The once-formidable prison in San Francisco Bay is now a National Park and Tourist Attraction. This guide will help you get the most out of your visit to “the Rock”.
The first thing to understand about Alcatraz is that the history of Alcatraz started before it was a prison and continued afterward. There are 6 significant phases of Alcatraz History. Each of them has left their mark on Alcatraz Island.
- Barren Rock
- Fortress Alcatraz
- Military Prison
- Alcatraz Federal Penitentiary
- Native American Occupation
- National Park
“You break the rules, you go to prison. You break the prison rules, you go to Alcatraz Prison”
The way you got to Alcatraz back in the day was to break the rules at some other Federal Prison or to be the “worst of the worst”. Still, today getting to Alcatraz starts with charges, but these days the charges are on your Visa card and they are made by Alcatraz Cruises which is the only source for tour tickets to the island. All tours of the island leave from Pier 33 which is close to Fisherman’s wharf and even closer to Pier 39.
Your tour ticket will include a boat ride over to the island and back as well as the audio tour inside the main cell block which dominates the island. You should book your ticket in advance, especially in the busy summer months. Alcatraz is a popular attraction and on a typical summer day, the cruises will be booked solid.
To get the best views of the city and of Alcatraz, think P.O.S.H, port out starboard home. Sit on the left side of the boat on the way to the island and the right side on the ride home. The seats at the top of the boat outside will go first so if you want those seats you will need to line up early.
There is a snack bar on the Alcatraz Cruises boat but food or drink is not allowed past the dock area on the island nor are there any restaurants or snack bars on the island. You are allowed to bring a water bottle.
Arriving On the Island
All Visitors are required to stop and hear a mandatory orientation. Some visitors will take off so that they can be first in line for the audio tours but not only is this orientation mandatory, it is also useful. The ranger will inform you, for instance, about what specific ranger takes or tours will be taking place as well as what parts of the island may be open that are usually closed (or closed that are usually open).
The ranger will also suggest a stop at the theatre in the building just behind the dock for an introductory video created by the Discovery Channel.
The path up to the cellblock on the top of the island is steep. There is a tram available that starts at the left of the dock for those who need a lift to the top. The road surfaces are uneven so Alcatraz is not a place to show off your new high heeled shoes, nor for that matter is much of the hilly city.
The only smoking allowed on the island is in a designated area to the left of the dock.
When we visited, we learned about a Ranger talk which was happening immediately in the dining hall of the cellblock where the ranger was talking about the myths of Alcatraz. We learned from ranger Roger Goldberg that Hollywood got a lot of things wrong:
- In the movie The Rock, they climbed up the sewers, which are in reality only 8 inches across.
- The “Birdman of Alcatraz” Robert Stroud, kept no birds during his incarceration on the island, although he did raise canaries during his previous stay at Leavenworth.
- While Escape from Alcatraz showed a successful escape from the prison, after considerable research, the rangers of the National Park service find it unlikely.
Hollywood’s love for Alcatraz goes beyond the myths and movies it created about the island. The sound of heavy metal doors in Alcatraz slamming shut was used in both Jurassic Park and Star Wars.
Goldberg also said that he has never seen any ghosts on the island despite how creepy it can get at night. He has, â€œseen nothing weird that didn’t come in on the visitor boatâ€. Although he did grant that he had seen a lot that was weird coming in on the visitor boat.
Before the U.S. Army made Alcatraz into a fort, the island was a barren rock. That is not to say that the island lacked for life. Because there have never been sources of water on the island, birdlife flourished there. There were no predators that could survive there.
Alcatraz still has many birds. From the boat landing to your left is a trail called the Agave Trail. This area leads through an area that is covered with spiky agave plants. It is closed through much of the year except late September to the start of February because this area is where sea birds still nest.
The most substantial transformation of Alcatraz was done by the U.S. Army. The land was set aside for military use in 1850, the year that California became a state. Construction of a fort on Alcatraz started in 1853 and lasted for 5 years. Alcatraz had large cannons that could fire up to 3 miles, all the way to the Golden Gate (long before the bridge was built). It combined with forts at Fort Point (south of the mouth of the harbor) and Lime Point (north of the mouth of the harbor) to protect the harbor from any possible invasion. None ever came.
It was during this period that the army brought soil to Alcatraz and the gardens, trees, and other plants that grow on the island were all introduced in this period or later.
The last guns of Fortress Alcatraz were melted down in a scrap metal drive during WWII, but there is a replica of one of these large guns at Pier 33. The guns were positioned on rotating carriages.
As you get off the boat at Alcatraz there is a 4 story building in front of you. What looks like windows on the first floor are actually the casemates that held these large guns. This part of the building has 10-foot thick brick walls. The upper floors were added later. It is in these casemates that the introductory video is shown.
The lighthouse on Alcatraz was completed in 1854 and was the first built on the west coast of the United States. During the filming of the movie “The Rock”, the movie studio built a second lighthouse on the island that was blown up at the end of the film production.
As you walk from the dock up the hill you will pass through a tunnel through the brick building. This sally port was the defensible gate of Fortress Alcatraz.
When the Civil War broke out in 1861 Alcatraz was used to imprison Confederate sympathizers, privateers, and prisoners of war. After the war, the fortifications of Alcatraz were becoming obsolete but it became used increasingly to house military prisoners. In 1867 the first brick jailhouse was built and then in 1909, the main cell block which dominates the island was built both for and by military prisoners.
â€œToday he will be transported to the healthful but breezy atmosphere of Alcatraz Island, where he can ruminate, ad nauseum and chew the bitter end of treason.â€
-Daily Alta, on the arrest of a confederate sympathiser (1862)
The island was abandoned by the military because it was expensive to operate on an island where even freshwater had to be shipped in by barge. It was transferred by the army to the recently created Federal Bureau of Prisons in 1933.
The Federal Bureau of Prisons was created in response to the crime wave that swept the country in the early 1930s. The Great Depression and Prohibition produced gangsters like Al Capone and Machine Gun Kelly that ended up on Alcatraz.
The highlight of a visit to Alcatraz is the included audio tour which features the time period from 1934 to 1963 when Alcatraz was the most notorious prison in the United States. The audio tour is about an hour and fifteen minutes long but seems much shorter as this engaging program sets the standard for what an audio program should be.
The tour is narrated by four former guards, four former inmates, and one woman who grew up on the island as the daughter of an assistant warden. The tour guides you through the cell block in one continuous program rather than entering in numbers for the different stops like most audio programs. You can bring your own earbuds if you prefer as the audio player has a standard audio mini-jack.
You will pick up your audio guide just after you enter the main cell block in a large room that housed the showers and the laundry distribution.
From there you will climb the stairs to the main cell block. The cell block has three tiers but you will stay on the lower level.
The tour begins with the quote “Keep your mouth shut and keep your back to the wall” as it introduces you to the life of a prisoner.
Every prisoner in Alcatraz had their own cell. This was an idea that came from the Quakers. The idea was supposed to give prisoners the chance for quiet meditation. It is not clear that the average prisoner was well suited for quiet meditation.
Time outside and even getting mail was a privilege that had to be earned. There were 4 different blocks of cells with C block being the most desirable and D block, being cold and miserable. D block is also where you will find the isolation cells where prisoners would often be kept in complete darkness for days on end.
The tour highlights two of the most famous escape attempts that occurred. In the first one, a prisoner made a homemade bar spreader and managed to break into the gun gallery and overpower a guard. The officers who walked the tiers never carried guns, but the prison was built so that guards at the ends of the tiers could fire down on the prisoners if needed.
The would-be escapees captured some of the guards but the guard who had the key they needed to exit the building managed to keep the key hidden. With the escape foiled it turned into a 3-day siege known as the “Battle of Alcatraz”. After 3 days the prison was taken back by U.S. marines. The prison floor still bears the scars of grenades dropped from holes in the roof.
The other famous escape was the one dramatized in “Escape from Alcatraz”. 3 prisoners carved dummy heads which were left in their beds. Using stolen spoons from the dining hall they opened up the grate at the back of their cell to access a utility corridor. They climbed from here to the roof and eventually made it to the water’s edge. They had created homemade life jackets. After they entered the water they were not seen again.
Perhaps they made it to freedom, but the cold waters and the prevailing currents more likely carried them out to sea as far as the National Park Service is concerned.
Alcatraz is not that far from the shores of San Francisco. One of the former inmates commented in the audio tour that you could often hear music or even laughter coming from San Francisco. One of the cruel features of the prison was that you could hear the life you were missing.
Inside the casemates building is a small museum about the history of prisons in the United States. The museum won’t take that long to visit and is worth the effort.
Eventually, the prison was closed because Alcatraz cost more than 3 times as much as some other prisons to operate. The prison had reached the point where it needed significant repairs and the Federal Bureau of Prisons did not think it was worth the expense.
â€œIt’s mighty good to get up and leave. This Rock ain’t good for nobody.â€
-Frank Weatherman, last con to leave (1963)
Alcatraz was occupied by Native American protestors in 1964 and then from 1969 to 1971. They were protesting the treatment of their people by the federal government. At first, the group was mostly local college students who called themselves United Indians of All Tribes. They claimed the land under the 1868 Treaty of Fort Laramie which promised to return abandoned federal lands to the native people from whom they had acquired it (despite the fact that no native people had lived on the island, except as prisoners of war during its time as a military prison).
They said that Alcatraz reminded them of an Indian reservation because “it is isolated from modern facilities, the soil is rocky and unproductive, and the land does not support game.”
The island still has graffiti that dates from this period including most notably on the sign near the dock and on the water tower.
While the plans to turn the island into a university and cultural center for Native Americans did not happen, native groups do still hold ceremonies at sunrise on Columbus Day and Thanksgiving.
A one-room museum in the casemates building documents the history of the occupation.
Unfortunately, the old warden’s house burned down during the time of the occupation.
After initial positive public support, eventually, the public support and the numbers of protesters diminished. Federal marshals removed the last remaining protesters in June of 1971.
After the Indian protests ended, the General Services Administration began to bulldoze the buildings. They started with the former officers quarters (which have now become gardens). They were stopped from tearing down the rest of the buildings when the island was added to the Golden Gate National Recreation Area in 1972. It has been administered by the National Park system ever since.
If you need a stamp for your National Park Passport, the bookstore at the dock has one stamp and the visitor’s information window to the right as a greater variety.
Allow at least 3 hours to tour Alcatraz including the time to get back and forth on the boat. Your ticket will include a time for the boat going over, but you can grab whichever boat you want for the return trip. The last boat departs for those on a day tour at 4:25 PM. There are also guided night tours of the island.
Alcatraz is an amazing National Park and one of San Francisco’s unique attractions.
My most recent visit was sponsored by Alcatraz Cruises and the Parc 55 Hotel. We also saw a temporary exhibit on Alcatraz Alcatraz: Life on the Rock at the Hilton Union Square & Parc 55 hotels.