San Francisco's Alcatraz Island

Moving Travel Journals

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Raymond writes in April 2002, "I have always been told if I ever went to SanFrancisco don't miss taking a trip to prison, ALCATRAZ that is. Well some other of the group and I went. What a feeling! I was sure glad a visit was ALL it was,wouldn't want to live there as a prisoner.All the time as I walked around I thought of the many prisoners and how they saw what my eyes saw, but they saw it day after day and year after year.Even the beautiful sight of the bay that so many people come to visit, was just added sorrow when viewed through the hard cold bars. And the city of SanFrancisco could be seen but to them it might as well been a million miles away. With memories of family and friends and the way things USED to be."

I am hoping I can send you a review of my visit to Alcatraz last weekend. (24 Jun 2001). I really enjoyed it, and here's what I felt compelled to say about the experience:

Ah, me and historical places. I became obsessed in a matter of hours. There are some very haunting stories hiding in the narrow cells of the Cellhouse. Even more so in the cells above, on the second, the third floors.

The place breathes like a fortress. That same heavy way that buildings have when they are impenetrable, when they are built for one solitary purpose. In this case, to punish. A building can really tell you so much just by sitting there. A house sits differently than a prison. A prison sits like hardly anything else in the world, except perhaps for a mental hospital.

On Alcatraz, the buildings are quite different but have acquired a bit of the same mode of sitting through their long co-existence with each other. Abandoned buildings tend to sit alike. The guardhouse and the soldiers' barracks are the oldest, dating from the mid 1800's. The barracks were once inhabited, and feel like it, though there isn't place for visitors inside. Cold; they were dug into rock. I wonder at the soldiers--how was it when they walked through that entryway every day of their lives, and when the Officer's Club was (not a burnt-out shell) ringing with life on Friday nights? Now a messy seagull has made its nest where the commandant used to sit and drink. God knows what has now invaded the lonely little shacks where men with guns used to watch the coast.

There is one howitzer left in the guardhouse, still sitting on its wooden wheels, waiting to be fired. The silence of abandoned things is more silent than anything in the world.

The Cellhouse was built in the 1930's, and it is the most powerful building of all. It was never anything but a prison, though early on in the Civil War era prisoners were housed in the guardhouse. The Cellhouse was made with no loving craft, no straight-forward military precision. It was a prison from the time its plans rolled onto the table.

Now it is falling apart, but it is no colder than it was when Al Capone or Machine Gun Kelley were there. They told us that the isolation cells were colder than Hell, that the wind from the barred windows would blast through them. The cells are unbelievably small. No more than four feet of space between the bunks and the opposite wall. But the sight of them is exciting in a way; everything made the same, inanimate objects made and placed expressly for the very animate creatures which would use them. Made by human beings for the purpose of confining human beings. It is times like these when it is apparent how thoroughly our world is constructed.

I don't know how long I walked through the cell blocks. It was longer than the guided tour, because I went through it all again. I wondered what Alcatraz State Penitentiary is like at night. When the sun goes down on the catwalks and the gun bays and the mess hall, and the windows witness silently another day, as they have, alone, for the 38 years since Alcatraz was closed. Does the air remember for them, the sounds that illustrated their purpose? What is it like, when the shadows slowly fill the bullet holes in the walls?

Over all the noise of tourists, kids, screeching seagulls, I could hear the silence of the cell blocks. It's something I want to experience more deeply. It's something that reminds me, I guess, that I'm not a History major for nothing. I'm a History major for the way that human flesh (bigger, tougher, than mine) must have felt when the heavy doors of the isolation cells banged shut and it was dark.

Despite the thousands upon thousands of tourists that pour through year after year, Alcatraz is not a tourist attraction. It's a prison. Waiting, in the dumb, inanimate way that places do, for prisoners to fill its cells and guards to walk its gunbays. Waiting for the day when the seagull nests will be cleared out.

I want to go back to Alcatraz when there are no people there. "<BL 2001>

Alcatraz Virtual Tour... An SFTravel Exclusive

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Hotel Reviews (Off-Alcatraz) with Visitor Experiences

Comprehensive History of Alcatraz:

The 1700's & 1800's - the beginning

1900-1950 - crime and prison escapes...

1950 until today - the world changes...

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