Exploring the Hidden History of Alcatraz Prison
For most travelers, being in a maximum security prison with no chance of escape would be the ultimate nightmare; but for me it was the ultimate adventure! When the prison in question is the legendary Alcatraz and it's the 50th anniversary of its closure, the idea of spending a night in jail has tremendous appeal.
Alcatraz Cruises takes you back in time
Alcatraz Island is preserved and managed by the National Parks Service. Alcatraz Cruises is the only tour provider allowed to land and conduct tours on the island and it is only through their official services that you can visit Alcatraz today. Alcatraz Cruises offers day tours, evening tours (which we experienced, the most intimate and comprehensive option), and combined tours of Alcatraz and Angel Island .
After picking up your tickets, you'll line up for the boat and will have the opportunity for the ubiquitous souvenir photo. There are no food services on Alcatraz Island but there are cold and hot snacks at the cafe by the pier and on board the ship.
As we sailed across San Francisco Bay to Alcatraz, a friendly member of the staff welcomed us on board, provided us with some practical information, and introduced us to the history of Alcatraz. When we docked on the island, we were met by several members of the National Park staff who explained the evening's program and also informed us about the best time and location for sunset shots.
Centuries of history before "The Rock"
As we made our way from the docks to the main entrance of the prison (a climb equivalent to 13 stories!) our guide shared some the most interesting secrets of Alcatraz Island. The island was home to the first American lighthouse on the west coast and it was a strategic defensive fort during the civil war. And before it was known as "The Rock" it wasn't a civilian prison - it was a military base and military prison.
Hutterite heritage and a pacifist prison
During World War 1, Alcatraz served as a prison for conscientious objectors and we heard sobering stories of the harrowing conditions they endured in the name of their beliefs. Members of the Hutterite faith endured particularly harsh punishment, and even torture, on account of their pacifist beliefs and German heritage. Two young men, Joseph and Michael Hofer, spent 4 months in Alcatraz under brutal conditions before being transferred to Fort Leavenworth, Kansas, where they eventually died. Hutterites hold vigils at Alcatraz to this day to commemorate the Hofer brothers' lives.
The Alcatraz audio tour is amazing
Once inside the main prison, we received audio guides and could explore at our own pace. Without a doubt this was the best audio guide tour I ever experienced. Narrated by former Alcatraz staff members, with added commentary by former prisoners, the guide was clear and easy to follow and provided compelling, comprehensive information about prison conditions, famous inmates, legendary escapes, and life on the island for prison staff and families.
A spooky stillness
There were times that the prison corridor was rather crowded as many members of the tour reached the same junction at the same time. If you prefer a more - um - solitary experience you can easily explore on your own and have entire cell blocks to yourself. As the crowds melted away, the silence and stillness of the prison was eerily unnerving.
Only on the night tour
When the audio tours ended, there were several special presentations you could chose to attend, including films and presentations by the staff, as well as the dramatic closing of the cells. On the night we visited, the hospital ward was open to walk through. Taking note of the posted warnings about flaking lead paint, I made my way through this cold and frightening wing of the prison. I can only imagine how rudimentary the medical services offered at Alcatraz prison were and I was glad not to linger any longer than I had to.
San Francisco's best attraction
We only had an afternoon and evening of free time in San Francisco, as it was the last short layover at the end of our round-the-world trip. I'm so glad we chose to spend our time with Alcatraz Cruises. It was such a fascinating experience and I learned more about the island than I ever thought imaginable. I was impressed by how respectful the National Park staff were when they were speaking about former prisoners and I was touched by their efforts to remember the former military prisoners of conscious. It felt like time flew by when I was listening to them and following along with the audio guide and I found myself wishing there was a longer program we could have participated in to get an even more comprehensive visit.
Practical information for visiting Alcatraz Island
If you visit Alcatraz Island on your next visit to San Francisco - and you absolutely should - here are some practical pointers to help you enjoy your visit:
As always, I welcome and encourage your comments: Would you ever include a prison visit in your travels? What about historical sites?
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Our tour was sponsored by Alcatraz Cruises. This did not affect my review and all opinions remain my own.