I had always wanted to visit Alcatraz Island. It’s one of those travel bucket list items that sat around for years. I had visited San Francisco a few times but was never able to fully explore the things I wanted to do so never made it to the island. As I wrote about a couple of weeks ago, I was chosen to be Captain for a Day (during a social media campaign) by Alcatraz Cruises. I became fully engrossed in the campaign because the end prize was a trip to Alcatraz and would give me a chance to cross something off my travel bucket list. Although I thought I knew all there was to know about the prison, it’s years as a military installation and the time it was occupied by Native Americans, working on the campaign, I learned so much more!
Step back in time and experience the legendary island that was a Civil War fort, a military prison and one of the most notorious federal penitentiaries in US history.
Alcatraz Cruises is the official concessioner to the National Park Service, offering tickets and transportation to Alcatraz Island. No other boat services are permitted to dock at the island – others simply ride around the island, so don’t be fooled by unauthorized sellers offering Alcatraz tickets.
All Alcatraz Island tours depart from and return to Pier 33 – Alcatraz Landing, located along San Francisco’s waterfront promenade. Alcatraz Cruises operates the greenest ferry boats in the nation! The Alcatraz Cruises Hybrid Ferry Fleet has redefined the profile of vessels on San Francisco Bay and is the the nation’s first hybrid passenger ferry service. The boats are large and can handle several hundred passengers per trip. Super clean and comfortable, the three vessels offer a quick, quiet and interesting trip over to the island. Before leaving on your cruise to the island, there are several food options in the area, including a snack bar right at Alcatraz Landing (great burgers!). Once on-board, snacks and beverages are available on the boats. Picnicking and consuming food on Alcatraz Island is allowed at the dock area only. Bottled water is allowed on all areas of the island, and can be purchased on Alcatraz Landing, on all Alcatraz Cruises boats, and in both of the Island bookstores. Alcoholic beverages are not allowed on Alcatraz Island so are only sold on boats departing the Island and heading back to Pier 33. No alcoholic beverages are offered for sale on Alcatraz Cruises vessels bound for Alcatraz Island.
The trip over is much quicker than I imagined and I won’t bore you again with how excited I was to be allowed to actually steer the boat all the way over to the island – the captain was such a great guy and obviously extremely confident in his ability to take over should I head in the wrong direction! As you cross the bay you get such a perfect view of so many things – not just Alcatraz. Angel Island, porpoises playing in the water, beautiful sail boats – just to name a few.
There are quite a few options available for different levels of tickets and tours. I highly recommend the Behind the Scenes Tour for a much more in-depth look at Alcatraz. All tickets are available for purchase 90 days in advance. Advance purchase is highly recommended due to seasonal sellouts.
As you approach the island by boat, the cell house building looms high above the island in an almost eerie and mystical way. Birds (that live on the island) circle high above and I admit to getting a slight chill watching our approach. When you arrive at the island, you immediately feel as if you are stepping back in time. It’s difficult to not stare at the large cell house building, yet your eyes are constantly being drawn to falling down buildings. Although much of the island is in ill-repair, when you look at the ruins, you can almost envision the wardens house in all it’s glory. You can almost hear kids playing outside the apartment building that housed the families of those that worked on the island.
Alcatraz Island has a long and troubled history. Although best know for housing Al Capone and “Birdman” Robert Stroud during the years it was a federal penitentiary (1934 to 1963), the island is also home to the site of the first lighthouse and US built fort on the West Coast. Remnants of an 18 month occupation by Indians of All Tribes that began in 1969 are still visible when you tour the island. There is so much more to Alcatraz than what many of us have learned about “The Rock” through movies. The island is rich in history, is home to beautiful gardens, tide pools, bird colonies, and bay views beyond compare.
If the walls could talk – I can’t imagine the stories they would tell.
The Behind the Scenes Tour is the perfect way to get as much history as possible when you visit. The tour is led by a park ranger and the group is capped at 30 so that anyone with questions are sure to get whatever information they are interested in. The tour also takes you into areas of the prison that are not open to the general public on a regular touring ticket. A dungeon area that was once used as a solitary confinement area is creepy to say the least. I couldn’t imagine spending any about of time there, in the dark. A tunnel here, an underground jail there, and special gardens with stunning views. Stories, artifacts, and hidden doorways will let you in on some interesting Alcatraz secrets. The cell house audio tour – narrated by former inmates and guards – makes you imagine what living on Alcatraz was really like.
The Civil War Fort – Light House – Military Prison Years
On August 5, 1775, Spanish Lt. Juan Manuel de Ayala sailed his ship into San Francisco Bay and spent several weeks charting the harbor. During his surveys he described a rocky, barren island and named it “La Isla de Los Alcatraces” (Island of the Sea Birds).
California became a possession of the United States on February 2, 1848 in a treaty with Mexico that ended the Mexican War. A week earlier, on January 24th, gold had been discovered in the foothills of the Sierra Nevada Mountains. Within three years, the population of San Francisco would explode from around 500 to more than 35,000 as gold seekers poured into California.
By 1850 the Gold Rush was at its height, and California was admitted as the thirtieth state in the Union. Alcatraz and several other bay islands were reserved “for public purposes” by presidential order on November 6, 1850.
Hundreds of ships, headed for San Francisco during the Gold Rush, wrecked along the dangerous California coastline. The first lighthouse on the West Coast of the United States was built on Alcatraz to guide ships safely into San Francisco Bay. The lighthouse went into service on June 1, 1854.
The U.S. Army, realizing San Francisco Bay was vulnerable to enemy attack, fortified the harbor entrance with strategic batteries including a fort on Alcatraz Island. The fort was completed in December 1859. During the American Civil War (1861–1865) Alcatraz became the largest American fort west of the Mississippi River.
The army began sending soldier-convicts to the Alcatraz fort in early 1860. Over the next forty years, the Island gradually became obsolete as a fortification and more important as a prison. The U.S. Army removed the fort’s guns and in 1907 formally designated Alcatraz as a Military Prison.
Alcatraz was barely affected by the 1906 San Francisco earthquake which devastated the city, and the prison population dramatically increased as prisoners were temporarily transferred to the island due to damage in the city.
The army renamed the Island in 1915 as “Pacific Branch, U.S. Disciplinary Barracks”—a prison for soldiers undergoing punishment and retraining. Army prisoners built most of the buildings on the Island. This would be the final military role for the Island until the last soldiers departed in 1933.
The Federal Prison Years
In 1933, the Army turned Alcatraz over to the U.S. Justice Department, which wanted a federal prison that could house a criminal population too difficult or dangerous to be handled by other U.S. penitentiaries. Following construction to make the existing complex at Alcatraz more secure, the maximum-security facility officially opened on July 1, 1934. The first warden, James A. Johnston (1874-1954), hired approximately one guard for every three prisoners. Each prisoner had his own cell.
The Federal Bureau of Prisons (BOP) viewed Alcatraz as “the prison system’s prison,” a place where the most disruptive inmates could be sent to live under sparse conditions with few privileges in order to learn how to follow rules (at which point, they could be transferred to other federal prisons to complete their sentences). According to the BOP, Alcatraz typically held some 260 to 275 prisoners, which represented less than 1 percent of the entire federal inmate population.
Among those who did time at Alcatraz was the notorious Prohibition-era gangster Al “Scarface” Capone, who spent four-and-a-half years there during the 1930’s. His arrival on the island generated headlines across America. Capone was sent to Alcatraz because his incarceration in Atlanta, Georgia, had allowed him to remain in contact with the outside world and continue to run his criminal operation in Chicago.
Opening the cells on Alcatraz was not a job for the weak!
Other famous (or infamous) Alcatraz inmates included George “Machine Gun” Kelly who spent 17 years there on a kidnapping conviction. Gangster Alvin “Creepy Karpis” Karpowicz, listed as “Public Enemy No. 1″ by the FBI in the 1930s, spent over 25 years at Alcatraz, reportedly more time than any other prisoner. Murderer Robert Stroud, also known as the “Birdman of Alcatraz,” was transferred there after three decades at the federal penitentiary in Leavenworth, Kansas. Stroud arrived on the island in 1942 and served 17 years there; however, despite his nickname, he was not permitted to keep birds at Alcatraz as he had while locked up at Leavenworth.
Escapes from Alcatraz
There were 14 known attempts to escape from Alcatraz, involving 36 inmates. The Federal Bureau of Prisons reports that of these would-be escapees, 23 were captured, six were shot and killed during their attempted getaways, two drowned and five went missing and were presumed drowned.
The most famous escape attempt resulted in a battle, from May 2 to May 4, 1946, in which six prisoners overpowered cell-house officers and were able to gain access to weapons, but not the keys needed to leave the prison. In the ensuing battle, the prisoners killed two correctional officers and injured 18 others. The U.S. Marines were called in, and the battle ended with the deaths of three of the rogue inmates and the trial of the three others, two of whom received the death penalty for their actions.
The Closing of Alcatraz
Alcatraz was shut down in 1963 because its operating expenses were much higher than those of other federal facilities at the time. The prison’s island location meant all food and supplies had to be shipped in, at great expense. The isolated island buildings were beginning to crumble due to exposure to the salty sea air. During nearly three decades of operation, Alcatraz housed a total of 1,576 men.
The Native American Occupation
In 1969, a group of Native Americans led by Mohawk activist Richard Oakes arrived on Alcatraz Island and claimed the land on behalf of “Indians of All Tribes.” The activists hoped to establish a university and a museum on the island. Oakes left Alcatraz following the death there of his stepdaughter in 1970, and the remaining occupiers, whose ranks had become increasingly contentious and divided, were removed by order of President Richard M. Nixon in 1971.
Interesting side note: When repairs and remodeling is done on the island, the National Park Service asks members of the families of the original Native American occupiers to come to the island and re-paint or re-do some of the items left behind from the occupation period.
When touring Alcatraz, be prepared for lots of walking, stair climbing and an over-all chilly feeling. When the sun starts to set, the island becomes just a little bit more eerie, so be sure to be back at the dock in time for your ferry ride back to Pier 33.
I was provided an all expense paid trip as part of the Alcatraz Captain campaign held by Alcatraz Cruises. Sponsors included the Hilton Union Square San Francisco and Park 55 by Hilton hotels as well as San Francisco CityPass. All opinions are my own.