Now that I’ve shown you a 360-degree view of Alcatraz Island from San Francisco Bay, it’s time to finally set foot on The Rock! In this post, you’ll be following me up the main road to and around the prison, and I’ll be pointing out the buildings and sites as we go.
As an overview of our “tour,” here is an aerial photo from Wikimedia. I have added the locations that you will be seeing along our walk, starting at the dock near the top left.
Get your walking shoes on, because as you saw from my first post, the island is fairly large, not to mention that the road to the prison is one large incline! Ready? Off we go!
On the Dock
Alcatraz was originally a military fort. Spurred by the dramatic increase in San Francisco’s ship traffic and population during the Gold Rush, fortification of the island was part of a three-point defensive strategy for San Francisco Bay. Construction began in 1853 and included bombproof dock-level brick barracks (the lowest of the four levels of the building, below). By the 1890s, advancing military technology made Alcatraz’s fortifications obsolete. The fort was decommissioned, regular army troops were replaced by soldiers of the U.S. Military Guard, and Alcatraz became a military prison. In 1905, three additional stories were added to the dock-level barracks to serve as quarters for soldiers assigned to prison guard duty. The finished building became known as Building 64. When Alcatraz became a federal penitentiary in 1934, the building was remodeled into apartments for correctional officers and their families.
The lighthouse and burned-out shell of the warden’s home are to the left.
The sign reads:
“United States Penitentiary. Alcatraz Island. Area 12 acres. 1-1/2 miles to transport dock. Only government boats permitted. Others must keep off 200 yards. No one allowed ashore without a pass.”
Visitors are required to listen to a short ranger-led introduction to the island before beginning the climb to the prison. I had done my research and quietly moved ahead of the crowd toward the road, hoping to be among the first to get to the cellblock to capture a photo without the crowds.
The Climb Begins
From the dock to the cell house at the top of the island is about 1/4 mile. That’s not far. But (and this is a big “but”), the elevation change is 130 feet, equivalent to a 13-story climb. I was already wearing a knee brace as a result of my walk around San Francisco the prior day. This was going to prove challenging.
Sally Port and Guardhouse
By the time the Civil War broke out in 1861, Alcatraz had 111 cannon, gun emplacements, and a fortified gateway (sally port) protecting the road to the three-story fortification on the island’s summit, “The Citadel.” It was the most heavily fortified military post of its time on the West Coast. The guardhouse could only be reached by an oak drawbridge that spanned a 15-foot-deep dry moat. If attackers made it past the moat, they had to negotiate the sally port, a passageway with heavy iron-studded wooden doors at each end and lines of rifle slits between the two doors.
The sally port was never used to protect the island, and during the Civil War, the gun rooms and basement were converted into prison cells for soldiers convicted of desertion, theft, assault, rape, and murder and for citizens accused of treason. When Alcatraz was designated a military prison in 1907, the guardhouse was completely enclosed. It remains the oldest building on the island (built in 1857).
Post Exchange/Officers’ Club
Built in 1910, the Alcatraz Post Exchange (PX) was the local general store where soldiers and their families could buy food and personal goods. When Alcatraz became a federal prison in 1934, the PX was converted into a recreation hall and officer’s club. It boasted a dance floor, gym, two-lane bowling alley, and soda fountain. It was destroyed by fire in June 1970.
Looking down from the road’s second switchback to the Dock Tower and an approaching Alcatraz ferry.
Increasing maintenance and operating costs led then-U.S. Attorney General Robert F. Kennedy to close Alcatraz in 1963. It sat dormant until the tail end of the 1960s, when a group of Native American activists landed on the island and claimed it in the name of the “Indians of All Tribes.” The occupiers wanted to focus attention on broken treaties and the closing by the government of Native American reservations. Their intent was to convert the prison buildings into a Native American cultural center and museum. They lived on Alcatraz from November 1969 to June 1971 (19 months), largely without power and running water, until their numbers dwindled to the point where government officials were able to end the occupation. The graffiti on the water tower is one of the few remaining remnants of that time. Painted in red are the words: “Peace and Freedom. Welcome. Home of the Free Indian Land.”
Approaching the Cellhouse Tour Entrance
Continuing on the main road in lieu of proceeding to the tour entrance brings you to the warden’s house and the lighthouse.
The warden’s house was built in 1926 when Alcatraz was a military prison and served as the residence of the U.S. Army Commandant. It had seventeen large rooms with sweeping views of San Francisco and the bay. Here, you can see a portion of the San Francisco-Oakland Bay Bridge in the distance. The abandoned building was destroyed by fire in 1970.
On June 1, 1854, in response to the increasing ship traffic of the Gold Rush and because Alcatraz was squarely in line with passage through the Golden Gate, the island became home to the first lighthouse in operation on the Pacific Coast. Today’s 84-foot concrete lighthouse replaced the original in 1909. Keepers lived in a home at its base until 1963, when the lighthouse was automated. The keeper’s quarters was another one of the buildings destroyed by fire in 1970, but the light, operated by the U.S. Coast Guard, continues to provide a beacon to ships in the bay.
Originally used as a site for military reviews and parades, the Parade Ground was used as a playground and to host special events during the time Alcatraz was a federal prison. As Building 64 began to fall into disrepair, residence housing was built around the perimeter of the ground, along with gardens and handball and weightlifting facilities for the employees and their families. After the prison closed in 1963, these buildings were demolished. Foundation marks are still visible.
Unfortunately, the grounds were closed to visitors on my visit.
Lying behind the lighthouse is the entrance to the prison, where the main administration block of the cellhouse was located. Here was the warden’s office, offices of the associate warden and secretary, mail desk, captain’s desk, a business office, a clerk’s office, an accounting office, a control room, the officer’s lounge, armory and vault, and a visitation center and restrooms.
Once I recovered from walking the 1/4-mile, 13-story climb to the “top” of the island, I continued past the cellblock entrance and found West Road, a walkway that led me around the western border of the island boasting displays of exotic trees, flowers, and shrubs, as well as spectacular views of the Golden Gate Bridge.
More than 200 species or varieties of plants have been introduced to Alcatraz since the late 1800s. Poppies, roses, nasturtium, fuchsia, pelargonium, and aeonium are just a few that can be found here. Tended to by military officers, wardens, and prisoners, the gardens were carefully cultivated to brighten up the otherwise forlorn setting that was Alcatraz. The gardens were neglected for forty years after the prison’s closure, but today, volunteers from the Garden Conservancy, Golden Gate National Parks Conservancy, and the National Park Service are slowly restoring and reviving the gardens.
Gardens on the western side of the island were tended to by inmate Eliot Michener from 1941-1950, where he created a free-flowing, cottage-garden style, terraced display. He also built the small tool shed on the right. The Garden Conservancy’s project manager for the restoration designed the restored garden, using annuals mixed with perennials that closely represent those Michener chose more than 60 years ago.
At the end of the walkway is a sign pointing the way to a very steep staircase that leads to an entrance to the prison’s recreation yard.
Though not the best picture as I caught too much sun flare, I wanted to include it to give you some idea of what the yard looked like. You can see two people hanging off the exterior of what is the hospital and cafeteria wing of the prison (I have no idea what they were doing there). And if you look for the people walking down the steps just to the right, you will see a doorway at the top of those steps – this leads directly into the cellblock and was the door used by the inmates to get into the yard.
Model Industries Building
The Model Industries Building lies at the end of East Road on the northwest corner of the island. Here, prisoners worked to earn money. It housed a laundry room, reportedly the largest on the west coast, providing laundry services to all military bases in the San Francisco Bay area. The top floor was a workshop where prisoners operated a furniture and refinishing plant. The building was later replaced with the New Industries Building, which lies just to its left.
So, are you tired yet? I hope not, because there is so much more to go!
Next post: The Cellhouse