San Francisco #2: Alcatraz Island

Published: September 20th 2018
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Off to Alcatraz! I was so excited for today, when booking my trip I was deciding whether to fly into LA or San Francisco and I thought that LA would be cheaper, but there wasn't really anything pulling me to visit there. When I found out the flights to San Francisco were the same price, it was a no-brainer. One of the reasons, I wanted to visit was to go to Alcatraz, when I was younger (a lot younger), a co-worker had been and had lent me a book written by one of the former prisoners, I can barely remember his life story now, but since then I've always wanted to visit. And after watching 'The Rock', one of my favourite films when I was a teenager/at uni. I had read online that you needed to be shit hot to book your tickets, so I picked which day I would go, the two days after my arrival, in case my flight was delayed and booked my ticket the day they became available. I was really torn between doing the day tour and the night tour, the night tour sounded really good, but I decided to stick with the original tour in the day time and now I have a good excuse to come back to San Francisco.

I was up super early as I was taking the early bird first boat of the day out. A strange thing happened while I was in the bathroom, I was at the sink washing my face and I thought I recognised the girl at the sink next to me. I was totally trying not to stare, as I didn't want to look creepy, but I was sure it was someone I used to hang around with in Korea a few years back. Well, it was her and she recognised me too. She is from California, but not this part, and was visiting with a former co-worker from Korea. I ended up having breakfast with them. It was so random and just proves the world is a smaller place than we think. After breakfast, I had to get my hustle on as I needed to be at the ferry dock quite a while before my boat was due to leave. It took me about half an hour to walk there and I was going pretty quick. I went to the booth and exchanged my print out for my ticket. Then I joined the queue, which was already massive. Once we were able to get on the boat, the queue moved pretty quickly, although they made you do a photo shoot thing, so that they could sell it to you later. The boat took about fifteen minutes to reach the island. I stood outside, even though it was a bit cold and windy, so I could get a better view of Alcatraz as we approached. Once we were there, we had to wait on the landing as the park rangers explained stuff to us. That was really good as they told us to check the board for the talks that were spread out during the day. I didn't know that things like that were on offer, but I definitely wanted to go to them.

The rangers advised us to go and watch the video about Alcatraz first, so I headed off to do that. This video room was in Building 64, which is right at the dock. It was the first building constructed on Alcatraz Island and was used to accommodate military officers and their families. To be honest, if I were coming back on the first boats again, I wouldn't head to the video room first. While I enjoyed watching the video as it was very informative, the second boat arrived while we were watching it and not only did they walk through, getting in the way, but it meant that when I headed out there were loads of other people already there. I should have went for a look around while it was quieter. I also never knew that Alcatraz had such a rich history, I only knew about the island being used to house the prison, but I learnt so much more. I had a look around the rooms that were next to the video room, there were a couple of exhibits to take in. I read one quote from a child, who'd lived on the island as his father worked for the prison serivce. He spoke about how the children kept normal routines despite growing up in strange place. One tradition was to go carolling at Christmas time and that the kids would always shout 'Merry Christmas' across to the prisoners and how they would always respond. The person remarked about how as Christmas was such a happy time for them as a child and that for the prisoners it was probably the exact opposite, locked up miles away from their family and friends.

I headed up the hill/driveway towards the main compound to start my exploration. There were a few buildings there, so I stopped to take a look at them. I passed what was the penitentiary residences during the prison period, which had also been the military workshop and schoolhouse during the military period. I really liked that the signage explained the different uses of the building in the different time periods of the island. I always just thought that the island was home to the infamous prison, but long before that the island had been a military garrison and then later a military prison in the nineteenth century. I also passed another building,which had been the prison's rifle range and before that had been the military prison workshop and gymnasium, and then before that the military prison chapel and library. Unfortunately, these building were closed to the public, so I could only see their exteriors. The next building I came to was really just a shell and it was fenced off to stop people trying to get into it. This building had originally been the Military Post Exchange before becoming the Penitentiary Social Hall. There were quite a few different recreation activities that the guards and their families could participate in. The reason why this building is just as shell is because it was burnt down during the Occupation of Alcatraz in 1970. I liked how different it was to the other building I had just seen and liked the fact that nature was starting to reclaim it. A lot of birds now called this place home. I decided to saw the main prison buildings for last and kept on walking down East Road, passing by the water tower until I reached the turn off for the Quartermaster Warehouse and the power plant. The power plant had been built in 1912 and it generated the island's electricity and powered the pumps that provided fresh and salt water to the island. The warehouse was built in 1921 and stored essential supplies and equipment brought from the mainland. Since these two places were vital to the upkeep of the island they were strictly off-limits to the prison population. These buildings are still in use today. Next, I headed over to the Model Industries Building and the New Industries Building. These buildings were derelict and closed to the public, so I couldn't go inside. When Alcatraz was an army post the buildings were used as a blacksmith shop, typewriter shop, and hat and shoe shops. Army prison inmates worked there for pay. Since these industries were considered model prison programmes the building became known as the "model shop". When the prison was turned into the federal penitentiary these industries continued, however the guards were concerned with the security of the building. In 1940 the new building was completed and all inmate factory work was moved there and a laundry was built in the new building.

I made my way back to the main prison building and took the path that led me to the entrance. I passed by the morgue first. It had been built in 1910 by the US military in the site of a former tunnel. However, it was only used once to house a deceased prisoner, when the last boat to the mainland had been missed. During the civil war gunpowder had also been stored there. I continued up to the entrance. I entered in the same place as the prisoners did and walked passed the shelves and tables filled and covered with prison uniform and passed the showers. Here, I picked up an audio guide, which would explain all the things that I would see in more depth. The main prison building had been built by the United States Army as a military prison between 1910 and 1912. It was acquired by the United States Department of Justice in 1933 and opened in August 1934 after some modernisation work had been carried out. The prison claimed to be escape-proof and America's strongest prison due to its high security and location on an island surrounded by cold water and strong currents. The prison was designed to hold prisoners, who had caused trouble at other prisons. One of the signs as I had entered said, "Break the rules and you go to prison, break the prison rules and you go to Alcatraz." Over the years, the prison housed some of America's most notorious criminals.

Following the audio guide, I headed to the cell section of the prison. The cells were three storeys high and visitors could only see the ones on the ground floor. I found it quite amusing that the rows of cells were given street names such as 'Broadway' and ‘Michigan Avenue'. The cells did look pretty grim and all I could think about was how noisy it would be as there were mainly just metal bars covering the cells. You would be able to hear all the other inmates. That would have driven me crazy. The prisoners must have been freezing as well as there was no heat. I halted my audio tour of the prison as I had seen several talks advertised when the boat had docked and I wanted to listen to these. The first talk I went to was held in the dining hall. It was entitled 'Escape of '62' and it was about the escape of Frank Morris, John Anglin, and Clarence Anglin on June 11 1962. There had been previous attempts by prisoners to escape, none of which had been successful. The prisoners, who resided in B block, had chisselled away at moisture damp concrete surrounding an air vent that led to an unguarded utility corridor and had been covered with fake walls to hid their progress from the guards. The men had also made papier-mache dummies using hair taken from the barbershop to help fool the guards. They had also constructed a raft made from 50 stolen raincoats. It is unknown if the men survived the escape attempt. It is believed that they drowned in the strong currents during their bid for freedom, but no one knows for sure. The US Marshalls service still lists the escapees as wanted fugitives. The fugitives' families were also under surveillance to see if the men would make contact with them. The ranger giving the talk said he had once had an old man come to the talk that looked exactly like an older version of one of the fugitives. Although the man could prove who he said he was, I think it would be a pretty daring thing to do. If the men survived the escape attempt and returned to visit the prison as tourists. Although these men were obviously not very nice at all, there is something about the underdog beating the system that I kind of admire in them.

I headed back out of the dining hall to look around some more of the cells. They were pretty grim looking. I definitely wouldn't fancy being locked up in one for an extended period of time. I also looked around the space that had been the library, since it was now just an empty hall, it was hard for me to get an impression of how it was when it was used. I also saw the gun gallery where the guards watched over the prisoners. Then I came to more cells. These cells were mocked up to show what stuff a typical prisoner had in their cells and was pretty interesting. It made them seem a bit more personable. I also saw the visitation area. It looked pretty grim, just a small, thick window that prisoners could see their loved ones through. It was time for the second talk I wanted to listen to so I made my way over to the meeting point. This talk was called 'Sounds of Slammer' and detailed the mechanics behind the how the cell doors operated. It was interesting, but a little too technical for me. I proceeded to head to the Administrative Building, where I could see the Warden's Office and other offices that showed the day to day running of the prison. From there I headed outside and took a look around. I saw the lighthouse. The original was the first one built on the West Coast of the USA and had been completed in 1854. The one standing before me was built in 1909 after an earthquake destroyed the previous one. The weather also made the island feel more atmospheric. It was a cold, windy grey day and I could imagine feeling so isolated stuck on the island, especially seeing civilisation across the water, so close yet such a perilous journey if one were to try to escape. I wonder how the guards and their families felt to be so isolated, too. I liked seeing the old decayed buildings outside, too. It was nice to see that not everything had been preserved and some things were left for the elements to reclaim.

I headed back inside to look at the row of cells I hadn't seen earlier. In these ones, there were mock ups of the 1962 escapees dummies in their prison cots. These items had been used in TV filming made about the island. I also headed back to the dining hall and kitchen area to take a look around those now it was quieter. Then I headed over to A Block, which was where the army kept low security prisoners when the building was their prison. When the prison became a federal penitentiary, prisoners were never kept in A Block as the other blocks had better security systems fitted to them, instead it was used for storage and study. I headed back outside and made my way along the sloping path to the recreation yard. I was quite surprised to see all the flowers in bloom along the path and it certainly brightened my walk up. The recreation yard had quite a derelict feel to it and I didn't stay there, too long. I made my way back to the jetty to eat a late lunch. I wish I had known that I would end up spending most of the day at Alcatraz as I would have brought more than a snack with me. I had brought a Clif bar with me and that filled me up a bit.

The last talk I wanted to do was at 2:30, so I hung around the dock area as it would start from there. This talk was called 'Out and About', and I think it was my favourite talk as we wandered about a bit more and the ranger explained a lot about the history of Alcatraz. I had been totally ignorant of the island's other history, apart from its time as the home to a federal penitentiary, so it was really nice to learn more. The ranger started with the history of the island as a military garrison and also told us about the flora and fauna of the island. He then went on to tell us about life on the island during the Native American Occupation. The island was first occupied during 1964, but in 1969, a group called United Indians of All Tribes began protesting against federal policies towards American Indians. They occupied the island as a form of protest. The occupiers stayed on the island for almost two years and wanted the island to be adapted to be a place of Indian culture and education. They also wanted reparations for the treaties broken by the US government. It was really interesting to learn about this part of history. Native American history is too often neglected.

I felt like I had seen everything that I wanted to on the island. I had explored every part in detail, so was ready to leave. You can definitely spend the whole day there and I wish I'd brought some proper food with me, instead of only having a Clif bar to keep me going. I took a look around the bookstore, which was a mistake, I am a sucker for books. I ended up buying three different books about the island and what it was like during the different periods in its history. My credit card was now a few more dollars in debt, my backpack was going to be a bit heavier, but I had real books to read, so it's all worth it. I headed over to the wait area, I think I had just missed a boat so I had to wait for a while, chilling in the sun. The queue wasn't too bad. After a while the boat turned up and we sailed back to the mainland.

The boat got me back to San Francisco pretty quick and this time I took a much more leisurely stroll along Fisherman's Wharf. I had read a bit about Fisherman's Wharf on the tripadvisor website before my trip and not very much of it was complimentary. I do understand what most people mean, it is pretty tacky, think a slightly classier version of Blackpool and I think most stuff would be overpriced. I did look in a few shops, but nothing caught my eye. At the end of Fisherman's Wharf, there was a small beach. That was cute, and I enjoyed walking along it. Then I headed back towards the Fort Mason area. It had been a long day so I was happy to get back to the hostel and make myself some dinner before relaxing for the rest of the evening.

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