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 Guide.com here.

 

The Old Fogies go to San Francisco – Part Two

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Before we started our trip, we had booked a whale watching trip around San Francisco Bay, we had always thought of trying one of these tours and the San Francisco tour was very reasonably priced. As we boarded the small vessel, our expectations were not that high but thought it would a nice trip out into the bay. The heavy mist and fog in the bay shrouded the city and the Golden Gate Bridge creating an eerie atmosphere as we made our way out into the bay.

Almost immediately, a shout went out and everyone rushed forward and peered into the distance and remarkably there was a humpback whale breaking the surface. What followed was almost three hours of sightings of humpbacks all across the bay.

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The Whale expert on board provided a commentary as the whales surfaced and dived, the boat was careful to keep a reasonable distance from the whales but nobody told the whales as one surfaced around twenty feet from the boat which shocked everyone and especially me who nearly dropped my camera, so I did not get that close up view. Thankfully our expert did get that shot which we publish below.

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Photo Whalegirl.org

Every now and again when you are travelling, you have that magical day that will stay with you for the rest of your life, our Whale Watching was one such day.

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The following day we followed a more traditional tourist path by visiting one of San Francisco’s main attractions, the island of Alcatraz. The tours leave Pier 33 and it advisable to arrive early as the queues begin to form to board the ferry. We had booked 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.

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For some reason, swarms of flies descended on the ferry as we boarded and were unwelcome travellers all the way across to the Island. Alcatraz became a military prison in 1907 and a maximum security penitentiary in 1934 and became part of American mythology because of the many films that have been made about the prison. When you arrive on the Island, you are shown to cell houses where you pick up the excellent audio tour which gives some background to the tour. Strangely, considering its reputation it was not the worst location in the world with the sights and sounds of San Francisco all around.

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That said, Block D where the most rebellious prisoners were sent is pretty grim and some of the stories from ex-prisoners suggest a violent environment at times. Outside of the prison is a variety of buildings, some that date back to when it was a military base in the 19th century.

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Another of the main attractions of San Francisco is the cable cars that trundle up the steepest hills. They maybe a relic of a bygone age, but they are very popular with long queues at certain junctions. There are three ways to travel in the cars, sitting inside, sitting outside on benches and for the brave, standing on the running board.

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Fares are quite expensive at $7, therefore if you want value for money do not use for short journeys but travel the entire route. When you do this you will see the cable car in all its glory, in some sections it is like a roller coaster moving up and down the hills. It is a major operation controlling the cable cars with a grip man and a conductor, it is entertaining watching the various manoeuvres and the way they turn the cars around at the turntables.

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On our final day in San Francisco, we thought we would travel on the bus to Golden Gate Park which is really not that close to the bridge but is one of the largest parks in the city. The bus ride took us through the former hippie enclave of Haight Ashbury which was a focal point of the Summer of Love in the 1960s. A few shops try to trade on its bohemian past and a few locals and visitors try to recreate the time by dressing up in their hippie gear.

When we arrived at the park, we thought we had been transported back into the sixties, with the smell of drugs and someone playing their bongo drums to a small stoned audience. This area of the park is called Hippie Hill and tends to attract an alternative crowd.

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This area is in complete contrast with the other parts of the park which is the location of the de Young Museum, a Shakespeare Garden, Botanical Gardens, a Dutch Windmill and a Japanese Tea Garden.

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When it was time to leave San Francisco, we thought we had only scratched the surface of an attractive and fascinating city. On the whole, the locals were very friendly but like many cities, San Francisco has a problem with the homeless and beggars especially around the Union Square area. Whilst some were quite inventive by having signs that read ‘ Money wanted for Weed, Why lie About It.’ Others had some severe mental health problems and needed attention that they clearly were not receiving.

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Another issue for travellers is the public transport system that is a mixture of mainly BART trains, buses, street cars and cable cars. The complex system is not easy to navigate and makes getting around the city quite difficult. Taxis are generally available and are sometimes the better option for short distances.

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 Guide.com here.