Alcatraz. The Rock. The most formidable prison in the United States. From its early years as a fort, later turned prison, and then the location of the protest that sparked the 1970s Native American Rights Movement, Alcatraz Island is now a National Park that seeks to preserve the history of the island, while also accepting its unique role as a bird sanctuary.
Prior to California’s Gold Rush, the small island of Alcatraz may have only been visited by Ohlone people as a way-station or for fishing, however there is no concrete evidence of their presence on the island. After the Untied States acquired California a fort was built with more than 400 soldiers residing there during the Civil War. The fort also served as a prison, foreshadowing the role the island would serve in the coming years. War related prisoners such as US soldiers (ones convicted of desertion, theft, assault, rape, and murder), citizens accused of treason, as well as Confederate soldiers were kept here. In the later part of the 19th century, the US waged war with various Native American tribes, and members from the Hopi, Apache, and Modoc tribes were also prisoners here. Some Native American prisoners were arrested for refusing to let their children be taken to the American Indian boarding schools, which were awful, often Christian run, places that aimed to “Kill the Indian Save the Man” by cutting children’s’ hair, forcing them to wear Euro-western clothing, and punishing them for speaking their Native language, and in general forcing the children to forego their culture altogether.
Towering over the large cell house is a lighthouse. The Pacific Coast’s first lighthouse was constructed on Alcatraz in 1854, but in 1909 it was rebuilt, and is the one you see today.
The fort era ended in 1907, but it soon switched gears to a military prison until 1934 when it entered its most infamous era, transferring from the War Department to the Department of Justice, becoming a federal prison. Located one a one-quarter miles off the coast of San Francisco, high profile and unruly inmates from other prisons were housed here, including the likes of Al Capone, George “Machine Gun” Kelly, and Mickey Cohen.
While the island is known as being the home of prisoners, it is often overlooked that it also had its very own small town for law abiding citizens, as many of the guards and their families lived on the island. In the 1860s a single story barracks was constructed, with additions made in 1905, and housed the soldiers, becoming the multi-story white building seen above. It was later remodeled and became apartments for the correctional officers and their families, in addition to a market and post office. Another building that played a role in civilian life was the Post Exchange/Officer’s Club, built in 1910, but in 1934 it was converted into a recreation hall, complete with dance floor, gymnasium, two lane bowling alley, and soda fountain. In 1970 it suffered a fire, and became the shell you see today. Another husk of a building is the Warden’s House. The 17 room home was built in the 1920s for the military prison commandant, but later became home to the warden, and also suffered a fire in 1970.
Inside the formidable cell house we saw rows and rows of cells, solitary confinement area, as well as the library. While convicts were not allowed inside the library itself, that did not stop them from consuming books far quicker than that of the average citizen. It is said that convicts who could read would read 75 to 100 books a year, which were brought to them by an orderly.
While nearly all of the cells are empty, some do have stories to tell. An interesting one was that of George Heck. Heck was sentenced to 18 years for kidnapping, arriving at Alcatraz March 19, 1944. While on the Rock, Heck painted, and even had some of his works shown in San Francisco, where four of his paintings sold. The paintings visible in the cell are not originals, but photographs of the originals donated by his son, George Heck Jr.
Scattered around the cell house were six guard towers, but only one remains today, a reminder of the constant watch the prisoners faced, and to deter them from escapes, but as many of us know, escapes did indeed occur, with several that stand out.
Escape attempts started nearly as soon as the first military related prisoners arrived, and since it was not a max security facility yet, many escapees were never seen from again, and some, although not successful, did attempt to escape by unique means, including a butter vat and a bread-kneading trough. Over its time as a federal penitentiary there were 34 men who attempted to escape. While the most infamous is that of Frank Morris, and brothers John and Clarence Anglin, decades prior on December 16, 1937 Ralph Roe and Theodore Cole disappeared from the Model Industries Building (the prison workshop) and were never seen from again. Being December the water was extremely cold with very thick fog, it is assumed they drown, although no bodies were found, but there have been claims of witnesses who said they saw them in places as near as Oklahoma and as far as South America.
On June 11, 1962 Frank Morris, and brothers John and Clarence Anglin executed a very elaborate escape. The prison had multiple head counts, including at night, so they made paper mâché heads of themselves to appear as if they were still asleep in their cells to the guards. Using handmade tools to enlarge the air vents in their cells to crawl through, they then climbed to the roof, back down, and aboard a raft made from raincoats, disappearing into the bay. In 1979 their story hit the silver screen starring Clint Eastwood with Escape from Alcatraz. In 2003 Mythbusters recreated the legend, and tested the viability of a raft made using raincoats, and they successfully paddled their way to safety. Various stories have surfaced over the years indicating their escape was successful, including a 2015 History Channel special, featuring a photo supposedly of the two Anglin brothers taken in the 70s in Brazil. But the mystery may never be truly solved. Today their cells have been furnished showcasing elements of their creative escape, however the items are actually props from an episode of America’s Most Wanted.
Later that year, on December 16 John Paul Scott leapt into the waters and became the first prisoner to survive a swim to San Francisco, arriving at the rocks of the Golden Gate Bridge, but near death from the arduous swim he was quickly retrieved and taken back to Alcatraz.
The year following the escapes of Morris and the Anglin brothers, and Scott’s attempt, Alcatraz closed. The closure was due to increased maintenance and operating cost, as well as a movement toward rehabilitation. On March 21, 1963 and the remaining prisoners left Alcatraz and were relocated. After the closure Alcatraz was given the status of “excess government property” overseen by the General Services Administration, and nothing was done with it, until 1969 when a group of Native Americans arrived, reclaiming the island for “Indians of All Tribes” starting an occupation that lasted 19 months. Their demands were simple, they wanted the island returned to them (they even offered to buy it back), and establish a cultural center on the island that would help educate people. The government played a waiting game, hoping support for the protest would subside, but eventually they lost their patience and cut power to the island, and the water barge that had been providing them with fresh water was removed. Just days later a fire swept across the island, taking out the Post Exchange/Officer’s Club and Warden’s House. The protestors blame supposed government infiltrators, attempting to make them look bad, and the government of course blames the protestors, with the true cause remaining a mystery. The lack of power to the island meant that the lighthouse had gone dark and was without fog horn, and this is blamed for the collision of two oil tankers in the bay that occurred in January of 1971. This pushed the Nixon Administration to begin the removal of the protesters. While the dreams of the island did not come to fruition, other ideas blossomed from the occupation, including the return of some land to Native people and sparking the larger Native American rights movement of the 1970s.
Remains of the occupation are scattered throughout the island, including the changes made to arrival sign and water tower. In 2012, the National Park Service restored the water tower and invited original protestors and family members to repaint the messages. Additionally, a large “Red Power” exhibit displays photographs and footage of the protest.
The General Services Administration began bulldozing some areas, including some of the homes of the guards and their families. But realizing the island’s significance Alcatraz became part of the Golden Gate National Recreation Area, and joined the ranks of the National Park Service in 1972.
Despite the concrete prison, the island is surprisingly lush, as it featuring many gardens that were cultivated by both inmates and families living on the island. In the 1880s there were three small homes built for the commanding officers and their families. Demolished in 1941, their foundations became gardens, and another area on the west side of the island also became a lush garden landscape overlooking the Golden Gate Bridge. The first warden’s secretary, Fred Reichel, was able to convince the warden to allow for a select few inmates to help plant an inmate garden, all within view of the watch towers of course. For those who tended to the gardens, the time provided a respite from the cold prison walls, and some even plucked flowers to add color in their otherwise stark cells.
The vegetation has overrun portions of the island, and helps to welcome back a variety of birds. To protect the birds that call Alcatraz home, some areas can be closed to visitors, depending on the season.
While the National Parks service recommends dedicating around three hours for your Alcatraz experience (which includes the boat ride to and from the island) we spent a little over four hours, and one could easily spend a day there. We stepped back on land and ate along Fisherman’s Wharf before visiting one of my favorite places in all of San Fransico, Musée Mécanique. While I blogged about the incredible arcade a few years ago, I felt it was worth another post, so stay tuned!
Alcatraz Island is located just off the shore of San Francisco’s iconic Fisherman’s Wharf, and only accessible by boat. Make your own escape from Alcatraz by visiting their website to learn more about its unique history as well as booking passage.