Alcatraz Island is the most visited attraction in San Francisco, entertaining over 1.3 million visitors every year. The Los Angeles Times declared it the seventh most popular landmark in the world (06.16.15).
Every day one boat after another leaves Pier 33 loaded with Alcatraz-bound tourists who are curious to visit the famous prison, learn the notorious history. As a San Francisco resident I had already visited here, then returned one day in 2014 to study the setting for a scene in my novel.
How Alcatraz began. After gold was discovered in California in 1848, prospectors, businessmen, and families arrived here in droves. It was determined then that the increased value–millions of dollars worth of mined gold–created a need for defense and protection.
Thereafter it became a:
- Fortress and military installation (1853-1933) ;
- Federal Penitentiary (1933
- Native American protest occupation (1964, 1969-1971)
- U.S. National Park (1972-present)
Touring “The Rock” requires reservations and involves a fun ten-minute boat ride on the San Francisco Bay.
Visitors take a self-guided tour with audio tapes narrated by prison guards. You can stay at the island all day until the last boat departure, but most people stay a few hours.
In addition to being a tourist prison island, Alcatraz (the Spanish word for “pelican”) is also a prominent site for nesting birds; and has tide pools, sea mammals and other wildlife, even glowing millipedes.
The day we were there we saw Anna’s hummingbirds, a variety of sparrows, plenty of gulls and cormorants.
The boat drops you off at the dock, a ranger gives you an overview of the facility and the rules. There’s a steep walk up to the prison, passing by old military gunnery, the water tower and guard towers, other old buildings, and gardens.
All the photos here are from that October day when I went to observe and take notes. Golden Gate Graveyard readers will recognize some of these sights from the Alcatraz scene.
Once you get up to the cell blocks, you can walk around inside the prison, see where prisoners showered, slept, and ate. Outside you view the warden’s half-burned house, the lighthouse, beautiful views of San Francisco and other sites.
Having written and researched a lot of history about San Francisco for this novel, I find two things especially fascinating: over the years once-serious facilities, like Alcatraz, have turned into frolicking tourist attractions. And how curious it is to witness visitors’ intrigue and animation at this decrepit and defunct old prison.
The prison has been extensively featured in books (ahem), films, video games, TV series, and more. A popular new Alcatraz-related attraction is the Escape Alcatraz Drop Ride at the San Francisco Dungeon. It is a stomach-dropping ride simulating an attempted escape.
All modern-day Alcatraz folklore stems from the inescapability of this maximum security prison. It was long touted as the place from which no man ever left alive.
But is that true? Over 50 years after three prisoners escaped and their bodies were never found, there is still speculation and “Search for the Truth” documentaries. I recently watched a 1979 film starring Clint Eastwood called “Escape from Alcatraz.” It’s pretty good, shows life on The Rock and is based on the actual escape.
For an old prison that hasn’t seen a prisoner in over half a century, Alcatraz sure is a lively place. I’m happy it makes for good fiction.
Photo credit: Athena Alexander
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