Alcatraz

12Dec10

On Tuesday I made it out to Alcatraz, the infamous (? I guess?) prison perched on a rock smack bang in the middle of San Francisco Bay.  It was a beautiful day in our nation’s… wait, no, wrong continent.  It was a beautiful day in SF and I made my merry way down to the waterfront to get the ferry across.

(On a side note: there are limits to how many people can be on Alcatraz Island at any one time – it’s a National Park, not only for heritage reasons but because it’s a breeding ground for what seems like every bird that lives in the area.  I booked my tickets online for the trip on Sunday night.  Fine, whatever.  Apparently in summer however tickets can sell out up to 10 ten days in advance.  Craziness!)

This is a picture I took as I made my merry way to the ferry.  I’m posting it mainly so that I can say I climbed that damn mountain earlier in the week.  Climbed all the way to the top, only to discover that the Tower was closed for renovations.  Curses!

A view of Telegraph Hill in San Francisco with Coit Tower at the top.

Anyway, ferry ride was nice, yada yada yada.  Although I swear to God, every second person on that boat was Australian, and most of them were wearing green and gold tracksuits proclaiming the fact.  Cringe.  Still, spectacular views of the city.

Image of the San Francisco skyline and the Bay Bridge from across the water.

(Lens flare of destiny!)

So yes, Alcatraz.  It’s a really weird place.  There’s so many layers of history, all focused on this tiny island.  Before I got there I hadn’t realised how long it’d been occupied/used – it was first fortified in 1853 to protect San Francisco Bay.  Civil War prisoners were housed there!  What Civil War prisoners were doing in California is a whole other question to which I don’t yet have the answer, but yeah.  In San Francisco terms, 1853 is old.  It was used as a military prison all the way up until 1933, when it became a Federal jail.

The jail is of course what most people come to see/learn about, and there’s a really engrossing audio tour that takes you around the main prison block.

Insert joke about not dropping the soap here.

The cells are tiny.

I was actually surprised by how small the prison actually was - it's capacity was only 336 prisoners, but it never held that many at one time.

These views of the Bay (this one's from the dining hall) must've been infuriating - it's the textbook definition of "so close, yet so far away." Apparently on clear nights the prisoners could hear laughter and other sounds from the City.

There’s one other major event/use that’s shaped Alcatraz’s history.  I only ever touched very briefly on Native American history during my degree, so I was only vaguely aware of the Alcatraz occupation.  In November 1969 a group of Native Americans took over the island: it lasted for over nineteen months, and from what I can gather had a fairly lasting impact on federal Native American policy.  There are still plenty of remants of the occupation left on the island (if nothing else, there’s the burnt out shells of several buildings that caught fire during the period).

Photo of a large sign that hangs above the dock on Alcatraz Island.

Sign at the Dock. The red writing was done during the Occupation.

The crest on the front of the main prison building. Obviously the stripes didn't always read "FREE".

The National Park Service has obviously made an effort to include information on the Occupation in the interpretive material etc., but I would’ve liked more, particularly on the audio tour where more people would be exposed to it.

Of course, one of the other big reasons to take a boat out to a hunk of rock in the middle of San Francisco Bay is to take in the obscenely stunning views across said Bay.

All in all, a very nice day out.  And I had clam chowder afterwards, which was also quite nice and not at all horrible like I was expecting.

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