Alcatraz Island tour tickets are a favorite of San Francisco visitors because of the island's colorful history and the many books, movies and TV shows that featured the famous island prison.
Alcatraz Island History
Native Americans probably visited Alcatraz Island, possibly to gather bird's eggs, but it is unlikely any ever lived there. Alcatraz was essentially the top of a mountain, mostly rock with very little soil.
This small island in San Francisco Bay served as a military fortification in the 1850s. A large building known as the Citadel was constructed to house troops stationed there and dozens of artillery pieces were placed to defend against a possible Confederate attack.
Alcatraz lighthouse, the first lighthouse built on the Pacific Coast, was completed and lit for the first time in the summer of 1853, and a fog bell, rung by hand, was added in 1856.
The original lighthouse, a California Cottage design similar to Point Pinos Lighthouse in Pacific Grove, the Point Reyes Lighthouse, and the Old Point Loma Lighthouse, in San Diego was demolished in 1909 to make way for the construction of the prison on Alcatraz Island.
Alcatraz Island was later used for an incarceration facility for Spanish-American War prisoners, and then a federal maximum-security prison from 1934 to 1963. The island was converted to a military prison at the end of the Civil War. After the 1906 earthquake the Citadel was demolished and the United States Military Prison, Pacific Branch, Alcatraz Island was built.
Running a prison on the island was expensive because every item; food and water, even magazines and cigarettes, had to be shipped in. With Prohibition a national crime wave led J. Edgar Hoover, head of the FBI, to seek a secure location for federal criminals. The transition from a military prison to maximum security federal prison took place during 1933–34.
Once the temporary home of famous criminals like Al Scarface Capone, Doc Barker, George “Machine Gun” Kelly and Robert Stroud the Birdman of Alcatraz, Alcatraz Island now harbors nesting birds in such numbers that the Park Service limits access to parts of the island during nesting season.
The Alcatraz prison launch "Warden Johnston" made 12 trips each day to San Francisco and back from 1945 to 1961 bringing the prison guards, their families and the prisoners necessary supplies, and occasionally transporting prisoners for court dates.
Of course it was no easier or less expensive to run a federal prison than a military prison on an island so Alcatraz Island Federal Prison was closed permanently in 1963.
Native American Occupation
Alcatraz Island was seized and occupied by a group of American Indians from 1969 to 1971 in a successful protest against the Bureau of Indian Affairs. The Occupation of Alcatraz Island served as a catalyst for change; a starting point for major events, protests, occupations and legislation that has affected the lives of American Indians ever since.
In addition to the occupation's effect on government policy and treatment of American Indians there was the "Indian Renaissance" which took place among Indians themselves.
Historic Gardens of Alcatraz
The project started with extensive research as 40 years of neglect after the prison closed had allowed ivy and blackberry bushes to cover previously cultivated plots. Amazingly over 230 plant species survived—many discovered only after clearing away the overgrowth. Information about key people involved in past development and preservation of the gardens was also uncovered including the efforts of Fred Reichel, Secretary to the Warden and Elliott Michener an inmate.
Although basically a barren island lacking soil or a source of fresh water when the first fortifications were built on Alcatraz it didn't take long for those living there to begin creating gardens. Soil was hauled from Angel Island and the Presidio by the Army for Victorian-style gardens near the citadel as early as 1865.
Further improvements were made in the 1920's when a beatification project had prisoners planting trees and shrubs in a program initiated by the military and the California Spring Blossom and Wildflower Association. By the time the federal Bureau of Prisons took over in 1933 there was a rose garden, terraced hillside and a greenhouse. Fred Reichel took responsibility for maintaining what was in place and convinced the warden to allow a few prisoners to assist in developing gardens on the western slopes of the island.
If you visit Alcatraz during the week you can't miss the volunteers who labor every day under the direction of Shelagh Fritz, gardener with the non-profit Garden Conservancy, restoring and maintaining the gardens.
While most of the restored areas are visible to all visitors, docent-led tours through the gardens are offered each Friday and Sunday morning at 9:30am beginning at the Alcatraz dock. You'll need to catch the first ferry of the day from Pier 33 in San Francisco. There is no additional charge for the garden tour.
A Gardens of Alcatraz brochure is available at several locations on the island and is given to each participant on the docent-led tours. Some highlights of the tour:
The Main Road Landscape In the 1850s a switchback road to the top was blasted out of the rock. The army later replaced surplus cannonballs lining the route with flowerbeds to beautify the approach.
Rose Terrace Can be seen by looking east over the wall below the water tank. A rose, ‘Bardou Job,’ transplanted here was discovered in the warden's garden. This rose is historically significant to the Welsh but had not been seen in Wales for many years and was thought to be extinct.
Officers’ Row As you near the top look east over the planter to see restored gardens in what were originally foundations for three officers houses. Gardens were planted by island residents and inmates after the Federal Bureau of Prisons demolished the houses which they felt were too close to the cellhouse for safety.
Warden’s House A small garden on the south end of the ruin of the warden's house has been restored in an area that was a small greenhouse for Warden Swope's wife Edna.
Cellhouse Slope The slopes facing The City, below the lighthouse, were planted with iceplant to limit erosion and improve views from San Francisco.
West Road Continuing along the west side of the island (facing the Golden Gate Bridge) an overgrown thicket of fig and other garden plants protects nesting seabirds including Snowy Egrets and Night-Herons. Pigeon Guillemont, Cormorants and other species may be seen on the island. Alcatraz is the largest nesting site in the U.S. for the Western Gull.
Here also, just below the prisoners recreation yard, are the West Side Prisoner Gardens that Elliott Michener and other inmates developed as well as a recently completed rain water collection and storage system.
More information is available on The Garden Conservancy’s The Gardens of Alcatraz site.
Visiting Alcatraz Island
Alcatraz Island Prison is now a popular visitor destination as part of the Golden Gate National Recreation Area in San Francisco. Alcatraz Island Prison Tour tickets are often sold out a week or two in advance.
The National Park Service strongly advises visitors to get advance tickets. The first few times I tried to go to Alcatraz, with visiting friends or relatives, we were not able to do so because we had not planned far enough in advance.
Most San Francisco Bay Cruises pass the island for a close up look (without stopping).
When you visit Alcatraz Island be prepared for the one-quarter mile hike to the top or take the shuttle which makes a trip every hour to carry visitors with mobility limitations up the slope. No food is sold on the island so you should plan to eat before you go or take food with you.
Be sure to take a jacket or sweater for your visit to The Rock because it can be quite cool on San Francisco Bay even in the summer. And don't forget your camera!
In addition to all the history of Alcatraz Island Prison you will have great views of San Francisco, the Golden Gate Bridge, Angel Island, Treasure Island and more.
Alcatraz Island is closed on just three days—Thanksgiving, Christmas Day and New Year's Day. Alcatraz visitation starts at 9:30 am with departures to the Island every half an hour. The Island closes at 6:30 pm in the summertime and at 4:30 pm the rest of the year.
Visit the National Park Service site for additional historical and current event information. Another informative site is Alcatraz - The Warden Johnston Years. Read about the Post at Alcatraz Island, at the California Military Museum on-line. There is also an informative article on How Alcatraz Worked at How Stuff Works.
Enjoy views of Alcatraz Island from many locations in San Francisco and in photos on other iNeTours.com neighborhood pages including; Coit Tower, Pier 39, Fisherman's Wharf, Aquatic Park, Twin Peaks and the Golden Gate Bridge.
Slideshow—all photos on this page
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Website and all photos copyright © 2001–2015 Lee W. Nelson