Do any of you ever have to think twice about whether you are wanting to say “Alcatraz” or “Azkaban” in a conversation? No? Ok, well then. You obviously need to spend more time in the magical world of Harry Potter.
KP recapped our full day on Monday in her post I think it tastes like pickles… A travel story, but I was lucky enough to get the task of writing about our trip to Alcatraz. It was my first time visiting the island that is home to the most famous prison in the world (except for Azkaban, of course) and it was definitely a very cool experience.
As KP mentioned in her post, we did a drive by of Alcatraz on our way to our first stop at Angel Island. Alcatraz is such an iconic place. Cruising by it on the boat made for some amazing views.
For those of you that don’t know much about Alcatraz Island, it has a very colourful history as a military fort, as a disciplinary barracks, as a maximum security prison, and as a site for a Native American occupation. During the California gold rush in the 1850’s, Alcatraz was built up as a military fort in order to protect the San Francisco Bay Area. Between Fort Point, Lime Point, and Fort Alcatraz, this area was totally protected, though Alcatraz was never really tested. At this time, the first lighthouse on the West coast was built on the island as well. The island quickly evolved into a place of detention in the 1860’s. At this time, prisoners arrested for treason during the Civil War were housed there.
After the San Francisco earth quake of 1906, military prisoners on the island built a new prison, which became a disciplinary barracks for the US Army. It was this new building that eventually became known as “The Rock”. The island was used by the military until 1933, when it was acquired by the Federal Bureau of Prisons to build a maximum-security prison for housing the most difficult inmates from other prisons. This is the Alcatraz that has become famous today.
At Alcatraz, prisoners had rights to food, clothing, shelter, and medical attention. Anything else that they received was considered to be a privilege and not expected. Over the years, there were several escape attempts from Alcatraz, but it is not confirmed that any of them were successful. No man is known to have made it to land, but there are still 5 prisoners listed as “missing and presumed drowned”.
Alcatraz shut down in 1963, and the island was essentially abandoned until 1969, when a group of Native Americans claimed it as “Indian Land”. They occupied the area for about 18 months, until they were removed by Federal Marshals. Though they were not able to keep Alcatraz, this did lead to the government returning some land to Native Americans across the country. In 1972, Alcatraz was included as part of the newly created Golden Gate National Recreation Area. Since then, it has become one of the most popular national parks in the USA. If you are interested in reading more about the history of Alcatraz, you can do so here.
Upon arriving on the island, we got a bit of an introduction by one of the park rangers, then we were turned loose. KP and I immediately walked up the hill to the cell block to do the audio tour included in any landing on Alcatraz Island. I have to say, the audio tour was amazingly well done. It included voices and stories from past Alcatraz inmates and guards, as well as all sorts of excellent background noises and ambiance. Not to mention, there were many displays with photos throughout the course of the tour. It was crazy to hear the voices of hardened criminals and be able to stare right into their faces as they were discussing their time at Alcatraz. It was also pretty surreal to be able to see the cells these men lived in, usually for years.
The audio tour also detailed two different escape attempts, and we were able to look right into the cells where guards were killed, and right at the holes in the back of a couple cells, dug by inmates using spoons. We also got to see the tool that one man used to pry the bars apart during an attempt that became known as the Battle of Alcatraz. It was surreal to stand in the very place that all of these things happened.
One of the most interesting things I learned during my time on Alcatraz was that the prison guards and their families actually lived right on the island. A woman who lived on Alcatraz as a child spoke on the audio tour and told the story of how she would take a boat to school on the mainland in the morning and return in the evening. She never even thought about the prisoners as they were locked away safely and didn’t make much noise.
After the audio tour, we made our way down the hill toward the dock and found a lovely little hallway with a theatre and several exhibits off of it.
Before long, we were ready to head back to the mainland to continue our day. Again, here is the post that details the rest of Monday, our last full day in San Francisco.