Thursday, December 02, 2010

Visiting Alcatraz

My mom came to visit us for Thanksgiving break, and she stayed for two weeks. The first week we mostly had off from school, and we went to Saline Valley. The second week, we were pretty busy with school since it was the last week, but we squeezed in a trip to Alcatraz, since my mom never went before. We got on the 10am ferry to the island today.

Moss covered roofs near the dock on Alcatraz.

We were in for a treat because it was in the middle of the week, and kind of slow tourist-wise. So that meant that there weren't too many people going to Alcatraz! When the boat landed at the dock on Alcatraz, we were in for another treat. Apparently, one of the last surviving prisoners that was actually imprisoned on Alcatraz was in the gift shop signing copies of his book. We didn't buy his book, but it was kind of interesting hearing him talk to people. And wait, there was even another treat. A ranger-lead tour called "The 6 Hats of Alcatraz" was about to start, just as we got off the boat!

The ranger who lead the 6 Hats tour.

I'll try to recall the most interesting parts of the tour. The ranger had 6 different hats inside a big canvas bag. Starting with the oldest, historically, he put each hat on, one by one, and told a story, pretending to be the historical character based on the hat he was wearing. The first hat was an old military hat, from the 1800s. While he was wearing it, he pretended to be an old military officer that was stationed on Alcatraz Island while it was a fort that protected the golden gate (which is what the opening to the ocean was called, what the famous bridge is now named after). He told us that the island used to be a bird nesting site, and that the steep cliffs were actually blasted that steep on purpose with dynamite. The military wanted to make it very hard for ships to dock on the island, so they made it all cliffs, except for the backside of the island, where they kept the only suitable docking location. They also built the only entrance to the fort by the dock on the backside, and protected it strategically with shooting towers and huge canons.

A row of prison cells.

Then he put on another hat, which was also military related. But this time it was a military prisoner. After the fort was no longer useful, in the early 1900s, the island became a military prison. They kept the prisoners in wooden cells, which were over crowded. They also dug caves into the bedrock and used them as cells. They were often damp and cold. Eventually the prisoners were forced to build a new set of cells, but out of brick and concrete instead of wood. This was after the 1906 San Francisco earthquake, where the whole city burned down due to all the buildings being made out of wood. Well, they eventually built the largest steel reinforced concrete building in the country at that time. That building became the new cell house.

Inside a typical prison cell.

Next the ranger put a new hat on, a prisoner hat. The next part of the Alcatraz story is now about mobsters and gangsters. After the original military prisoners built the new cell house on Alcatraz, there weren't enough prisoners to fill it all up, and the military was moving away from the island anyway. But at the time, prohibition began and all the mobster action started. The government needed a place to put all the gangsters they were arresting, so they sent a lot of them to Alcatraz. Al Capone was on Alcatraz for a while, although they didn't tell us which cell he was in. They said he was in many different cells while on the island. Anyway, so the huge new cell house finally was put into use, and it officially became the Alcatraz Penitentiary.

I'm not sure if there was a hat between the prisoner and the hippie. Well anyway, the next hat he put on was a hippie bandana. Eventually, the prison was becoming too expensive to run, because everything had to be shipped back and forth to the island. So they decided to shut down the prison. After it was shut down, nobody wanted it, so the government kind of let it rot for a few years. Somehow, some native Americans stretched the meaning of a treaty and claimed the island as theirs, because it was technically surplus government land, which they were entitled to. The weird thing was that it was a bunch of Indian tribes that were not native to California, supposedly. So they took over the island. This was in the 60s, so a bunch of hippies joined them, although at first, they exclusively only let Indians on the island.

A huge hole scraped into the concrete behind the air vent as part of an escape scheme (it was successful)!

Then the ranger put on his final hat, which was a National Park Service hat. He said that at the tail end of the hippie take-over, there were a few fires on the island, and some of the buildings were burned down. None of the hippie commune hippies on the island took the blame, and to this day, its thought that the fires were actually set by under-cover government agents who set the fires on purpose to make it look like the hippies lives were in danger. In general, it made it look like it was dangerous to be there and gave the government an excuse to kick everybody off the island for safety concerns. It worked, and supposedly, some of the classified government documents that described the plans to burn down some buildings on Alcatraz were recently released. So after the hippies were kicked out, the government eventually set it aside as a National Park. In fact, its been a National Park longer than it was ever a penitentiary!

Solitary confinement cells.

The 6 Hats tour was over an hour long. After the ranger was done story telling, we took the audio tour of the prison. They give you big headphones and you listen to a recorded tour, which includes the real voices of some of the prisoners and guards retelling stories. But its funny, because everyone inside the cell house also has on huge headphones, and can't hear anything else. People bump into each other because they get so engrossed in the story they are listening to, plus they can't hear other people walking around them, so there are often collisions. We spent about 3 hours on the island, and then decided to go back, because we were getting hungry and still had a long way back home.