Alcatraz and Angel Islands in San Francisco Bay: The Secure Prison and the Island of Immigrant Hope
By Lee Foster
(Author’s Note: I recently sailed on San Francisco Bay, on a sunny day, and explored Alcatraz Island. I felt the beauty and joy of the day and I was glad I was not incarcerated. About 1.5 million visitors make a voluntary visit to Alcatraz each year. A smaller number visit the lovelier and larger sister, 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 the middle of San Francisco Bay, two islands occupy some of the choicest real estate on the planet. Both offer stunning views. But more importantly, they are symbols of opposite American tendencies. Alcatraz Island is noted for once providing secure incarceration. On the other hand, Angel Island State Park for years stood for hope for immigrants from Asia.
Because of its isolation in the Bay, Alcatraz Penitentiary was (and is) called The Rock. The government designed the prison 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. Officials detained those newcomers, who waited anxiously for their fate to be determined. They wondered would they be allowed entry to the United States or be sent back to China?
Both islands served as military fortifications. The army originally built battlements there during the Civil War. They remained national defenses in the Spanish American War, World War I, and World War II. Nike missiles bristled on Angel Island during the Cold War.
The Historic Story
Alcatraz was a federal penitentiary from 1934 to 1963. Officials chose the site so that there would be no possibility of escape. Thus, Alcatraz became synonymous with maximum security. The Rock was 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. The National Park Service oversees these journeys.
Al “Scarface” Capone, George “Machine Gun” Kelly, and Robert “Birdman” Stroud were some of its involuntary residents. In all, 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 ventured the 1.25 miles to land were recaptured. No living successful escapists have been confirmed. But there will always be speculation that some, such as the Anglin brothers, did not drown. Perhaps they went silently into the world of freedom.
Alcatraz is so popular that reservations are highly recommended. Summer, of course, is jammed. It is the busiest season. In winter you may be able to get same-day or next-day tickets. The NPS offers details at https://www.nps.gov/alca/planyourvisit/fees.htm. Alcatraz Cruises (https://www.alcatrazcruises.com) is the exclusive provider of all boat tickets. Various tour operators may have allotments of tickets available.
Touring The Rock
Once on the island, you can tour the main prison cell block on your own with a fine audio tour. In addition, occasionally former inmates and guards act as tour guides. Also, rangers sometimes give talks. You can take a hiking walk, often near lovely gardens, around the elevated perimeter.
Alcatraz was not always a prison. Starting in 1853, a lighthouse alerted ships. Then, in 1859, the military fortified it. It housed 100 cannons and 300 soldiers at the time of the Civil War. Gradually, formidable Alcatraz began to take on the role of martial prison.
Today, when you tour the island, you might hear a specialized ranger talk. Occasionally the NPS holds a “celebrity” event. On one of my visits, I met William G. Baker, prisoner #1259. Then 85 years old, he sat in the bookstore autographing copies of a book that told his story. An involuntary resident, Baker lived on Alcatraz 1957-1960. Previously, he escaped from two prisons in Oregon. However, the authorities recaptured him 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 Spanish originally named the island for the seabirds that lived there. In 1853, the military fortified the island as a outpost. However, people had no potable water to drink. Authorities needed to barge in the water. Today you can see an example of the Rodman cannons. They could shoot a 440-pound ball for three miles. The 10-foot-thick original walls of Alcatraz were seemingly 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. Once there, you can explore on foot, on a tram ride along the level road, or on a bicycle (your own or rented).
The history of Angel Island falls into several episodes. It starts with its Indian occupation. Then, the Spanish discovered and named the island. Later, Alcatraz served as a military outpost. Its final role, before becoming a national park, was as an immigrant way-stop and quarantine center.
Miwok Indians used the island as a hunting and fishing outpost for thousands of years. The native people paddled there in tule reed canoes from Marin County. They camped at Ayala Cove. The Indians hunted deer and seals. They fished 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. He came to map San Francisco Bay for future Spanish exploration.
In 1863 during the Civil War, the federal government established Camp Reynolds. The military was to imprison Confederate sympathizers at the camp. In addition, it protected San Francisco Bay from possible attack by the Confederate Navy. Today the 19th-century military installation is one of the most interesting places to explore on the island. There is a parade ground for soldiers to muster. You can visit one officer’s cottage that has been restored. At times spirited volunteers interpret the past.
The military placed gun batteries on the hills of Angel Island in the late 19th century. The government further strengthened the island during World War I. At that time, Angel Island housed German seaman who were captured on ships in West Coast harbors. After Pearl Harbor in 1941, the public feared a “Japanese invasion.” To counteract the hysteria, the government intensely fortified the island. During the Cold War, Nike missiles hunkered down on the island until 1963.
Camp Reynolds & Immigration Station
An immigration station sits on the east side of Angel Island. The government constructed it in 1905. Between 1905 and 1940, it processed about 175,000 immigrants, mainly Chinese. While Ellis Island in New York felt uplifting, the Western facility was not. Ellis Island officials welcomed immigrants from Europe. On Angel Island, however, administrators detained immigrants from Asia. They interrogated the new arrivals. They set high qualifications for entry into the United States. At that time the public took a general anti-Asian view. They deported many back to Asia.
Today you can tour Camp Reynolds and the Immigration Station to learn more details about Angel Island history.
You should spend a day on Angel Island. It may be one of the most enjoyable outdoor experiences you can have in the San Francisco region. From the island, you see outstanding views of the Golden Gate Bridge and the San Francisco skyline. You can walk or bike the level perimeter road. You can rent bikes readily in Tiburon or on Angel Island at Ayala Cove. A bus, called the TramTour, also operates continually on the island. 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.
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. Be aware that Alcatraz can be steep and slippery in blustery winter weather. The Bay is also more pleasant to cross in calm rather than rough weather.
The Parc 55 San Francisco www.parc55hotel.com
You might consider another classic and classy San Francisco hotel–the historic Fairmont, on Nob Hill. The hotel sits where the great mansions of San Francisco accumulated until the Earthquake of 1906. Today the Fairmont Hotel, 950 Mason St., http://www.fairmont.com/san-francisco/ carries on in upscale grandeur.
The Hilton hotel restaurant Urban Tavern is a good place to eat. And the hotel’s 46th floor aerie, known has Cityscape, offers stunning 360-degree views of San Francisco. They even 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/). Dashiell Hammett named this landmark eatery in his 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.
The local tourism authority closest to Angel Island is Destination Tiburon at https://www.destinationtiburon.org/ Their Social Media hashtag is #hellotiburon.