During my recent trip to San Francisco, I had some free time before the conference to be a tourist. My friend, Emily, was also in town early for the conference and we decided that we needed to go see Alcatraz. Old deserted buildings are right up our ally, the weather was beautiful, and we could get tickets the next day for the ferry, our Thursday afternoon was set.
For those of you having trouble recalling, Alcatraz is an abandoned prison on an island in the San Francisco bay. It was thought to be inescapable, if you were lucky enough to get out over the walls, the mile swim to the main land would most likely be the end of you. Some of the most wanted men of the time were kept here until it closed in the 60’s. The draw to buildings and places like this for me is not just the architecture, sometimes it’s pretty boring, but the stories of what happened in those places. Or the stories I imagine when I come across some unknown place. I also love abandoned buildings. I don’t know why. Some might consider them wasted real estate, but I think they are beautiful, frozen moments. This is the preservation (or lack there of) that I really enjoy.
The island and prison is a National Park now. So far they have done a great job of preserving the buildings and grounds, at least in my opinion. The audio tour is great. I normally won’t do them, but this one is worth it. It does a great job of telling the story of what is was like to work on the island, be imprisoned there, and of the attempts to escape. The buildings themselves are not actually that scary or creepy as you might think. Sure the cells are tiny and the isolation cells are a bit creepy, but the main prison space has so much natural light. Now I realize that I was there on a wonderful sunny day and I am sure the place is not so nice during the cloudy foggy weather of San Francisco. Still, I couldn’t get over much light there was. Someone said, well, you are in prison in a tiny cell, maybe it was the least the designers could do to give them light, even if it meant cold air sneaking through the drafty windows. There is also the point that there are spectacular views of the city and Golden Gate Bridge, but inside the prison walls, you couldn’t see them, so I guess sunlight is a nice consolation.
Emily and I were talking about how we expected there to be more crazy escape stories or fights or whatever. There were not too many and not that many people died on the island due to violence between the inmates. The stories that are there are pretty interesting. The tiny spaces that men fit through after starving themselves is amazing. I can’t imaging it. Only two guys escaped and were never found. Some believe they never made it out of the water on the other side, some say they went to South America. Otherwise it seems like it was a pretty controlled space where not to many wanted to get into more trouble in.
There are many buildings on the island and it actually started as a light house then fort before becoming a prison. Much of the housing that was on the island was either destroyed or fell apart after years of disuse. The wardens house sits on top of the hill, gutted with no roof after a fire ruined it. The prison building survived and the light house along with a couple other random buildings that have survived natural forces. It sat for almost a decade with no care after the prison closed. All of it is beautiful. The gardens are also amazing. They wrap around the south and west side of the island and provide the amazing views of the city skyline and bridges.
If you have the time to check it out next time you are in the area, I highly recommend it. We were able to get tickets the day before, but it was off season and the tend to sell out far in advance during the normal tourist season (or at least that’s what they say). The ferry ride is about 15 minutes or so and runs about every half hour. Once on the island, the audio tour will take you at least 45 minutes, but that doesn’t include pausing it to wonder a bit like we did. In total we were on the island for at least two and a half hours before heading back to the city. Also, you are not suppose to have any food except water on the island and you can’t get anything there, only on the ferry. What you can get is stupid expensive. We didn’t get water until we were at the dock and that was dumb because it was like $3 for a little bottle of water because there really is no place close for you to run and grab it elsewhere. Just something to keep in mind. All this is to say, it’s an awesome experience, you should do it, just plan ahead a bit.