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Judy Crowell: Alcatraz — An Inescapable and Spellbinding Destination

Infamous prison in San Francisco Bay is one of America’s most-visited national park sites

Alcatraz Island in San Francisco Bay, as seen from an approaching ferry.
Alcatraz Island in San Francisco Bay, as seen from an approaching ferry. (Lisa Crowell photo)

[Click here for a related photo gallery]

Imagine a free hotel destination with guaranteed rooms with view, twenty-two-hour security, free meals, special attention given to select clientele, bars in every room, and a bird watcher’s paradise.

No reservations, no deposit required. This would have been the “Hotel Alcatraz.”

Long before Alcatraz Island became one of the most visited of America’s national park sites, this sandstone island, aka The Rock, was the site of the first lighthouse on the Pacific Coast, built in 1854.

Six years afterwards, it became a military fort until 1907, when it was deemed obsolete, reopening in 1915 as a military prison.

About 20 years later, it became Alcatraz Federal Penitentiary, a place for troublemaker prisoners, operational for 30 years until escalating costs led U.S. Attorney General Robert F. Kennedy to shut it down.

The cell of an artist inmate at Alcatraz. Click to view larger
The cell of an artist inmate at Alcatraz. (Judy Crowell photo)

Various proposals were put forward in the interim period, and an unlawful occupation by Native Americans lingered for 19 months.

In 1972, the newly created Golden Gate National Recreation Area designated it a park, and ever since visitors have been hopping aboard ferries to cross the bay and experience a symbol of America’s dark side, Alcatraz.

Disembarking, you’ll see a three-story military barracks, Building 64, with bomb-proof, 10-foot-thick brick walls.

From there, you’ll climb the steep, gravel hill to the Orientation Theater, where a 17-minute video awaits. (Trams are available at the dock.)

Brace yourself for the next stop, the cell house.

Here you will begin a self-guided tour with audio headphones narrated by former inmates, correctional officers and residents who grew up on Alcatraz Island, making for a fascinating forty-five minute recorded tour.

You tour at your own pace.

A cell block at Alcatraz. Click to view larger
A cell block at Alcatraz. (Lisa Crowell photo)

Over 1,500 inmate numbers were issued, among them Al “Scarface” Capone, Alvin “Creepy” Karpis and Robert “The Birdman” Stroud.

Thirty-six prisoners tried to escape, and all but five were recaptured or accounted for. Three who were unaccounted for were involved in the 1962 breakout immortalized in the movie “Escape From Alcatraz” with Clint Eastwood.

There were no executions, although five suicides and eight murders occurred.

This was a “Mens’ Only Club,” with the only females on the island being corrections officers’ wives and children, the latter who took a ferry every morning and night to and from school in San Francisco.

A fire in 1970 destroyed several buildings, including the PX and Officers’ Club and the Warden’s house. What remains are eerie shells, evoking imagined stories of days gone by.

The remains of the Warden’s Home and a vintage work truck. Click to view larger
The remains of the Warden’s Home and a vintage work truck. (Judy Crowell photo)

The Rock’s isolation and apparent secrecy fueled stories of miserable living conditions, but the prison was clean and the food was good, if not five-star.

It was undeniably a maximum-security prison with all the horror and scheming and downright boredom that comes with prison life…or so I’m told.

You’ll want to linger long enough to hear all these stories, but not long enough to miss the boat back to San Francisco!

Frank Weatherman, the last ‘guest’ to leave “Hotel Alcatraz” on March 21, 1963, had this to say:

“It’s mighty good to get up and leave. This Rock ain’t no good for nobody.”

But it sure makes for a fabulous day or night excursion.

— Judy Crowell is a Noozhawk contributing writer, author, freelance travel writer and Santa Barbara resident. She can be reached at .(JavaScript must be enabled to view this email address). The opinions expressed are her own.

Ferry boats make regular runs to Alcatraz from San Francisco. Click to view larger
Ferry boats make regular runs to Alcatraz from San Francisco. (Lisa Crowell photo)

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