Though I’ve lived in the San Francisco area all but four years of my life, I’ve only ventured a mile and half into the Bay to Alcatraz Island twice. Once was earlier this week when I played tourist with my wife Ellen, my daughter Sara and her friend Julienne.
“The Rock” was first built as a military prison in the 1850s. It became a federal penitentiary from 1934-1963 to house the nation’s most dangerous criminas, including Al “Scarface” Capone, “Machine Gun” Kelly and Robert “The Birdman” Stroud. It was closed because of the high expense to maintain it as a prison, and because three men broke out of their confinement — never to be found. This event was heralded in my friend Richard Tuggle’s screenplay, “Escape From Alcatraz,” which starred Oakland native Clint Eastwood. A 1996 movie by Jerry Bruckheimer, “The Rock,” starred Nicolas Cage and Sean Connery.
Overall, one feels a strong feeling of isolation on The Rock. You stand on a hill viewing San Francisco, but it’s unattainable because of the frigid bay waters, strong currents and constant danger of sharks.
Today, Alcatraz (Spanish for Pelican) is a fascinating venue and one of the Golden Gate National Recreation Area’s most popular destinatoins, offering killer views of the Golden Gate and Bay Bridges, the City and the Bay. You can hike the island, view a 12-minute video presentation about Alcatraz’s history which includes the American Indian occupation of 1969 -1971, take a highly recommended audio cellhouse tour with the voices of guards and prisoners, join ranger programs and visit the bookstores.
To get to Alcatraz, buy tickets at Pier 41 from the Blue and Gold Fleet. I highly recommend ordering your ferry tickets in advance because of the year-round popularity of this island with both tourists and locals like me.