Northern California- Day Fourteen (part one)

On my last full day in Northern California, I had a tour booked of possibly San Francisco’s most famous landmark outside of the Golden Gate Bridge, Alcatraz. 
A testament to it’s popularity, tours of Alcatraz should be booked well in advance. I booked mine shortly after booking my flight to California a few weeks earlier so I could be on the first boat of the day and avoid the bulk of the tourist crowds. 
Alcatraz Tours, the National Park Service’s concessionaire for Island transportation, leaves from Dock 33 along San Francisco’s waterfront. This Sunday morning I was on the 9:15 boat, and it was completely full. Upon arrival at the island, the crowd was met by a ranger who gave a short lecture on all of the rules and regulations on the island.
I hurried up the hill to the main prison. I was among the first people to make it in and pick up the audio guide.
I had heard many rave reviews of the park’s audio guide. Each visitor is given one as they enter and the program that plays through the headphones guides you around the prison building. The program is narrated by former prison guards and some former inmates that spent time on ‘The Rock’. The program deserves all of the praise it has received, as it is excellent and entertaining. There were a couple of times I got turned around by the directions, but I was always able to find the right way. 
The tour started with the main corridors and the exercise yard. There were some cells that had been restored to what they would have looked like during the period when Alcatraz was the most feared of prisons. It was in use from 1934 to 1963. There were many escape attempts, but the audio guide focused on two in particular. The most violent one took place in May of 1946 when six inmates killed two guards in the failed attempt. One inmate died in what was referred to as ‘The Battle of Alcatraz’, and two other were later executed for their roles in the violence.
One of the most fascinating parts of the prison were the isolation cells, where inmates were punished for bad behavior by being forced to stay in dark cells no more than seven feet by three feet.
In this area was a display which showed some of Alcatraz’ most famous and notorious inmates, including Al Capone, Robert ‘Birdman’ Stroud, and George ‘Machine Gun’ Kelly.
The audio tour guided me outside to see the ruins of the warden’s residence (directly above) and a stunning view of San Francisco. That view must have been added torture on the inmates housed here.
The story of the Alcatraz’ most famous escape is saved for later in the tour. The June 1962 escape of Frank Morris and the Anglin Brothers was told in the film, Escape from Alcatraz, a movie I had seen as a young man and one that had always captured my imagination. Whether the men actually made it safely to land or drown in the bay has been a hotly contested issue for many years. The official investigation listed the men as drowned, but most independent investigations, including the film imply that the three made it safely to Angel Island.
I took the boat back to San Francisco around 11:00 AM. and walked over to the Coit Tower. Built on Telegraph Hill in 1933 by a wealthy San Francisco socialite to honor the city’s firefighters. The tower itself was built to resemble the nozzle of a firehose. Today the 210 foot tower gives fantastic views over the city and bay.
Looking East
Alcatraz Island
The Bay Bridge and Treasure Island
The Ferry Building
Transamerica Tower
The Crooked Street – Lombard Street
Washington Square Park
The views of San Francisco are worth the hike uphill, but the murals in the lobby are an added bonus. Done as a project funded by FDR’s New Deal, they depict typical scenes from around San Francisco during the 1930s. 

I walked down the hill toward Chinatown, for a memorable lunch and last afternoon in the city by the bay, which I’ll go in to in detail in the next post.

2 Responses to “Northern California- Day Fourteen (part one)”

  1. The weird thing is that we never visited Alcatraz, even though we spent years in the bay area and a year living in San Francisco. I've always wanted to, though!

  2. Audrey says:

    Great post! I visited Alcatraz as a teenager so I didn't exactly pay a lot of attention…but I do remember looking out of one of the jail windows and seeing San Francisco's beautiful skyline, and thinking how miserable it would be to be trapped in Alcatraz for the rest of your life. Your photo of the skyline reminded me of that.

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