Visiting Alcatraz

Alcatraz Island

Alcatraz Island

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.

Alcatraz dock

Alcatraz dock

Thereafter it became a:

  1. Fortress and military installation (1853-1933) ;
  2. Federal Penitentiary (1933-1963)
  3. Native American protest occupation (1964, 1969-1971)
  4. U.S. National Park (1972-present)
Alcatraz cell block

Alcatraz cell block

Read more history, overview here.

 

Touring “The Rock” requires  reservations and involves a fun ten-minute boat ride on the San Francisco Bay.

 

More about touring here.

 

 

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.

 

Alcatraz cell

Alcatraz cell

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.

 

National Park Service nature info here.

Glowing millipedes on Alcatraz here.

 

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.

 

Alcatraz scaled model at Pier 33, Jet (in pink)scoping it out

Alcatraz scaled model at Pier 33. Jet (in sunglasses) scoping it out.

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.

 

Angel Island from Alcatraz

Angel Island from Alcatraz

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.

 

Alcatraz Control Room

Alcatraz Control Room

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.

 

Alcatraz view of San Francisco

Alcatraz view of San Francisco

 

 

Photo credit: Athena Alexander

 

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The Mission Dolores Cemetery, San Francisco

Mission Dolores, San Francisco

Mission Dolores, San Francisco

The oldest building in San Francisco, the Mission San Francisco de Asis, more commonly known as Mission Dolores, was built in San Francisco in 1776.

 

In the back, behind a white adobe wall, is the old cemetery. It is one of the quietest spots in this urban sprawl.

 

Between 1769 and 1833, 21 Spanish missions  were established by Franciscan priests throughout what was later to become the state of California. The sixth mission to be founded was the San Francisco one. The missions were the origins of the state’s communities.

 

Mission San Francisco De Asís

Old Mission on left, Basilica on right. Photo: Robert A. Estremo, courtesy Wikipedia.

More information about the missions.

 

The old San Francisco Mission has a small chapel, museum, cemetery, and tiny gift shop; the basilica next door hosts regular Catholic church services. As a city, state, and national historical landmark, it is also a popular destination for tour buses.

 

Original adobe walls, inside the Mission Dolores

Original adobe walls, inside the Mission Dolores

History of Mission Dolores here.

 

Mission Dolores, 1856. Courtesy Wikipedia.

 

 

 

 

The chapel is popular and interesting, decorated and devoted. But it is busy with tourists and sounds echo.

 

Chapel interior. Courtesy Wikipedia

The cemetery, however, is hushed–with old rose bushes, palm trees, birds, and vibrant sunshine. This is where I like to be.

 

There are only two cemeteries in San Francisco, this tiny plot is one of them. It was originally much bigger.

 

Mission Dolores Cemetery

Mission Dolores Cemetery

Today the earthquake-rippled sidewalks still lead you down a path of centuries-old gravestones. It holds the markers of San Francisco’s pioneers, leaders, old residents. There is also a revered sculpture of Father Junipero Serra.

 

I like to linger here among the broken graves with worn-off names, quietly listening to the sound of the chickadee singing overhead, feeling the penetrating warmth of the sun.

 

Mission Dolores Cemetery

Mission Dolores Cemetery

Sometimes I think about the people who shaped this city, sometimes I think about Alfred Hitchcock who filmed a scene from “Vertigo” right here, and sometimes I wonder how long it will be before my parking time runs out.

 

Photo credit: Jet Eliot unless otherwise specified

 

Golden Gate GraveyardYou can read more about Mission Dolores in my newly released mystery novel. Purchase here or at Amazon or any other major book retailer.

 

 

Remembering Pearl Harbor Day

USS Arizona Memorial, Pearl Harbor

USS Arizona Memorial, Pearl Harbor

It was 75 years ago today when the attack on Pearl Harbor occurred, launching the United States into World War II.

 

I visited this Hawaiian harbor last month.  Headquarters of the U.S. Pacific Fleet and still a U.S. naval station, it was fortunately much quieter than “the day that will live in infamy.”

 

USS Arizona, Oahu

USS Arizona, Oahu

On December 7, 1941, the United States was hit by an extensive Japanese surprise aerial attack on Oahu, Hawaii. An initial wave of 183 Japanese aircraft, launched from six aircraft carriers, attacked the U.S. naval base.  A half hour later a second wave of 167 aircraft stormed in.

 

Within 90 minutes 2,403 Americans were killed, 1,178 were wounded.

 

Here the USS Arizona battleship was bombed and sunk.  It violently exploded, tearing the ship in half, instantly entombing 1,177 military people on board.

1930’s, USS Arizona. Courtesy US Navy, Wikipedia.

 

USS Arizona, sinking, on Dec. 7, 1941. Courtesy Wikipedia.

 

 

 

 

 

Today you can take a navy boat shuttle across the peaceful harbor waters to the site of the memorial.

 

Inside the USS Arizona

Inside the USS Arizona

Built in 1962 and designed by Alfred Preis, the 184-foot-long (56 m) memorial straddles the battleship’s sunken hull. Visitors arriving by boat cross a walkway bridge and enter a large, open-air room.

 

Here you experience the whipping Pacific winds and see through an opening in the floor to the sunken battleship below where over 1,100 people lost their lives.

Diagram of the sunken USS Arizona and white (vertical, center) memorial

Diagram of the sunken USS Arizona and white (vertical, center) memorial

USS Arizona beneath the Memorial. Photo: J. Pastoric, USN. Courtesy Wikipeida.

 

 

 

 

 

In the next room is a sobering shrine, a marble wall inscribed with the names of the Arizona’s honored dead. “The Tree of Life” resides here too, it symbolizes rebirth and renewal.

 

On shore is a modern visitor center with many exhibits and displays.

 

Base of the gun turret on USS Arizona

Base of the gun turret on USS Arizona

Read more about the memorial here, and U.S. Park and visitor center here.

 

I found this moving memorial another striking reminder of the beauty of peace.

 

pearl-harbor-75-aniversary
Photo credit: Athena Alexander (unless otherwise specified)

 

 

 

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China Camp

China Camp State Park, California.

China Camp State Park, California.

Named for the fishing villages that Cantonese families established here in the 1800s, China Camp is now a California State Park and a Historical Landmark.

 

Once a prime spot for harvesting shrimp, Chinese families lived busy lives here, and before that the Miwok Indians.

 

While there was much success and enterprise in the Chinese villages here in the late 1800s, harsh anti-Chinese laws put a strain on their life in the early 1900s, forcing most villagers to disperse.

 

Sampan, old Chinese shrimp-fishing boat

Sampan, old Chinese shrimp-fishing boat

The new century brought many more changes including polluted waters, loss of shrimp, and real estate development threats.

 

By the 1970s, Gulf Oil had big plans to build high-rise condominiums and commercial establishments.

 

But the residents of the surrounding area, San Rafael, California, with conservation groups and concerned citizens, protested. As a result, the land was sold to the state of California and a park was made.

 

In the early 21st century, when California had budget crises, there was more talk of closing the park. It was running on a deficit. But this too was resolved by the heroics of residents and community organizations, who formed nonprofits and raised funds, and saved the park.

 

china-camp-sign

Chinese characters: Wa Jen Ha Lio, the fishing village’s name

China Camp history and info here.

 

The park is 1,514 acres (613 ha) on a section of the San Francisco Bay. Little kids frolic on the shoreline, people jog and walk their dogs under the oak trees, picnic on the grass.

 

There is also hiking, biking, camping, kayaking, paddle boarding and other recreational activities. Gorgeous vistas across the bay, and a healthy list of birds, too.

 

Concession Stand (still open on weekends)

Concession Stand (still open on weekends)

The village buildings have been preserved, open to the public for viewing and educational touring.

 

Gentle volunteers run the gift shop selling t-shirts, and there’s an old-fashioned concession stand with a photo inside of John Wayne who filmed a movie here with Lauren Bacall (Blood Alley).

 

The beauty that is humans reaching out, making plans, and achieving their goals is here. There have been ups and downs for centuries here, subjugation and conflict, and I suppose there will be more too.

 

China Camp overview

China Camp overview

But for today, we breathe in the briny air and soak up the California sun.

 

Photo credit: Athena Alexander

 

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Fort Point, San Francisco

Golden Gate Bridge, Fort Point left center

Golden Gate Bridge, Fort Point left center

Tucked underneath the Golden Gate Bridge is a military fort once so important to the Bay Area that the bridge was designed and built around it.

 

Today it is a national and state historical landmark, the site of tours and recreation.

 

Fort Point and Golden Gate Bridge

Fort Point and Golden Gate Bridge

In 1853 the fort was strategically built at the entrance to the San Francisco Bay to withstand any foreign attack. It first served to protect during the Gold Rush of the 1850s, then later when the Civil War broke out.

 

Built by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, there were seven-foot-thick walls; concrete fortifications; steel, breech-loading rifled guns; and 103  of the most formidable cannons of the time.

 

Fort Point entrance

Fort Point entrance

A shot was never fired and an attack never came, but over the years the fort would be used for various military needs.

 

Interestingly, this major military fortification hosted a family Halloween event last week, featuring a children’s costume parade.  Part of the mosaic of living in the 21st century.

 

More info at Wikipedia and National Park Service.

 

Fisherman at Fort Point

Fisherman at Fort Point

In the 1930s during the design phase of the bridge, there was much debate about what to do with the fort. Joseph Strauss, the lead engineer, recommended the bridge be built around the fort, so that is what was done.

 

Many movies and television shows have been filmed at this picturesque site, the most popular being Hitchcock’s “Vertigo” when Kim Novak jumped into the water and Jimmy Stewart rescued her.

 

Watch for another thrilling scene that takes place at Fort Point, in my new book available in a few days.

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Photo credit: Athena Alexander

San Francisco Bay from Fort Point

San Francisco Bay from Fort Point

 

Touring the Balclutha

Balclutha in San Francisco Bay (Alcatraz in background)

Balclutha in San Francisco Bay (Alcatraz in background)

A three-masted ship built in 1886, the Balclutha sailed the world transporting cargo for nearly 50 years.

 

Now a museum moored in the San Francisco Bay, this rugged vessel takes visitors back to seafaring days.

 

Built in Glasgow, Scotland, the Balclutha made its maiden voyage to San Francisco in 1887.  It took 140 days and a crew of 26 men to transport the cargo of 1,650 tons of coal.

 

https://www.nps.gov/safr/learn/historyculture/images/originalcrewbal_1.jpg

Original crew, 1887. Courtesy National Park Service

Coal, wine, whiskey and other European exports; wool from Australia and New Zealand; rice from Burma were all delivered to San Francisco in this ship.

 

Balclutha stern

Balclutha stern

The return trip to Europe included grain from San Francisco and timber from the Pacific Northwest.  Read more about the Balclutha here.

 

Balclutha Voyages map

Balclutha Voyages map

The ship passed through Cape Horn at the southern tip of South America 17 times in 13 years.

 

 

Balclutha deck

Balclutha deck (Golden Gate Bridge in background left)

A present-day walk on the long, wooden deck of this 301 foot (92m) ship is a humbling experience.

 

With 25 sails and a complex system of ropes and rigging, the ship traveled thousands of miles on treacherous seas completely propelled by wind.

 

The tallest mast is 145 feet (44m) high. Sailors climbed up there into the tangle of ropes to furl the sails, with gale-force winds and turbulent waters always threatening.

 

It was a tough life for sailors, working day and night on rough seas, sleeping on bunks or hammocks below deck in close quarters and filth, always away from family.

 

https://www.nps.gov/safr/learn/historyculture/images/balinheavyseas_1.jpg

Aboard the Balclutha (then named the Star of Alaska), 1919. Courtesy National Park Service

In 1954 San Francisco’s Maritime Museum bought the ship, retired and  restored it, and in 1978 it was transferred to the National Park Service.

 

Still highly celebrated, the old ship today is regularly maintained and is in excellent shape.

 

In addition to daily public tours, the ship hosts overnight field trips for regional grade school students.

 

Balclutha rigging

Balclutha rigging (swimmer in water at far right)

Also, on the first Saturday night of every month San Franciscans board the Balclutha joining in free sing-alongs of old sea chanteys.

 

A hearty ship that continues to transport imaginations and share stories of maritime life, the Balclutha is a fun San Francisco adventure.

 

Balclutha Captain's Quarters

Balclutha Captain’s Quarters

 

 

Photo credit:  Athena Alexander unless otherwise noted

 

 

 

Out of Africa

Lion cubs

Lion cubs

“You know you are truly alive when you’re living among lions.”

~~ Isak Dinesen (aka Karen Blixen), “Out of Africa”

 

On the outskirts of Nairobi is Karen Blixen’s home, the author of “Out of Africa.”

 

She lived here from 1917 to 1931.  Under pseudonym Isak Dinesen, she later wrote the autobiographical story of her adventures while living and farming in Kenya.  Published in 1937, it was later made into an award-winning film.

 

Karen Blixen Museum 05.JPG

Karen Blixen Museum, courtesy Wikipedia.

Now a museum, I visited the house on my way out to the African bush.  It is modest, of bungalow architecture, with many verandas and surrounded by gardens.

 

Museum info here and here.

 

Here Karen Blixen and her husband owned and managed a 4,500 acre farm, including a 600 acre coffee plantation.  After they separated, she ran it on her own.  More about Karen Blixen here.

 

Reticulated Giraffe, Kenya

Reticulated Giraffe, Kenya

The novel is a series of ongoing true stories about living in the African savanna; learning and adapting to the culture of tribes people; and the ups and downs of running the farm.

 

More about the book here.

 

Karen Blixen Museum

Karen Blixen Museum, courtesy Museums.or.ke

Sparks of her remarkable character show through even a century later.  A single white woman (Danish) running a plantation in Kenya, living among people of a completely different culture.

 

She embraced the local tribes people, encouraged them, set up a school for them and their children.  Kenya was under British rule then, and this kind of harmonious spirit of cooperation was not the norm.

 

Giraffe and Zebra, Africa

Giraffe and Zebra, Africa

A century later her farm is gone, and the house is no longer a lengthy horse ride into town.  Instead it is in a suburb of sprawling Nairobi, named Karen, after her.

 

But as you drive out into the wilderness, finding grazing giraffe and stalking lions, you get an easy sense of her courage and spirit.

 

“When you have caught the rhythm of Africa” she wrote, “you find out that it is the same in all her music.”

Hippopotamus, Africa

Hippopotamus, Africa

 

Karen Blixen Museum, photo by Karl Ragnar Gjertsen, Wikipedia

Photo credit:  Athena Alexander (unless otherwise noted)

Baroness Karen Blixen

Karen Blixen. Courtesy museums.or.k, Nat’l Museums of Kenya