“Just Visiting” is one of the sayings made familiar to anyone who has played the classic Parker Brothers board game, “Monopoly.” It is a great alternative to the other option of being incarcerated. The same can be said for Alcatraz Island. For many years it was one of the most famous prisons in the world. If it were still the same, we would prefer to be “just visiting” this place, nicknamed The Rock, a mile and a quarter from land in the middle of San Francisco Bay.
History of Alcatraz
The history of the twenty-two-acre island is fascinating. The island was named by Juan Manuel de Ayala in 1775. His chart of the San Francisco Bay called it “La Isla de los Alcatraces.” This means “The Island of the Pelicans.” And today the tidal pools still attract bird colonies.
Getting to Alcatraz Island is pretty straightforward. Since Alcatraz Island is a US National Park, you must book a trip there through the park service. It’s the only authorized tour company, called Alcatraz Cruises. It can be found near Fisherman’s Wharf, at Pier 33. Plan, book your trip several months in advance; you can do so online. The boat ride to the island takes about twenty minutes. It can be very chilly, so plan accordingly.
In the early days of California statehood, Alcatraz became the site of the first lighthouse. It was also the first US-built fort on the West Coast. During the 20th century, it was the infamous federal penitentiary long off-limits to the public. Also, home to notorious criminals including Al Capone, Machine Gun Kelly, and Creepy Karpis.
Also, the island retains many signs of the eighteen-month protest and occupation by Indians of All Tribes that brought to national attention the rights of Native Americans. Today, you can find evidence of each of these eras, if you pay close attention.
The tour of the island is self-guided. You can see every prominent feature of the island including the Stark Recreation Yard. You can also see the long stretch of cells on both sides of “Broadway.” Plan to spend three to four hours there. While food is not available for purchase on the island, you can bring a picnic with you. There’s limited snack food on the boat. A free map and an audio tour are part of your admission price. The main audio tour brings the story of the island alive, including voices of some of the people who were imprisoned here. The gift shop offers a broad range of interesting souvenirs and books.
Long considered inescapable, Alcatraz does have a few exciting stories of those who might have managed to make good their getaway to freedom. Mystery lovers ponder their fate, and on your tour, you can see where they would have been detained, and from what location they made their attempt at escape.
The Birdman of Alcatraz is familiar from the classic film, starring Bert Lancaster. If you know you are going, you might watch the movie first to familiarize yourself with his story. Other movies that have featured the Rock in one form or another include “Escape from Alcatraz,” starring Clint Eastwood. And of course there’s that great line from the nonsense song “You can Learn a Lot from Lydia,” sung by Groucho Marx in the film “At the Circus”: “And on a clear day you can see Alcatraz.” It is a good reminder that fog and mist are often part of the Alcatraz experience.
Those who do not wish to have a tour of the island, but rather have a clear day’s view of it, can take the Sausalito Ferry to and from the Terminal Building, and have a close-up look, as they sail past, “just visiting.”
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