as you near the island, you get a great view.
Once off the boat, you walk up the hill to the cell house for the audio tour.
Along the walk you can view the guard housing facilities. Many of the guards, lived on the island with their families. The children would ride the ferry to SF for school.
The prison tour is full of pictures and information boards
The audio tour units are located in the shower area. The line takes you past the clothing distribution area.
The showers were community showers with no privacy stalls, this was for the protection of the prisoners to prevent assaults. Prisoners were allowed to shower twice a week.
The windows of the prisoners were covered in thick metal bars.
We were given the audio tour units and a brief explanation of their use. The audio tour is narrated by 4 former prisoners and 4 former guards.
Life inside a prison cell was bleak.
A few prisoners were lucky and had relatives send items to pass the time.
We went to the exercise yard. There was a small baseball field, as well as a sports court and benches to sit and enjoy the outside.
From the exercise court, prisoners could see the SF skyline. Freedom was so close yet so far away.
There was a small library
The prison was divided into sections… Cell block A, B, and C
Some areas given nicknames.
The isolation unit or D Block, was for prisoners who broke the strict rules of Alcatraz
In May of 1946, the Battle of Alcatraz took place. An escape attempt was started when a prisoner scaled the iron bars, used a crude bar spreader and over-powered the sentry. The officers on the floor were unarmed and easily over-powered. The prisoners were able to break into the gun gallery and obtain weapons. When the correctional officers were forced in 2 adjacent cells, one officer, quietly hid the main key in the cell’s toilet. When the prisoners realized that escape was impossible, they used the confiscated guns to open fire. Fourteen guards and 1 inmate were injured, while two correctional officers and 3 inmates were dead.
In order to restore peace and calm inside the prison, the Coast Guard and Marines were mobilized. The imprints of the grenades dropped into the cell block can still be seen on the floor.
There was a small visitation area
We walked through the administration. The command center was shown as it looked when the prison was operating. There were pictures of the four wardens as well as an exhibit of a typical correctional uniform.
We walked outside and looked at the wardens house, the lighthouse tower
There is one escape that can not be called a success nor can it be called unsuccessful. The escape occurred in June of 1962, by 3 inmates from Cell Block B. Frank Morris, John Anglin, and Clarence Anglin. They chiseled away the concrete around the air vent in their cells and then placed paper-mache dummies in their beds and used hair stolen from the barber shop to cover the heads.
They crawled through the chiseled holes into the utility corridor. No trace of the three prisoners was ever found. It was concluded that they drowned in their attempt to swim across the bay. However, the US Marshals Service keeps the file open and the three are still listed as wanted. There are some reports that the Anglin brothers floated in a raft to Angel Island and then fled to Brazil.
Now when you are in a prison you can’t resist the opportunity to take a picture inside a cell and we took a few.
Our last stop of the audio tour was the mess hall or cafeteria. The kitchen equipment, specifically the knives were outlined on boards so that nothing went missing.
It was equipped with tear gas canisters in case of a riot, but these were never used as it was soon realized that this would endanger the guards as well.
We walked back down to the ferry through the tunnels on the outside of the prison.
The prison officially closed on March 21, 1963.
The tour ends in the gift shop. We were lucky enough to meet William Baker a prisoner of Alcatraz. He was 85 years old and was very cordial and polite.
It had been a great adventure on Alcatraz. We learned so much about it’s history, but we were soaked and ready for lunch.
With the rain pouring on us, we settled for the first place with seating, Chowders. It was sourdough bowls full of Clam Chowder for these wet and cold adventurers.
With the morning adventure behind us, it was on to the afternoon….