San Francisco - The Eerie Beauty of Alcatraz Island





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Published on Mar 19, 2008

Our last day in San Francisco (February 25, 2008) was gorgeous, sunny and fairly warm. We caught the 11 am boat across to Alcatraz Island. Alcatraz Cruises is the only cruise company that takes you across to Alcatraz Island and lets you off on the island which is now part of the National Park Service. Departure is from Pier 33, and it takes just about 10 to 15 minutes to get across. During our boat trip we enjoyed a beautiful view of downtown San Francisco, the San Francisco Oakland Bay Bridge, the Golden Gate Bridge and the mountainous communities on the north and east side of San Francisco Bay.

We arrived at the ferry dock where a National Park Ranger provided us with a brief overview of things to see and do on the island. We then took in a 15 minute video that gave us a great summary of the island and its fascinating history. From 1850 onwards, Alcatraz Island was the location of a citadel, and it also housed the first lighthouse on the West Coast, built in 1854. In 1909 it became a military prison and in 1933 it finally was converted into the infamous maximum security penitentiary that it is known for all over the world.

Starting my walk, I stopped in a room that displays posters and information about the 1969 to 1971 Native American Occupation of Alcatraz. I then snapped photos all along my walk to the famous Cell Blocks, caught some gorgeous view across the bay and was morbidly fascinated by the run-down morgue that held deceased prisoners from 1933 to 1963, the year the prison was finally closed. The highlight of any trip to Alcatraz is a visit of the four cellblocks that housed 390 cells, all designed for single prisoners, which were actually better conditions than in many other penitentiaries of the time.

After getting equipped with headsets and a recorder, I followed the excellent narration of the audio tour that featured the voices of real former prison guards and former inmates. The audio tour was a fabulous way of creating a self-guided tour where you could stop and linger at any of the destinations to look at them up close. I stopped frequently to snap hundreds of pictures.

The tour features many stops, including the large dining room and kitchen, the intake-area where new inmates got changed from their street clothing into prison garb, the prison library and the main cellblocks with their tiny cells, all equipped with a metal bunk, a small wash basin and toilet bowl. The corridors separating cellblocks B and C is named Broadway, another corridor is called Michigan Avenue and the area in front of the dining room was referred to as Times Square. Several of the cells were furnished to show what they would have looked like when the prison was still in operation. The location of the famous 1942 Battle of Alcatraz and the cells were several prison guards were killed was signposted.

The cells housing Frank Morris and brothers John and Clarence Anglin, location of the most famous escape attempt in Alcatraz' history, were also furnished to provide an authentic demonstration of the escape. The cells showcased the papier-maché dummies that used to disguise the inmates' disappearance, and the small tunnels, hand-carved with metal spoons, that successfully took the prisoners into an unguarded utility tunnel and from there off the island. The three prisoners or their bodies were never found, and to this day there are diverging theories that presume that the escaped inmates either drowned or made their way all across to Latin America. A segment of the Discovery Channel's "MythBusters" TV series proved that the escape could have indeed succeeded.

I also examined the Control Room and the visitation area as well as the outside space at the southern end of the cell block building which features a lighthouse and the ruins of the former Warden's House which burned down in 1970. After checking out the many souvenirs in the gift shop I made my way back down to the ferry dock, past another set of ruined buildings which include the recreation hall and the Coast Guard quarter.

Alcatraz is a truly fascinating destination, and the stories of its famous inmates (Al Capone, Robert Stroud -- the Birdman of Alcatraz, George "Machine Gun" Kelly and many others) make your hair stand on end.

Just before 2 pm we caught another ferry back to the mainland, and after a quick lunch at Pier 39 we were ready for another adventure: a bike ride to Golden Gate Park.


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