If you are like me, most of what you know about Alcatraz may have come from movies depicting the island when it was home to a federal penitentiary (1933-1963)–with prisoners such as Al “Scarface” Capone and Robert “Birdman” Stroud, and a couple daring escapes with escapees never seen again. In the famous 1962 escape, three prisoners chiseled through cell walls with spoons, made papier-mache heads to put in their beds, crawled up through vent shafts and across the island, and launched rafts made from rain coats. Did they make it to land, or did the cold waters of San Francisco Bay do them in? No one knows–but the case remains open until the three escapees (Frank Morris–played by Clint Eastwood in Escape from Alcatraz, John Anglin, and Clarence Anglin) reach their 100th birthdays.
Though the island’s 30-year history as a federal penitentiary looms large, it was also home to a Civil War fortress and the first lighthouse on the West Coast, and was occupied very briefly in 1964 and then from 1969-1971 by a group of American Indians to bring Indian rights issues to the attention of the government and the public. Today, Alcatraz is run by the National Park Service and–as I will mention in Part II–has lovely gardens and is a favored nesting spot for sea birds. So if you like history, scenic views of San Francisco Bay, and lots of natural beauty, Alcatraz offers all three.
Sign, with painted additions from American Indian occupation