In 1775, a Spanish explorer by the name of Juan Manuel de Ayala mapped out several small islands in the San Francisco Bay. One small island he gave the name of Isla de los Alcatrazes, Island of the Pelicans. The land was barren with no beaches and only one spot to dock a boat. Today that island holds the name of Alcatraz Island. A name that once struck horror and sadness in people’s hearts. Alcatraz was uninhabitable until 1850 when the U.S. military installed roughly 100 canons and west coasts first operational lighthouse, along with a rough and tumble military prison. 1912 saw further developments as inmate labor was used to build a 600 cell structure. At the time it was the largest reinforced concrete structure. The military used it until 1933 when they transferred the island in to the keeping of the United States Justice Department, and by 1934 it was operating as a maximum security prison for inmates who were considered the most dangerous. The year of 1963 marked the end of the Alcatraz Prison due to the massive operating costs, everything had to be shipped into the island, and the fast deteriorating concrete structure. The surrounding salt waters may have convinced the majority of inmates not to risk escape, but it also corrodes and weakens the concrete.
Now anyone willing to wait in long lines and shell out a small chunk of change can visit The Rock that is run by the California Park Service. A short boat ride in the choppy waters of San Francisco Bay will get you on the Alcatraz dock. The same dock that was used to off load men such as Al ‘Scarface’ Capone and Robert ‘Birdman’ Stround. The tour starts with a quick and very brief history by someone from the park service and then the walk up a steep hill to the mostly abandoned buildings. It truly felt like I was walking back in time, traveling the same paths as infamous hardened criminals. Trying to imagine the uncertainty, fear and maybe hopefully regret for their past deeds, as these men entered the barren and unforgiving prison. Rows and rows of dull tiny cells holding nothing by a tiny cot, toilet and sink. The vastness of the prison structure, the smell of dust and dirt and the sight of peeling paint is just incredible to view. The sounds of people walking and talking echoed through out the main block, and everywhere you turned rusted metal bars covering windows and doorways. The isolation cells were the worst. Black holes of desperation and horror. The main block houses the prison cells, wardens office, the inmates library, and cafeteria. It takes some time to explore the prison and learn the history of not only the buildings but also some history on the inmates who lived in these walls. There are more buildings, in various states of ruin, along the rocky island. The men whose jobs it was to watch and control inmates also lived on the island along with their wives and children. Two apartment buildings, one for family’s the other for bachelors, a hospital, the Wardens private residence, a building for the officer’s club, and the power building are some that were located on the island that is only 22 acres.
With only one way on or off Alcatraz Island, some inmates desperate to escape still tried to brave the frigid waters of San Francisco Bay. A total of 36 inmates tried to escape in fourteen known attempts between 1934 and 1963. Of the 36 inmates 23 were captured, 6 of them were shot and killed, 2 men were pulled out of the bay after drowning, and 5 men are unaccounted for, presumed to have drowned. Is it possible for anyone to swim in the cold, rough waters of the Bay? Yes, it is. Starting in the 1980’s a yearly event started of swimming in the bay from the prison to the mainland. Could those 5 inmates swim and survive without extensive training? I think they could have.
This is a wonderful island to visit for adults and children alike. There are not many historic places that are left in America where you can get up close and personal with the dark side of prison life. Too many times I see investors and business people push for new everything, railroading and destroying our historic buildings, forgetting our past all for the sake of what? A new sterile building, and a little more money in their pockets. We should preserve these buildings not just for ourselves but for our children. History should be something we can see, touch and feel, not a picture in a book soon forgotten.
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Next week will be all about the white sandy beaches of Pensacola, Florida and Gulf Shores.