A day on The Rock – Alcatraz

We have spent the day as tourists in San Fran.  We don’t get to do this very often, so it was a real treat.  We have never been to Alcatraz Island, and it was high time!  This is one of San Francisco’s most popular tourist destinations – and it’s a good day when we get a boat ride too.

Alcatraz Clipper

Alcatraz Clipper

There were lots of people on this boat.  The ride took about a half an hour on one of the most beautiful harbours in the world (and it wasn’t raining!). We set foot on a hugely important piece of American history. Alcatraz Island means Island of the Pelican, from the old Spanish.  There are still lots of birds that nest on its rocky crags:  Western gulls, pigeon guillemots, cormorants and black crowned night-herons. This island was originally settled as a military fortification in the 1800s to protect the harbour from Confederate invasion and it features the first and oldest lighthouse on the West Coast. San Francisco Bay was never attacked, but Alcatraz was used to imprison Confederate soldiers during the Civil War. That was the beginning of its use as a prison. In 1934 it became a federal prison used to hold convicts that were too troublesome or too dangerous to be held anywhere else. Al Capone, Robert Franklin Stroud (the Birdman of Alcatraz), and  Alvin “Creepy” Karpis were some of the most notorious prisoners. It operated for 29 years as a federal prison before closing its gates in 1963.

United States Penitentiary (Indians Welcome)

United States Penitentiary (Indians Welcome)

The hand painted sign overtop the “official one” that greeted us at the dock is a remembrance of the 19 months of occupation by American Indians from 1969 to 1971. The island is run now by the National Parks Service, but back then it was claimed as “Indian Land”. This is considered an important part of the history of the island, so they have left the evidence from the occupation, including the sign they painted on the water tower.

Alcatraz painted water tower


Inside, during its time as a federal prison, the accommodation was pretty basic….

Alcatraz painting and crochet


But if you notice in this picture, hobbies were allowed.  Displayed are some paintings done by a “resident”, as well as a PINK crocheted blanket!  Inmates taught each other their skills, and they even played music at pre-approved times. They ate well, were taken care of medically, and had clothes and a bed.  After that, everything they received was earned. This was a high-security prison.  It was said:

When you broke the law, you went to prison.
When you broke the prison’s law, you went to Alcatraz.

They would look out the windows of their prison to see San Francisco glittering in the near distance.  Sometimes (like on New Year’s Eve) they could even hear the parties, music and revelry from the city. It made for added punishment, to be so close and yet have it all inaccessible to them.

Alcatraz so near and yet so far away

So near and yet so far away…

But some of them did manage to accomplish and learn new skills, and to regret the crimes that got them sent there.  Some were interested in gardening and created the most beautiful gardens on the west side of the island.  I don’t think the guards were very worried about prison breaks – it was a long (1 1/2 mile), cold, perilous swim if they ever tried to make a break for it.

The historic gardens

The historic gardens

In 1976 it was listed on the National Register of Historic Places. Today, it’s run by the National Parks Service, and entices millions of visitors every year.  I’m glad we went – it’s an important piece of history.

The journey continues….


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