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Visiting Alcatraz

January 11, 2013

Last weekend, as part of our ongoing quest to catch up on things we think we should do as good Californians, we finally made it to Alcatraz (courtesy of my wonderful wife, who gave me the tickets as a Christmas present). I’d been agitating to go for awhile, but my wife was lukewarm and my daughter downright reluctant (although amusingly the latter ended up having a blast and really wants to go again).

All I really knew about Alcatraz before visiting was that it was a maximum security prison for a time (obviously) and that it had previously served as a military fort. And that it’s prominent in the Bay, visible from many points within San Francisco.

Alcatraz the island

The National Park Service contracts with Alcatraz Cruises for transportation to the island. I knew the National Park Service has been pushing on more sustainable energy use, but I found it interesting how far they’ve gotten with Alcatraz (although in retrospect it probably shouldn’t have been too surprising that they’re further along near San Francisco…). Several of the Alcatraz Cruises boats are fitted with both wind turbines and solar panels, and those boats also have batteries that they can charge using landlines when docked. In addition, they’ve put solar panels on the old Alcatraz Island power plant to provide an alternate power source to the plant’s diesel generators (and as far as I could tell the generators were not running on our visit.

You arrive at the island’s dock, the only easy way on or off the island, and immediately get a quick briefing from an NPS ranger. The short version is essentially “stay out of blocked off areas, walking tours times are posted, and the path to the cell block is that way”. Unfortunately we missed the walking tours (our tour time was 12:45, and at least on the day we went the walking tours were earlier in the day); apparently on ranger or volunteer-led tours you can visit parts of the island that are otherwise off limits.

The dock

Building 64, the main building at the dock, is partially a Civil War-era building with (in places) 10 foot thick walls. There’s a small bookstore, some exhibits about life on the island, and a short (roughly 15 minute) film from the Discovery Channel that provides an overview of Alcatraz. It’s worth catching as a quick overview of the different eras of Alcatraz.

Roughly speaking Alcatraz has four eras of interest. The first is its use as a military fort (and eventually military prison), starting roughly in 1853. There are still signs of the original military era construction, particular on the lower levels of some of the island’s buildings (in additional to Building 64, the cellblock is build on the old fort’s citadel, which must cause all sorts of interesting civil engineering challenges.

The second era was its use as a federal penitentiary from the 1930s to the 1960s. This era is obviously Alcatraz’s most famous, most of the construction dates from this era, and the audio tour focuses on this period.

The third period was roughly 18 months between 1969 and 1971 when the island was occupied by Native American protesters from several tribes protesting, and drawing attention to, the ongoing mistreatment of their people. While I initially thought the protest was a rather minor thing, apparently it actually had a noticeable impact on public opinion and led to a number of government policy changes toward the Native Americans. I also discovered that damage to a number of buildings (the warden’s house, lighthouse keeper’s house, and the recreation hall) date to a fire that occurred in 1970 (during the occupation), rather than a simple combination of time and weather.

I must admit that I do find it amusing that the graffiti added to the buildings is now considered historical, the extent that the NPS appears to have re-applied the graffiti after repainting the island’s water tower.

The recreation yard and water tower

The last period was its use as a National Park (part of the Golden Gate National Recreation Area) since the 1970s. In addition to preserving the historical buildings, the NPS has also been working to restore the gardens and protect the island’s wildlife. Alcatraz is now home to a fair number of nesting birds, to the extent that the NPS actually blocks off access to parts of the island during nesting season. The island is thus a good place to see, in the right seasons, gulls, cormorants, pelicans, night-crowned herons, snowy egrets, and other birds.

I personally wanted to see the island both because I was curious about the prison’s history (and the tour did not disappoint, providing both a glimpse of life at the prison and details about some of the escape attempts) and because I found the three-dimensional arrangement and structure of the buildings on the island so interesting. If Alcatraz were just a flat 2D plain it would be rather boring, but instead buildings and paths are tucked everywhere they would fit. I would imagine that there are also a number of hidden passages, likely build during the island’s military days, to support hidden troop movements between parts of the island.

On a switchback path up Alcatraz

The warden's house

Some of the island's gardens

I was definitely not disappointed; my biggest regret was that we didn’t have even more time to look around (we got to the island around 1 and the last boat back was at 4:25). But since my daughter had such a good time I’m pretty sure I can talk her into going back. In future trips I’m curious to catch some of the walking tours, and one of these days I’d like to do one of the night tours. I bet the Rock in the dark is quite a different experience.

The lighthouse on Alcatraz

From → Travel

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