|Alcatrz in San Francisco|
|San Francisco Bay|
It was a crisp and foggy Wednesday when I boarded the first day’s ferry from Pier 33 to the island fortress known as Alcatraz, which sits observantly at the centre of San Francisco Bay.
Those cliché film scenes depicting an eerie morning fog, blanketing the San Franciscan harbour got it absolutely right – the ride over was gray, misty and somewhat haunting.
Stepping off the boat, the first thing you notice are the words, ‘Indians Welcome’, painted in bold, red letters on the faded yellow walls of the main prison building.
While most people are familiar with Alcatraz as a federal penitentiary, acquired by the United States Department of Justice in October 1933, it was used to hold Civil War prisoners as early as 1861.
The penitentiary closed in 1963, owing to exorbitant maintenance costs and salt water saturation damage to the island’s buildings and just one year later was used as a protest ground for Native American activists.
In the summer of 1969 a group of Native Americans occupied the abandoned island to protest federal policies and remained there for almost two years – hence the formidable painted greeting.
Alcatraz is one of the most extraordinary attractions to tour as you are free to roam about the island, discovering surprising facts and enjoying impressive, almost cinematic visuals of the Bay Area.
During the captivating audio tour, I was transformed back to the days of Capone, Machine Gun Kelly, Henri Young, Roy Gardner and Robert Stroud, the ‘Birdman of Alcatraz’.
I learnt that although Stroud developed an interest for canaries and bred birds while imprisoned at Leavenworth in Kansas, he didn’t actually live up to his nickname while serving his sentence at Alcatraz and never had any feathered companions during his 17 year stretch.
Alcatraz has been portrayed as one of America’s toughest prisons, yet after delving deep into the true history and culture of this impressive stronghold, I’ve come to realise that for the most part, compliant inmates were treated with fairness and respect.
In the mid-1800’s, Alcatraz was ordered to be set aside as a military reservation and outpost and the army barged topsoil to the island, piling it around gun emplacements to protect them from incoming shells.
The soft dirt provided the base for native Californian flora to flourish and with the assistance of inmate gardeners and correctional officers Alcatraz has become a nationally protected and evolving ecological preserve.
There were only 14 recorded federal prison-era attempted escapes from Alcatraz, with the most well known taking place in June of 1962 – Frank Morris and the Anglin brothers tunnelled out, scaled the roof and slipped into the freezing waters of the Bay.
Although their bodies were not found, they were assumed to have drowned… my theory is that they made it – the distance to the mainland is only a little over a mile and although the water would have been near-freezing – I’m confident that their fortitude would have sustained them, enabling them to reach shore.
Disagree? Take a tour to Alcatraz with Alcatraz Cruises and learn about the conditions, maladies and remarkable lifestyle that birthed the legend that is ‘The Rock’ and decide for yourself.