You can’t just go to Alcatraz when you fancy, there is a ticket system and you need to apply, there are only a certain amount of tickets sold per day so the best thing to do once you get to San Francisco is go online and book your tickets through the official Alcatraz Company, which I did. I booked to take little Finbarr as I was looking after him for the day, he has been many times before but always enjoys going there.
We set off at 9am on the express bus downtown ready for our 11.30 sailing. Finbarr wanted to call and see his dad on the way who works on the Wharf and he wanted to go and see the sea lions on Pier 39. We had just enough time to do both and today the Sea Lions were very boisterous, jumping on and off the pontoons en masse. I took more videos to send home for the grandkids.
We made our way to Pier 33 which is where the Alcatraz cruises go from and Finbarr was quite excited because they let us go in the front of the line because I had my crutch, it is very handy having this, I get to the front in the airport or on any transport queue, I might just keep it when my leg is fully better lol!
Our ferry took 15 minutes to get to Alcatraz which is much bigger than it seems as you approach, it is a fascinating place and I really enjoyed learning about how the convicts lived, only the very worst criminals were sent to Alcatraz, among the most famous is gangster Al “Scarface” Capone involved in the Valentine’s Day Massacre in Chicago, and murderer Robert “Birdman of Alcatraz” Stroud.
Alcatraz was a prison from 1934 to 1963 and although many attempts were made to escape the Rock as it was known when in use, no one was successful apart from maybe the three “dummy head” escapees who made it off the Rock but were never seen again, many think they perished at sea. This story was immortalised in the film “Escape from Alcatraz” starring Clint Eastwood! They took a whole year to prepare for this escape using spoon handles and old discarded blades to chip away at the wall vents and made the dummy heads from soap, toilet paper and their own cut off hair, the feat in itself was unbelievable because of the strict regime that existed at Alcatraz!
There were 36 prisoners who tried to escape the Rock over the years, 23 were recaptured, 6 were shot dead, 2 drowned and the other five were part of the same breakout in 1962 which included the Anglin Brothers, Allen West and Frank Morris. Although West was initially involved he did not make it and ended up telling the wardens all about the plan in exchange for a pardon.
While you walk around the Island at your own pace there is an audio guide to listen to, you pick up the audio guide from the old showers the inmates used which is a large open trough with shower pipes spaced evenly along a long track, there used to by cubicles but due to frequent attacks they had to all shower in the open so the guards could see what was happening.
The cells are tiny and consist of a small toilet, small sink, a bed, and two foldable platforms at different heights to be used as a table and chair, some of the longer standing prisoners were allowed to use the library and read as many books as they liked , they were also allowed crafts like crocheting, and often crocheted blankets.
The prison blocks are three stories high and some are named after places in America, like Michigan Avenue, or Broadway while others were just called D block. While the prisoners were locked up in their cells at night, sometimes when the wind was blowing in the right direction they could hear the parties taking place on the big boats in the marina and on the mainland. Having to look out across the bay at the wonderful skyline of San Francisco must have been torment for them too, they were allowed out during the day in the recreation yard where they were constantly reminded of what they were missing! But at least they had fantastic views!
We spent about three hours there listening to the stories and sitting out on the deck admiring the views of San Francisco, also while we were there an ex prisoner named Billy Baker otherwise known as #1259 was there signing copies of his book which tells the story of life on the Rock!
It sounded pretty horrendous living your life in this place which is how many ended their lives; I suppose they got what they deserved but omg it must have been hard.
The Governor and most of the guards also lived on the island and the children used to play on the open area at the front of the island, much has been done to enhance the island by introducing many plants there, you can walk around and look at the beautiful gardens.
After it closed in 1963 it was taken over by American Indians who were protesting about their rights being taken from them, they are a self-governing tribe and wanted to keep things this way but the American Government wanted them to fall under government rule, their protest however was successful and after spending 18 months on the island they retreated to reservations back on the mainland.
It was a very interesting trip and somewhere I have always wanted to visit since seeing the films, “Birdman of Alcatraz” and “Escape from Alcatraz”. It makes me want to watch them all over again.
After our trip we were back on the mainland by 3pm so we caught the bus to Coit Tower which is up on another hill in the middle of the city, inside there are fantastic murals by 25 of California’s leading artists of the 1930’s, some controversial depicting scenes from the Great Depression, landscapes, farm workers, industries, a stylish soiree and vibrant city life. There was too much of a queue to go up the tower so we took some pictures as the views were pretty spectacular anyway, it is built on Telegraph hill.
After Coit Tower we took the bus to the Cable Car museum only to realise that we were too late and it closed at 5pm so we got off the bus and visited the most famous ice cream shop in San Francisco, (can’t remember the name of the place but it was on Union and Hyde, think it might have been Swensen) I had Strawberry Sorbet which was delicious and Finny had Choc chip ice cream which he enjoyed immensely. We then caught the bus home after a very tiring but enjoyable day!