Alcatraz. One of several locations in the San Francisco Bay Area that have been gathered up into the new Golden Gate National Parks. It has been open to the public for tours since 1973 and has become one of the most popular destinations for tourists visiting San Francisco.
Alcatraz Island was once a lonely maximum security prison which housed America’s most wanted criminals for 29 years, and whose population, including guards and staff, never rose above 500. Now it is San Francisco’s most popular attraction, with over a million temporary “residents” a year. Its location made hard to miss when the Spaniards started their explorations starting in 1769. One of them named it “Isla de los Alcatraces” after the Pelicans who resided there in great numbers. The first lighthouse on North America’s West Coast was finished in 1854, and it became an Army artillery garrison in 1859. During the 1906 earthquake, San Francisco’s municipal jail was damaged, and the prisoners were transferred to Alcatraz for safe-keeping. It became an official Army prison in 1917.
It was converted into a Federal Penitentiary in 1934, with some “privileged” Army inmates being invited to stay over. Its state of the art facilities and its location over a mile from shore surrounded by the chilly and choppy waters of San Francisco Bay were intended to make it “escape-proof”. There were no successful, proven escapes, though there were frequent attempts, most ending in recapture or death. Two men did disappear from the island in 1962, but the FBI ruled that they did not survive. The idea that its isolation would make it extremely secure also made it very expensive to run, and it was closed in 1963 after only 29 years of operation.
It was abandoned, but not for very long. In 1969, the American Indian Movement made a well publicized 18-month “reclamation” or occupation. After the initial interest waned, many participants wandered back to the mainland, and the final holdouts were forcibly removed in 1971. The Golden Gate National Recreation Area was created in 1972, including Alcatraz, and it was opened to the public in 1973.
But people are lining up every day to get back in! One cruise company is licensed by the National Park Service to ferry people across the Bay to take a self-guided walking tour of “the Rock”. You depart from San Francisco’s beautiful Embarcadero, on the east end of Fisherman’s Wharf, and start your Alcatraz Cruise. When you get there, you may watch a short video, and then listen to the “Doing Time” audio tour, featuring the recorded voices of guards and prisoners who actually did time. You should allow for at least 2.5 hours, including the round trip ferry ride, and that is really the bare minimum. Many people stay longer, because it’s up to the individual, and very interesting. Some might even want to stay over night, but there is no camping allowed, and it gets pretty spooky there at night – some would even say hauntingly so! Ferries depart for San Francisco every 30 minutes, so you leave the island when you want to. Wear warm clothes in layers, because the ocean breezes can be notoriously chilly any day of the year.