The Old Fogies go to Alcatraz in San Francisco

One of San Francisco’s main attractions is the island of Alcatraz that sits in San Francisco Bay. To get to the island, visitors must take one of the tours that visit Alcatraz. The tours depart from Pier 33 located along San Francisco’s northern waterfront promenade near the Embarcadero, It advisable to arrive early as the queues begin to form to board the ferry and you need to go through airport style security. We booked the tour through the official Alcatraz Cruises website, if you thinking about going to Alcatraz be wary of tours that charge a large amount to go to Alcatraz and maybe a cruise around the harbour.

For some reason, swarms of flies descended on the ferry as we boarded and were unwelcome travellers all the way across to the Island. For most people, Alcatraz is associated with the prison but the Island has a long history of human habitation.

There is evidence that the first people to visit Alcatraz Island were indigenous people who arrived there between 10,000 and 20,000 years ago. 

The first lighthouse on the West Coast of the United States was built on Alcatraz and went into service in 1854. At roughly the same time a military fort was on the Island which during American Civil War became the largest American fort west of the Mississippi River.

It was during the American Civil War that the first convicts were sent to Alcatraz fort, gradually the fort became less known for its defence capabilities and more for its military prison.

The army transferred Alcatraz to the Bureau of Prisons (BOP) in 1934 and the BOP quickly converted the military prison into a maximum-security civilian penitentiary.  It is the period from 1934 to 1963 which is the focus of the tour when Alcatraz became one of the most famous federal prisons in United States history.

When you arrive on the Island, you are shown to shower room where you pick up the excellent audio tour which gives some background to the tour. The audio includes contributions from old inmates and warders from the prison and tells some of the stories about some of America’s most notorious offenders.

One of the reasons for Alcatraz’s reputation was that it was considered a prison that dealt with inmates that were sent from other federal prisons. “The Rock” was where the most troublesome prisoners were sent to be dealt with before they could be returned to a lower-security institution. 

Some of the most famous inmates were Al ‘Scarface’ Capone and Robert Stroud otherwise known as the ‘Birdman of Alcatraz’. Walking around the prison, you wander around the cells in the different parts of the prison and listen to some inmates describing the monotonous regime and how some tried to escape. Over the 29 years from 1934 to 1963, 36 men were involved in 14 separate escape attempts. Of these, 23 were caught, 6 were shot and killed during their escape, and 2 drowned. There is no evidence that anyone escaped the “Rock” and survived. One of the most notorious escapes was the “Battle of Alcatraz” in 1946.

Strangely, considering its reputation it was not the worst location in the world with the sights and sounds of San Francisco all around. Many prisoners remarked that this made their incarceration more unbearable.

After the tour of the prison, visitors can wander around the Island and see some of the buildings and structures from the different periods of occupation. Now and again you see signs related to when a group of Native American Indians claimed Alcatraz as Indian land in 1969, their occupancy was relatively short-lived when they were removed from the Island by Federal Marshals in 1971.

The tour of Alcatraz is a fascinating reminder of a particular chapter of United States history, it is a history in which fact and myths are interchangeable probably due to the many films and books that have been written about the “Rock”.

Old Fogies Travels are the adventures of two elderly Londoners (The Old Fogies) as they explore their home town and travel around the world looking out for the strange, unusual and absurd.

Our articles are published on our blog but also listed on the website of our friends at Visiting London here.


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