It's nearly impossible to look out over the cold blue waters of San Francisco Bay and not be taken in by the mystery, history, and isolation of it. Alcatraz (a.k.a. The Rock) is unquestionably one of the most visible and lonely places in the United States.
While located a mere 1.5 miles off shore, it might as well as be 105 miles away. And in the 1930s when the military fortification and prison was transformed into a federal prison, the men who were housed there used to wish it was farther out too.
It was not uncommon for the sounds and smells of San Francisco's high society to reach the island, reminding the prisoners on Alcatraz of everything they had lost. There was no way off the island. And unless you believe one or two of the five men who are presumed drowned made to the other side, no one ever escaped.
"There is a number of men in the prison mat shop that are planning to escape in the near future. They intend to use the dust masks that those men use while working cutting tires. They can make a regular diving mask out of them very easily." — #156 Frank Gouker
The opening lines of a letter, dated Jan. 31, 1938, was a plea to the first Alcatraz warden to get an early parole or be transferred closer to home, came almost one year before at least one of the men named in letter did try to escape.
Inmate 268-AZ Arthur R. "Doc" Barker, along with Dale Stamphill, William Martin, Henry Young, and Rufus McCain sawed through the window bars and made their way to shore. They were caught, however, at the water's edge. Two of them, Barker and Stamphill, refused to surrender and were shot.
In all, there were some 14 escape attempts from the island. The most famous of these is played out on the island several times daily with the aid of self-guided audio. The "Battle of Alcatraz" began when inmates took two guards hostage and resulted in a two-day standoff. Three inmates and two officers were killed; 18 more correctional officers were injured.
But not all of the more infamous prisoners who stayed there met tragic ends on the island. Al Capone, George "Machine Gun" Kelly, and Alvin "Creepy Karpis" Karpowicz all met quieter ends after being released from prison, either as free men or transfered (as in the case of Kelly). But their imprisonments marked the end of Prohibition-era gangsters. It is also not the least of the island's timeless and historic connections to the past.
There are diverse high points across the entire island.
Even when first landing on the piers, it is easy to appreciate the sense of foreboding inmates must have felt. Before they even trekked up to the prison, they were given the long list of strict rules and expectations.
That long list was their first introduction that this island's reputation as a place to break prisoners by putting them in an intensely structured and monotonous routine was true. Every day there would be the same as the last. Enough so that everyone feels grateful there is a last ferry to catch.
#5. PRIVILEGES. You are entitled to food, clothing, shelter and medical attention. Anything else that you get is a privilege.
But while the initial greeting and main cell house are by far the most popularized, walking along the slope overlooking the officers' club, powerhouse, and water tower provide a quiet place away from the tour crowds and great photo ops. Likewise, the view of San Francisco from the lighthouse overlook (first lighthouse built on the West Coast) and deteriorating southwest path off from the pier is memorable.
It is in these places, away from the groups, that it is easiest to see why some believe the prison to be haunted. While many of the reports are confirmed — the utility corridor, cell 14D, and crying and moaning inside cell blocks A, B, and C — others suggest some hauntings may be linked to American soldiers stationed here when it was called Fort Alcatraz and others may be linked to Native Americans.
Native American stories are among the most interesting. The Muwekma Ohlone people once used the island for much the same purpose. Although they gathered food on the island, they also banished members there for violating tribal laws.
They also believed it to harbor evil spirits. Today, however, it has become iconic for their ceremonies, in part, to commemorate the occupation of the island between 1969 and 1971. If you never heard of the occupation, visit the well-worth-the-read story. Some of the occupation graffiti, messages written for the press taking pictures from boats, still remains on the island today. The Native Americans involved changed history, and themselves too.
Alcatraz Locks Up 8.9 On The Liquid Hip Richter Scale.
For such a tiny island, it packs in more history than almost any other location in the United States. The National Park Service also hosts an Alcatraz Island museum. It covers three periods: as a military fort, federal prison, and Native American rally point.
Visiting the island is one of several high points of any trip to San Francisco. You can check airfare rates at Fare Buzz with flights up to 60 percent off. If you are especially interested in inmate experiences, check out the book Letters from Alcatraz by Michael Esslinger. It is history from the people who lived it for over three decades.