By Lee Foster
(Author’s Note: I was out on San Francisco Bay recently, on a sunny day, exploring Alcatraz Island. The beauty and joy of the day made me feel good about not being incarcerated. About 1.5 million visitors make a voluntary visit to Alcatraz each year. A smaller number visit the lovelier and larger sister island, Angel Island. I am exploring as I update my chapter on these islands in my book Northern California History Weekends for a new edition.)
In Brief: In the middle of San Francisco Bay, occupying some of the choicest real estate on the planet, with stunning views, are two islands that are symbols of opposite American tendencies–Alcatraz Island (for secure incarceration) and Angel Island State Park (for immigrant hope).
While Alcatraz Penitentiary was designed during the height of the gangster era as the safest possible place to lock up the likes of Al Capone, Angel Island served as the Ellis Island of the West for immigrants from Asia, who waited anxiously for their fate to be determined. Would they be allowed entry to the United States or be sent back to China?
Both islands were also military fortifications for more wars that one might imagine–Civil War, Spanish American War, World War I, World War II, and the Cold War. Nike missiles bristled on Angel Island during the Cold War.
The Historic Story: As a federal penitentiary (1934-1963), Alcatraz was selected so that there would be no possibility of escape. Alcatraz became synonymous with maximum security, a symbol of American resolve at the time when mobsters seemed as powerful as law enforcement officers. Today about 1.5 million annual visitors make a voluntarily pilgrimage to the island prison, perhaps to reflect on some of our darker national tendencies. The pilgrimages are overseen by the National Park Service.
Al “Scarface” Capone, George “Machine Gun” Kelly, and Robert “Birdman” Stroud were some of the involuntary residents. A total of 1,576 convicts served time on Alcatraz. Thirty-six convicts were involved in 14 escape attempts. Five inmates presumably disappeared in San Francisco Bay. Two who made the 1.25 miles to land were recaptured. No successful escapists who lived have been confirmed. But there will always be speculation that some escapists, such as the Anglin brothers, did not drown but rather went silently into the world of freedom.
So popular are the NPS opportunities to visit the island that reservations are highly recommended, especially in the busy summer season. In winter you may be able to get same day or next day tickets, but summer is jammed. The park service offers details at https://www.nps.gov/alca/planyourvisit/fees.htm. The exclusive provider of all boat tickets out and back (your ticket includes the excellent audio tour of the cellblock) is Alcatraz Cruises (https://www.alcatrazcruises.com). Various tour operators may have allotments of tickets available.
Once on the island, you can tour the main cell block of the prison on your own with an audio tour in which the former inmates and guards act as tour guides. Ranger talks are also available. There are hiking walks, often near lovely gardens, around the elevated perimeter.
The use of Alcatraz as a prison for civilians was only its most recent role. Starting in 1853, Alcatraz was a lighthouse. Fortified in 1859, there were 100 cannons and 300 soldiers on Alcatraz at the time of the Civil War. Gradually, formidable Alcatraz began to take on the role of military prison, preparing itself for its federal civilian prison role.
On the island, there can be specialized ranger talks and occasionally a “celebrity” event. On my recent visit, in the bookstore, sat William G. Baker, prisoner #1259, now 85 years old, autographing at a brisk pace copies of a book that is his story. Baker was an involuntary resident on Alcatraz from 1957-1960, after he had escaped from two prisons in Oregon, but been re-captured on both occasions.
“At 85, I prefer to emphasize that I have had 55 years of freedom,” said the reformed criminal. “It is correct that I spent 30 years behind bars in various locations. At Alcatraz my opportunities to escape were limited.”
The island was originally named for a Spanish word that referred to the seabirds populating the area. In 1853, when the island began to be fortified as a military outpost, everyone knew that all the water for human consumption needed to be barged in. Today you can see an example of the Rodman cannons, able to shoot a 440 pound ball for three miles. The 10-foot-thick original walls of Alcatraz were felt to be invincible.
Angel Island’s story is more complex and joyful than that of Alcatraz. Ferries from San Francisco and from Tiburon can take you to the island, which you can explore on foot, on a tram ride along the level road, or on a bicycle (your own or rented).
Angel Island’s history falls into several episodes–the Indian story, the Spanish discovery, the use of the island as a military outpost, and the final role of the island as an immigrant way-stop and quarantine center before becoming a state park.
Miwok Indians used the island as a hunting and fishing outpost for thousands of years. Paddling out in tule reed canoes from Marin County, the Indians camped at Ayala Cove and other spots to hunt deer and seals or fish for the prolific runs of salmon through Raccoon Strait. They also hunted ducks and gathered acorns and other seed crops on the island.
In August 1775 Manuel de Ayala sailed his ship San Carlos into San Francisco Bay and anchored at Ayala Cove. His main mission was to map San Francisco Bay for future Spanish exploration.
In 1863 during the Civil War, the federal government established Camp Reynolds as a deterrent to Confederate Sympathizers and to discourage possible use of San Francisco Bay by the Confederate Navy. Today the 19th-century military outpost is one of the most interesting places to explore on the island. There is a parade ground for soldiers to muster. One officer’s cottage has been restored and is staffed at times by spirited volunteer interpreters.
Gun batteries were placed on the Angel Island hills in the late 19th century and further strengthened during World War I, when the island was used to house German seaman who were captured on ships in West Coast harbors. After Pearl Harbor, Angel Island was intensely fortified because of the hysteria over a “Japanese invasion.” During the Cold War, the island was a Nike missile base until 1963.
On the east side of Angel Island is an immigration station, constructed in 1905. Between 1905 and 1940, about 175,000 immigrants, mainly Chinese, were processed through this station. The setting was not as uplifting as Ellis Island in New York, however, which welcomed immigrants from Europe. Immigrants from Asia, detained on Angel Island, were interrogated to see if they met the qualifications for entry into the United States at a time of general anti-Asian sentiment. Some were deported back to Asia.
Today you can tour Camp Reynolds and the Immigration Station to learn more details about Angel Island history.
A day on Angel Island is one of the most enjoyable outdoor experiences you can have in the San Francisco region. The views of the Golden Gate Bridge and the San Francisco skyline are outstanding. The level perimeter road can be walked or biked. Bikes can be readily rented in Tiburon or on Angel Island at Ayala Cove. A bus, called the TramTour, also operates continually on the island to take visitors around. The open-air tram tour includes recorded narration by people who participated in island history. Many visitors bring a picnic or buy lunch on the island and make a long day outing of the trip.
Getting There: The only way to get to Alcatraz is by a ferry operated from Pier 33 by Alcatraz Cruises. They are located on The Embarcadero near the intersection of Bay Street, southeast of Fisherman’s Wharf. For reservations, call 415/981-7625 or visit http://www.alcatrazcruises.com/.
From late April to October, the “Island Hop” ferry stops at both Alcatraz and Angel Islands.
Another service to Angel Island—Angel Island-Tiburon Ferry—leaves from Tiburon, crossing Raccoon Strait (named for an early British ship that stopped here). Call or click for the current ferry schedule: 415/435-2131, http://angelislandferry.com/.
Be Sure to See: On Alcatraz, be sure to tour the main cell block, aided by the audio tour for explanation. Allow plenty of time to walk around at the higher elevations on Alcatraz and view the Bay scene, including the Golden Gate Bridge and the San Francisco skyline.
On Angel Island walk, bike, or tram around the island to see Camp Reynolds on the west side and the Immigration Station on the east side.
Best Time of Year: Warm and sunny times of the year are best for both islands. Note that in summer (June-August), weather in the Bay Area is often cold and foggy. Spring and Fall usually offer clear skies, and Fall (September-October) has the warmest temperatures. Angel Island’s concessionaire services are most vigorous April-October. Alcatraz can be steep and slippery in blustery winter weather. The Bay is also more pleasant to cross in calm rather than rough weather.
One downtown hotel features a special exhibit entitled “Alcatraz: Life on The Rock” through June 2018. The Parc 55 San Francisco www.parc55hotel.com
Another of the classic and classy San Francisco hotels to consider would be the historic Fairmont, on Nob Hill, where the great mansions of San Francisco accumulated until the Earthquake of 1906. John Fair was one of these fortunate few who arranged affairs in the 19th century for his benefit. Today the Fairmont Hotel, 950 Mason St., http://www.fairmont.com/san-francisco/ carries on in upscale grandeur.
The Hilton hotel restaurant Urban Tavern and the hotel’s 46th floor aerie known has Cityscape, arguably the most stunning elevated 360 degree view in San Francisco, offer Alcatraz prison-themed cocktails that celebrate the draconian island heritage.
A restaurant steeped in detective literary history is John’s Grill (63 Ellis St., http://www.johnsgrill.com/). This landmark eatery was part of the setting for Dashiell Hammett’s famous novel, The Maltese Falcon. Try the fresh seafood and shellfish, such as the cioppino a la marinara, or Sam Spade’s lamb chops.
For Further Information: Website for Alcatraz, part of the Golden Gate National Recreation Area, is www.nps.gov/alcatraz.
The contact for Angel Island is Angel Island State Park www.angelisland.com.