Going to Alcatraz (www.nps.gov/alcatraz), one of the most famous landmarks in the City, feels a bit like going to purgatory; this military fortress turned maximum-security prison, nicknamed “The Rock,” has little of warmth or welcome on its craggy forbidding shores.
The fortress became a prison in the 19th century while it still belonged to the military, which used it to house Civil War prisoners. The isolation of the island in the Bay, the frigid waters, and the nasty currents surrounding Alcatraz made it a perfect spot to keep prisoners contained with little hope of escape and near-certain death if the attempt was ever made.
In 1934, after the military closed down their prison and handed over the island to the Department of Justice, construction began to turn Alcatraz into a new style of prison ready to house a new style of prisoner: Depression-era gangsters. A few of the honored guests of this maximum-security penitentiary were Al Capone, George “Machine Gun” Kelly, and Robert Stroud (“the Birdman of Alcatraz”).
The prison closed in 1963, and in both 1964 and 1969, occupations were staged by Indians of All Tribes, an exercise that led to the privilege of self-determination for North America’s original inhabitants.
Today, Alcatraz acts primarily as a tourist attraction for visitors to San Francisco. Alcatraz Cruises (415/981-7625, www.alcatrazcruises.com, 9 a.m.–3:55 p.m., 6:15 and 6:50 p.m., adults $24.50–31.50, children $15.25–18.75) offers ferry rides out to Alcatraz and tours of the island and the prison. Tours depart daily from Pier 33.
It’s a good idea to buy tickets at least a week in advance, especially if you’ll be in town in the summertime and want to visit Alcatraz on a weekend. Tours often sell out, especially evening tours. Be carefully after dark; the prison and the island are both said to be haunted!
© Liz Hamill Scott from Moon California, 2nd Edition