By Charlene Mixa
“The Rock” in the Dark!
A mile and ¼ from San Francisco’s Fisherman’s Wharf is the infamous Alcatraz. A maximum security prison for 30 years, Alcatraz housed noted criminals including Al Capone, George “Machine Gun” Kelly, and Robert Franklin Stroud, the Birdman of Alcatraz. With its closing, the last prisoner walked out of Alcatraz on March 23, 1963. Yet, the prison and island entice visitors to see what life was like on “The Rock”.
A cold Saturday afternoon, we pick up our tickets at Pier 33 for our 5:00 PM Night Tour of Alcatraz. Boarding the ferry, we experience what the prisoners saw as they crossed San Francisco Bay to the Island. On top open deck, the skyline of San Francisco at sunset creates a warm glow over the city. The Golden Gate Bridge is in view as the boat approaches Alcatraz Island. Our Captain’s live narration gives the history of this 25-acre island and how it came to house the inescapable prison of the country’s most hardened criminals. The ferry makes a complete circle of the island providing views of several structures including the Warden’s House, Officer’s Club, Barracks/Apartments that were living quarters of the guards, and the Lighthouse.
The sun has set on this cold evening as we disembark to experience Alcatraz at Night. It’s dark as we follow our guide up the old service road. Stopping along the road, he shares stories of the warden, the guards, the families as well as the notorious prisoners, who lived on Alcatraz. His narrative transitions us from the outside world to Alcatraz Island. Equivalent to climbing a thirteen story building, the steep road winds up to the top where the Cellhouse is located. The stops are welcome for catching our breath.
Entering the Cellhouse, we pick up the Cellhouse Audio Tour. Listening to the audio we are initiated to the cellblock B and C were the “general population” prisoners were held. D Block was “isolation” for the unruly inmates. The tour takes us through cell hallways with names like Broadway. We peep out the door to see the Recreation area enshrouded in darkness. The audio tour is excellent! Former guards, prisoners and family members share their experiences living on Alcatraz in the audio, giving insight into this intriguing island. On D Block we stand in a cell and close our eyes to imagine the solitude of “isolation”. In the Library we learn that the prisoners read more serious literature than an ordinary person does. Photographic panels show pictures of incidents of inmates enhancing the audio tour. In the Dining Room, we sit and listen as the inmates turn over the tables in protest of the poor food. The floor of a hallway still shows were the Marine’s threw bombs to end a prison outbreak. The tour walks through daily life as well as numerous failed attempts to escape Alcatraz. The fake heads made of soap, cement and paint with real hair are in the beds, where Frank Morris and brothers, John and Clarence Anglin, fooled guards while they made the most creative escape attempt from Alcatraz.
The night tour allows us to go into the hospital area and features special programs. We opt for the special program of escapes that starts the Cellhouse and ends at the Dock. Meeting the Ranger outside the Cellhouse, he shares three different escape attempts on the tour. Stopping at specific locations the Ranger tells the story of each attempt and how it was executed. The infinite details and plans for an escape are amazing and often surprising. The thought of voluntarily getting into the cold San Francisco Bay and expecting to successfully swim a 1 ¼ mile to shore is beyond imagination. The ingenious strategies, the patience and motivation of these prisoners to escape are riviting. Not only did Frank Morris and the Anglin Brothers make the fake heads we saw on Cellhouse tour, they used a Popular Mechanics Magazine from the library to craft life preservers and a raft. The Ranger provides the in details all they did leading up to their escape. He explains on the night of the escape they squeezed through small vents in their cells, scaled a utility corridor to the roof, slid down a stove pipe and crept to the shoreline where they put on their life vests, boarded their raft and slid out into the water. These escapees were never found!
We arrive at the dock just minutes before our 7:50 PM ferry begins to board. We have a new appreciation for the Island and the Prison. As the ferry pulls away from this stark spooky island, we are warmed by the bright twinkling lights of San Francisco at night.
If you go:
Golden Gate National Parks Conservancy
Alcatraz Cruises, LLC is an authorized Concessioner of the National Park Service, Department of the Interior
Note: The Alcatraz Night Tour is a unique program limited to just a few hundred visitors per evening. It includes special programs, tours, and activities not offered during the day. Roundtrip ferry transportation, a live boat narration, a guided tour from Dock to Cellhouse, the Cellhouse Audio Tour, a keepsake souvenir brochure, recreation use fee, and a variety of special programs and presentations offered only at night.