My first visit to San Francisco I had thought that Alcatraz was an attraction I could skip out on. I’ll admit it, I was wrong. Little did I know it held deeper roots within history than just Al Capone and there was more to it than emerging with a t-shirt boasting “I Escaped the Rock.”
Touristy? Absolutely. But there’s a reason so many people visit the attraction and why we should continue to do so. The amount of languages I heard in the long zig zagging line was unparalleled. So many confused Germans, Japanese and Spanish accents being turned away because they didn’t pre-book their tickets to tours which almost always sell out ahead of time.
The day after I bought them the entire Labour Day long weekend was sold out, 20 days in advance. On board of the ferry that transports you back and forth upon the choppy water we slowly approached a ruined bastille on an island that was once the epitome of American justice. Now, in its crumbling state, deteriorating due to the salty cold Pacific air and wind, it stands as a marker of change in the history of the Bay area and America.
Alcatraz stands as a shell of a prison, an eerie burnt out beckon of the past that reaches out to us. In its faint whisper it asks us to remember. To explore. Imagine. And so I did, gladly.
Alcatraz served as a fort during the Civil War (1861-1865) and housed prisoners who had committed treason. During the war Alcatraz held over 100 canons which made San Francisco the most armed and protected area within the western USA. It all proved for not as the Bay area was not attacked nor fired any artillery. Thus began its history as a designated confinement for criminals in the 1860s and would continue for another 100 years. However, it wasn’t until 1907 when the cannons were removed that the island was officially deemed a penitentiary. It remained an imprisonment for penalized soldiers where they would retrain, work and build much of the structures you see today on the island.
You can see evidence of the Civil War era upon the island today with skeletal remains of forts now home to an overwhelming amount of seabirds who nest there each year. The birds, often giving off an ere of Hitchcock, have become a point of interest for wild life experts who study the amount of birds that return each year and count the number of eggs laid each season.
The End of the Line: The Rock
One of the main reasons tourists flock to the island is to become immersed with the historically infamous prison environment. Not only did the island house notorious criminals but also the families of guards. The children of the guards and warden would attend school upon the island and lived just above in apartment-like conditions.
What makes the Alcatraz experience worth booking are the audio guides. The audio is hosted by 4 ex-guards and 4 ex-convicts. All 8 have rubbed shoulders with some of the prisons most infamous and violent inmates.
Their stories are told while you stand in the very places important events within the prison’s history. Background noises transport you to the moments where violent escapes were attempted, onsite fights and even murders occurred and tense moments within the cafeteria took place.
It was a moving and at times chilling experience to hear both sides of the story and the events that transpired.
Native American Occupation
In 1969, after the prison was closed in 1963 and left abandoned, a group of Native American college students occupied the island for 19 months. Their local motivation was the fact that an Indian centre had burned down earlier that year. The second motivation was the fact that in 1953 the US government had began to try to further the assimilation process by shutting down reservations and driving them to more urban areas. The students hoped to draw attention to the broken treaties and the mistreatment of Native Americans over the course of history. At its height up to 400 people occupied the island without any running water or electricity. This drew attention back to the island and today you can still see signs of the occupation. Alcatraz became a guarded National Recreation Area only months after the occupation ended in 1971 but did not become a National Historic Landmark until 1986. The Native American Occupation perhaps saved the island and once again generated worldwide interest.
As I walked through the halls, stood in the solitary confinement cells, in the silent rec. yard with a distant view of San Francisco life, saw the scars of a detonated grenade from one of the escape attempts and observed the presence of various eras and generations I understood why much of Alcatraz is run by Volunteer in Parks (VIPs). Instead of or in addition to donating to the National Park you can become a VIP and help run the park, perhaps event be a guide. Other than the audio guide which explains the stories of interior while the guides passionately speak about the exterior grounds, ruins and narratives of Alcatraz’s history and future. Some set the record straight (as much as they can) and others feed into the legends of survived escapees. No one ranger/VIP tells the same stories in the same way making each visit one of kind.
Help keep this amazing landmark alive and visit it!
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