We had been anticipating this portion of the trip for a long time. The last time Dave and I visited San Francisco, we were not able to reserve a trip out to Alcatraz Island, so this time, we had reserved tickets in advance. Our ‘cruise’ (too funny, hardly a cruise but yes, it was constantly described thus!) was scheduled to leave at 10am. We left the campground a little after 8am, presuming that google map’s ’40 minutes’ would be way off, given that it was rush-hour. Amazingly, it was spot-on and we arrived a couple of minutes before 9 – we spotted a parking lot that had an all day, early-bird special of $10 if you paid before 9am: bargain!
Given our earlier arrival, we were also able to exchange our tickets for the 9:30am cruise out to the island. Alcatraz Island is another of the many Golden Gate National Park sites. It has been carved by natural and human forces, served the army as fortress and military prison, and the Department of Justice as a maximum-security federal penitentiary. It was also taken over by American Indians, claiming it as their own, in the 1970’s, for 18 months. Today, this once –desolate island in the center of San Francisco Bay is a national parkland with historic gardens, tide pools, bird colonies, and bay views beyond compare.
Once on the island, we listened to the introductory speech by the Ranger, collected Junior Ranger books and watched the short movie by the Discovery Channel, detailing and highlighting the life of the island. We slowly made our way towards the main prison building, passing the guard tower, unusual trees, the lighthouse, the ruins of the prison warden’s house and the apartment blocks once occupied by guards and their families. This was of particular interest to Jake as he had recently read: ‘Al Capone Does My Shirts’, by Gennifer Choldenko, which is a fictional story, written from the perspective of a son of one of the Alcatraz prison guards in the late 1930’s, there is a follow up book: ‘Al Capone Shines My Shoes’ which we have yet to get a copy of. Anyway, the apartment blocks are mentioned in the book, as is the Parade Ground – currently home to hundreds of birds, at one time the army parade ground but during the time of the prison, it was the children’s playground. Other than Kindergartners, all the school-age children would take a boat to and from the island each day, to school. All the families who lived here said they felt very safe and that it was much cheaper than actually living on the mainland in San Francisco.
Once in the cell house, we received headsets for the self-guided, 45-minute, audio tour, narrated to take us around the building with input from former Alcatraz inmates, correctional officers, and residents as they reminisced about life on Alcatraz. While waiting, we were taken past the showers – a long room with about 40 showers in two rows, totally open and controlled. The water for the showers was always hot so as not to allow inmates to get used to cold water, should they try to escape by jumping into the Bay. The tour was extremely well done, took us around the buildings and gave great explanations about life inside the prison, which was much more interesting to those on the outside apparently than the reality on the inside!
Alcatraz was never filled to capacity. The average number of inmates was approximately 260, the lowest was 222, and the highest, was 320. There were four cellblocks in the prison. A Block was not used to house inmates during the federal penitentiary years. Cells in B and C Blocks (336 cells) were considered ‘general population’. Unruly inmates were segregated in D Block (42 cells), also known as Isolation. These cells were horrible, had the potential for absolute pitch darkness and would require inmates to remain inside for the entire day. They were slightly bigger than cells in B and C but I’m sure that didn’t make up for the isolation. They also looked out towards the mainland and the prisoners used to be able to hear the sound of parties and smell the chocolate being produced at the Ghirardelli factory – can you imagine the torture?!
Prisoners were moved from cell to cell throughout their time on the Rock. Al ‘Scarface’ Capone was no exception, and during his time at Alcatraz (1934-1938), he spent time in various cells including a short stretch on D Block following a fistfight with another inmate. He was eventually transferred to a medical prison facility. Robert ‘The Birdman’ Stroud spent no time in a general population cell. After arriving on the island in 1942, he was placed to D block and in 1948 to the hospital wing. He remained there until 1959, when he was transferred to a medical facility for federal prisoners.
In the 29 years that Alcatraz served as a federal penitentiary, 36 prisoners tried to escape the Rock; all but five were recaptured or otherwise accounted for. Three who were unaccounted for participated in the same breakout, the June 1962 escape. This was known as the ‘dummy head’ escape, as the prisoners created fake heads out of soap and paints and left them in their beds. They dug through their cell walls with metal spoons stolen from the dining room and escaped through the ventilation system. Their ‘raft’ was thought to have been extremely ill-conceived and it is assumed that they quickly drowned in the Bay’s rough waters.
Not long after this, the prison closed due to deteriorating buildings and high operating costs. The last inmates left the island on March 21, 1963 and the prison officially closed its doors a few months later. The whole day was fascinating to us. For the rest of the day, the kids were asking lots of questions, Jake was especially interested in the escape attempts – there were quite a few that we learned about. It was a tough few hours for Nate, his interest waned quite quickly and the headset didn’t rest well on his little head. They all completed their Junior Ranger books though and, as always, that helped us learn more and solidify what we’d heard earlier. I can’t ‘Ra-Ra’ enough about the National Parks!
Coming back into dock at Pier 33, we had a great view of Coit Tower. We are all big ‘The Amazing Race’ fans and had just watched the season finale which brought the final teams into San Francisco. They climbed up the outside of Coit Tower so it was cool to see this towering building up on the hill.
We drove out to Lombard Street and worked our way up the steep hill to the top of the zig-zag portion of the street. There was a little line of cars slowly working their way down, back and forth, across and down this crazy section of road. It makes no sense, from a ‘useful’ point of view to have the road like this but it is certainly a fun tourist attraction – I guess the people living in the houses here are more than used to constant cars, people and cameras in their neighborhood!
Another fun place ‘TAR’ featured was the Yoda statue in the Presidio district of the city. It really is not a commonly visited place, we had certainly not come across it in any of our ‘ what to do in the city’ searches, so it is definitely not well-marked. Regardless, the amazing ‘Dave, give me a challenge and I will rise to it’, managed to locate its whereabouts and got us there pretty quickly. The kids were super excited when they spotted it and we all (sadly) posed in front of Yoda with our imaginary light sabers!
From there, we went to Fort Point (another GGNPS) and admired the Golden Gate Bridge from underneath, while watching a few surfers follow the waves in towards the rocks. The kids admired for about 5 minutes and then spotted a dog and proceeded to spend the next 10 minutes playing ‘fetch’, clearly much more interesting than a big bridge and some surfers….. We did make a brief stop at Cassidy Fields but time was pressing and we needed to get home, which took a little longer than we'd hoped, given that our route took us past the SF Giants baseball field and a game was obviously just about to start, crowds everywhere!
So, another great day, lots seen and learned. This is really a wonderful city with so much diversity and many, many things to do; we barely scratched the surface – another place we’ll be coming back to for sure.
States visited: 49!
visited 49 states (98%)
Create your own visited map of The United States
Miles driven so far -
LOOP 1 (Aug 2009 - Aug 2010): 29,000
LOOP 2 (May - August 2012): 10,800
Highest altitude with camper: 11,158ft (I-70, CO)