California Road Trip: The History of Alcatraz Island


On our full day in San Francisco, we started out by getting up really early to go to Alcatraz Island.  I was really looking forward to this part of the trip, and it almost didn’t happen.  You see, I looked at the website, and it told me that during the peak season, tickets could sell out a week in advance.  No worries, I thought – we were going in March.  On a weekday.  But I didn’t know quite which days we would be in San Francisco and what else we would be doing there.

So, when I went to book the tickets, they were sold out…  For the next nine days…  I was really bummed!  But I did some sleuthing and found some internet rumors that you could purchase same day tickets on a walk-up basis for the first boat each day.  You had to get in line early, because they were first-come, first-served.  Once the 40 or 50 tickets were sold, the rest of the people in line were out of luck.

Luckily, Jon loves me, and agreed to get up super-early to get in line for the Black Friday of Alcatraz Island tickets.  Since we were walking, we had to head out from the hotel for the 1.7 mile walk to the pier – at 6:00 am!  How’s that for nerdly dedication!  The ticket booth opened at 7:30, and we got there at 6:40 – we were the second couple in line, behind a dental student from Los Angeles and his wife (they were friendly and we had a lot of time to chat).  The internet rumors were true, and they did have the promised holy grail of walk-up tickets.  So, we had tickets on the first ferry to go out to the island at 8:45 am, but you have to get ready to board the boat at 8:20 am.

We got on the boat with about 150 of our closest friends and headed out.  The trip over to the island was nice; we got some good views of the city and I was able to get some good photos. It was pretty cold though – San Francisco was warm that day – about 65 in the afternoon, but I had to wear my winter coat, gloves and hat during the trip (granted it didn’t help that we had been standing around in the cold for a couple of hours at that point).  Alcatraz is about 1.5 miles out from the mainland, so it didn’t take long and the ride was pretty smooth.

San Francisco from the Alcatraz Ferry

San Francisco from the Alcatraz Ferry

I’m sure that you all know that Alcatraz was a federal prison for thirty years, from 1933 to 1963. But you may not know that Alcatraz has a history that extends much further back. Alcatraz was first formed when it pushed up into the Bay about 10,000 years ago.  The local Indians believed that the island was cursed, but there is some evidence that they traveled out to the island to collect bird eggs. Spanish explorers first “discovered” it in 1775 and named it La Isla de los Alcatraces (the island of the pelicans). The Spanish built a few buildings on the island but didn’t do much else with it. The Americans purchased the island in 1850 and set about creating a military garrison post there; in order to shore up the coastal defenses protecting San Francisco.

The U.S. Government also decided that it would be a good place for a lighthouse to guide ships into San Francisco Bay. So Alcatraz Island became home to the first lighthouse on the West Coast of the United States in 1854.  The original lighthouse was built with a third order Fresnel Lens.  The first keeper was paid $750 a year – barely enough to cover his food.  Unsurprisingly, he was dismissed because he was absent for long periods from the lighthouse – probably because he had a second job…

The lighthouse currently on the island replaced the original lighthouse in 1909, because when the Army decided to build the current cell house structure, it became apparent that the original lighthouse would not be tall enough to be seen over the structure and the buildings and sheds were considered unsightly.  The current lighthouse is 84 feet tall and constructed from cement.  It was automated in 1963, and is still in use today, operated by the U.S. Coast Guard.

The Warden's House Ruin and the Lighthouse on Alcatraz Island

The Warden’s House Ruin and the Lighthouse on Alcatraz Island

While the first lighthouse was being constructed, building was also going on for the military garrison. Eventually the garrison would house about 200 men.  During the Civil War, Alcatraz was used to house war prisoners, which was its first use as a prison. During this period, building continued, and by the end of the Civil War, they realized that the defensive technology being utilized at Alcatraz was largely being rendered obsolete by new advances. It was at that point that officials decided to change the focus of Alcatraz from a defensive structure to a detention site. A brick jailhouse was built in 1867, and the island began being used as a long-term detention center for military prisoners in 1868 (confederates caught on the west coast were among the first military prisoners housed there). It just grew from there.

Alcatraz Island - Buildings (L to R): Lighthouse, Warden's House Ruin, Cell Block Building, Barracks/Apartments

Alcatraz Island – Buildings (L to R): Lighthouse, Warden’s House Ruin, Cell Block Building, Barracks/Apartments

The Spanish-American War gave the island a whole new crop of military prisoners, expanding the population to about 450. The 1906 earthquake generated the first batch of civilian prisoners, when prisoners from the mainland were transferred there after the earthquake to ensure that they would not escape. During World War I, conscientious objectors were imprisoned at Alcatraz.

Alcatraz Island  - The Cell Block Building is in the Upper Left

Alcatraz Island – The Cell Block Building is in the Upper Left

The Island contains several buildings from before the federal prison era  – some are still intact and some are in ruins.  The original brick barracks, built in the 1860s, were added onto in 1905, resulting in the structure that is seen today right next to the dock.  During the prison era, the soldiers’ barracks were remodeled into apartments for the guards and their families.    The Chapel was built in the 1920s, but despite its name, it wasn’t used as a chapel.  Instead, it was living space for single officers and workshops.  The Post Exchange/Officers Club was built in 1910, and was a general store where soldiers could buy goods.  During the prison era, it functioned as a recreation hall with a dance hall and bowling alley.

Military Chapel Building - Built 1910 - Mission Revival Architectural Style

Military Chapel Building – Built 1910 – Mission Revival Architectural Style

Sadly, the Post Exchange, Warden’s House and the Lighthouse Keeper’s Quarters were burned in a 1970 fire during the Indian Occupation of the Island.  The light tower was also damaged by the fire.  There is still some dispute about the cause of the fire; the official story is that it was accidental.  I do find it curious though, because the Post Exchange isn’t near the Warden’s House and Lighthouse; and the Military Chapel is in between and it didn’t burn.

I really enjoyed wandering around the island and checking out the ruined structures; and we hadn’t even been inside the prison yet!  I’ll post about that next!

Advertisements

4 thoughts on “California Road Trip: The History of Alcatraz Island

  1. What a great read. We didn’t get to visit Alcatraz on our visit to San Francisco. I love all your pictures! (By the way – that early morning walk to get the tickets had to be up hill – I have never seen/walked such steep hills in my life!)

  2. Thank you! We were staying on the edge of Chinatown right near Union Square, so the walk to the pier that morning was downhill and flat. I’m sure the only flat walking I did in San Francisco! We really enjoyed the trip there and were very glad we made it!

  3. Alcatraz is on my bucket list. My parents tell me that I was there once, when I was a toddler. But I definitely don’t remember that.

    And getting in line so early to stand there for so long — very impressive.

    • I just realized that I never responded to this comment (I thought I had!). At any rate – thank you! Jon thought I was crazy – he was ready to throw in the towel on the visit, but he saw how much it meant to me to go. It was well worth it!

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s