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Monday, August 16, 2010

San Francisco Trip Part Two - Alcatraz Island

On August 11th and 12th, 2010, I had the opportunity to visit San Francisco, California. This post is Part Two of a Two-Part trip report (See Pt. I here). After exploring the Marin Headlands in Northern San Francisco, including a trip down the side of a mountain through unidentified vegetation, I rushed over to Pier 33 in hopes of making it in time for the boat to Alcatraz Island...

Standing in line at Pier 33 was one of the rare moments in the trip that wasn't lost in a blur of rushing around from one place to the next. I checked with the desk and my spot was confirmed. I made it. Back at home before I left, I made the painful realization that Alcatraz was sold out for the duration of this trip. The infamous island prison that I had dreamed about since I was young was shutting me out. It wasn't until I had already left Saint Louis and was en route to San Francisco that my amazing girlfriend was able to snatch up a cancelled ticket as part of their first-come, first-serve policy. Alcatraz turned out to be the best part of the trip and one of my all time favorite locations that I've ever explored.

I wasn't planning to explore Alcatraz. I was just happy to be on this tour and I was going to enjoy it regardless... But then I came to my senses when an opportunity presented itself. Before I knew it, I was out of bounds and needed to either proceed further in order to get out of sight or come back the way I came and try to sneak back into the group, which in itself was risky. I chose the former option and soon found myself exploring a set of abandoned buildings whose familiar moldy and decaying aesthetic was spiced up with the added flavors of exotic coastal saltwater and extra risk. Alone, I carefully navigated every accessible portion of the building and I did my best to stay out of sight. But there were people everywhere outside and at one point I failed to remain inconspicuous when I caught the concerned glance of a tourist. Her expression signaled to me that I might just be in a lot of trouble soon, so I disappeared further into the labyrinth to continue adventuring out of sight. I became pretty worried that I'd soon hear footsteps in some corner of the building that weren't my own and I needed to find a discreet way back into the crowds. I just happened to be passing by a window (facing the alley in which I was spotted earlier) when a Park Ranger entered the scene. I was extremely anxious and mad at mysef because I hadn't even been inside the prison yet and had barely seen any of the island at all. I was holding my breath as I watched him through a dirty old window. I tried slowly backing away from the window to expose less of my silhouette to his peripheral, but my jacket was caught on some stupid metal mesh material sticking out of the wall and it was prohibitively noisy. All I could do at this point was stand perfectly still and accept my fate. The guard stopped and looked in my direction and then to the left. He pointed a flashlight in a few dark corners and then he walked down the same route we had both taken earlier.

After exhausting the navigable portions of this off-limits corner of the island, I decided that I had better see the prison before I get caught somewhere else and thus ruin my once in a lifetime chance to see the infamous Alcatraz that I came here for. I soon learned that the only way to get pictures of this place without herds of tourists ruining every possible shot is to be the only one there.

History of Alcatraz

There are a gazillion websites which already exist that go into great detail on the history of Alcatraz, so I will simply provide a brief summary here.

Alcatraz was first documented by Europeans in 1775 when Spanish explorer Juan Manuel de Ayala charted the bay area. Alcatraz island at the time was named "La Isla de los Alcatraces". Alcatraz is an old Spanish word which means "pelicans" and was so named due to the large population of the birds which inhabited the island. In 1846, the United States purchased the island for $5,000 and in 1850, President Millard Fillmore ordered the island to be set aside as a miliary reservation following the acquisistion of California from Mexico as a result of the Mexican-American war. Beginning in 1853, Alcatraz island was built up as a military fortress with the construction of the "Citadel" and by the American Civil War, the island was covered by more than 100 canons and was simultaneously being used as a miliary prison.

In 1909, the Citadel was demolished down to the first floor for construction of the main cell block which was completed in 1912. This new prison was designated as the U.S. Disciplinary Barracks for the U.S. Army, Pacific Branch. It served in this role until October 12, 1933 when the Army's 80-year ownership of the island ended with its transferral to the U.S. Department of Justice.

On August 11, 1934, Alcatraz Federal Penitentiary received its first prisoners from Leavenworth and for the remainder of its 29 years as a maximum security prison it specifically housed the most difficult/notorious criminals of the time. Notable among them were Al Capone, "Machine Gun" Kelly, Alvin Karpis, "Doc" Barker and Whitey Bulger. There were 14 escape attempts which resulted in six prisoners shot and killed and five listed as "missing and presumed drowned". The most notable attempt was carried out by Frank Morris and John and Clarence Anglin on June 11, 1962. The "official" results of their escape is missing/drowned, but it remains unknown/entirely possible they survived.

On March 21, 1963, less than one year after the last escape attempt, Alcatraz was shut down. Alcatraz remained abandoned for about 10 years following its closure until 1973 when it was opened to the public as part of the National Park Service.

Source: Bureau of Prisons, Wikipedia. All historic photos are courtesy of San Francisco History Center, San Francisco Public Library, Library of Congress, the National Park Service, the Associated Press and Getty Images.

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Alcatraz Penitentiary Historic Photos

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