This afternoon I had a trip to Alcatraz booked for 2.30pm, which left me the morning to explore more of the city. It was a beautiful clear day which was a pleasant change after the rain the day before. I hadn’t spent much time in Downtown San Francisco, so I decided to go there in the morning. Also, it was on the way to Pier 33 where the ferry would leave so it made sense.
I left the hotel and walked a couple of blocks towards Downtown where I found a nice little cafe for breakfast. They had a great breakfast menu, and I had scrambled eggs and three cheese hash. It was soooo yum! The potato was amazing, and the coffee was really good too.
Full of energy to take on the day, I continued on to Downtown San Francisco. On the way I walked within a couple of blocks of City Hall. Although I’d been there the day before, I figured since I was so close, and it would be open today, I might as well stop in briefly. I had read that they have tours every two hours, but I was on the wrong hour so missed that. It didn’t really matter though because I don’t think I wanted to stay there for the full hour it would have taken to do the tour.
The inside of the building was beautiful. The main staircase was lovely, with a huge dome ceiling. There was a couple getting married while I was there and they were coming down the stairs. It reminded me a bit of the ballroom scene in Beauty and the Beast. I caught the lift up to the third floor where you can look down on the room and take a closer look at the ceiling. The detail was amazing, and it was very well maintained. I did a lap of the floor, but it was mostly offices. The main council chamber wasn’t open to the public because it was in use.
Not far from City Hall is the UN plaza. I had no idea what I’d find there, but it was on my way to the street car so I walked past. It’s really just a paved area with a couple of fountains and some bench seats. It just so happened that every Tuesday at 12pm they have a performance from a local art group so I stopped for a little while to watch them.
While I was waiting for them to start, a man in a wheelchair rolled up beside me and said “hello”. His name was Sam, and he proceeded to tell me how he’d just found his favourite brand of shampoo at a nearby CVS Pharmacy and bought six bottles so he could stock up. I didn’t really know what to say, except that I was happy for him. He continued to chat, asking about my holiday and telling me his favourite parts of San Francisco. He also told me about the shampoo he’d just found…several times. He was a bit strange, but seemed harmless. After 15 minutes of watching the band I said goodbye and continued on my way.
I walked towards the main CBD, aiming for a post office I’d seen on the map – I had a couple of postcards to post. When I got there, there was a massive queue. Being lunch time on a weekday in the CBD I guess that was to be expected. Rather than queuing, I went to the self serve machine and bought a couple of stamps. Either I bought the wrong stamps or put the cards in the wrong post box, but they haven’t arrived yet so I’m not sure if they’ll ever make it…
There was a street stall selling BBQ pork rolls around the corner, so I bought one for lunch and sat under a tree to eat it. It was quite warm in the sun, but cooler when the breeze picked up. It was way nicer than the day before!
After lunch it was getting close to 2pm so I caught the street car to Pier 33. I checked out the ferry terminal to see when I needed to queue, and I was about 20 minutes early so I went for a short walk to see what was around.
Back at the terminal, I joined the queue and got ready to board the ferry. As with just about every tourist attraction on my trip, I had to stop for a souvenir photo in front of a printed Alcatraz backdrop before getting on the ferry. They always print them out and have them waiting as you leave. It seems like such a waste, but they’re always way overpriced.
The ferry was quite large, split over two levels. I moved up to the top deck for a better view, quite excited to finally have a clear day looking out at the Golden Gate Bridge. The ferry had solar panels on the roof and wind turbines on the back. It was also powered by a battery charged from mains power, with a TV screen on the lower deck showing the flow of electricity throughout the boat. It was quite interesting to see how it all came together.
It’s about a 20 minute ride out to Alcatraz Island and I took a lot of photos of the city and Golden Gate Bridge, not realising I’d have an even better opportunity once I was on the island. As we came closer there was a pealing sign on the edge of the island warning people against aiding prisoners from escaping the island. Given the distance from the mainland to the island, I imagine it would have been difficult for boats to sneak out to the island and help anyone escape.
The ferry pulled up to the dock, and we waited for them to lower the gangway. Everyone gathered on the dock where one of the park employees welcomed us and gave a quick overview of the island, including how to get to the cellhouse.
I grabbed a map, and then made my way to the cinema room where they screen a 15 minute Discovery Channel documentary on Alcatraz island. It was a great intro to the island, where I learned that initially the island was developed as a fort to defend San Francisco Bay in the 1800’s. They never actually needed to use it as a fort though, and it soon became used as a military prison. In about 1930 its use turned to federal prison until the 1960’s when it became to expensive to run, and work was needed to maintain the buildings, so it was closed. At the start of the 70’s it was occupied briefly by a group of American Indians, but their occupation only lasted about 18 months before the few remaining people were removed from the island. Since 1972 it has been a National Park and a protected landmark.
The documentary is screened near the dock. From there you can make your way up the hill to the cell house, but along the way there are quite a few buildings to look at. First stop is the electric shop, then the Post Exchange and Officers’ Club. Interestingly, the families of some of the officers lived on the island too, with their children catching a ferry to San Francisco each day for school. Because of that, there are some facilities for social gatherings, such as the Officers’ Club, where they held dances, bowling nights and other events.
Further on is the Quartermaster building where supplies were kept, and the Powerhouse which generated electricity for the complex. Given the importance of electricity in running the prison, this was a well guarded building. Over the hill near the water is the Model Industries Building where inmates were sent to work during the day, mostly doing laundry.
The views from the island were great, and the gardens were very pretty. Most of the plants were planted by families of officers working on the island, and later groups of prisoners were also allowed out to tend the gardens. Now, with the island declared a national park, these flowers grow wildly across the island.
After checking out the buildings on the lower section of the island, I made my way up the steep hill to the Cellhouse. Along the way I stopped to look at the morgue, a small concrete room on the side of the Dining Hall.
Around the top of the cell house was a fenced in walkway where guards would patrol, and at certain points there were well barred watchtowers looking out over the grounds. The thought of sitting up there for a shift isn’t very appealing – it would be so cold and windy! The path up to the cell house winds back and forth because the hill is so steep – somewhat reminiscent of my trek up the hill to Coit Tower the day before.
The cell house is a big rectangular building, several stories tall. Once inside, there were staff handing out audio tours. Everyone got their own headset and it then guided us through the building, pointing out interesting features and providing a history, along with stories of escape attempts, narrated by ex-wardens and inmates.
It started off going through the main cell block, providing a general introduction to the prison. There were a lot of people in the building which made it hard to keep up with the audio, but fortunately it had a pause button which was handy for taking a closer look before moving on. The audio tour is apparently 40 minutes long, but I think I spent about an hour and a half walking through – I made good use of the pause button!
There are four rows of cells in the Cellhouse. Rows A to C are the standard cells. The cells cover two levels down the sides of each row. The cells were very small – wide enough to fit a bed, toilet and some space to walk around. Later in the tour there were cells with paintings, carvings and other crafts – just a few examples of how prisoners were rewarded for good behaviour. After seeing the standard cells, the tour went through the prison library.
Just outside the library is Row D where the isolation cells, known as ‘The Hole’, can be found. These are smaller cells that don’t have any windows and are where prisoners were sent if they disobeyed the rules of the prison.
Around the outside wall of the Cellhouse, overlooking all the cells, is the gun gallery. This is where armed guards patrolled, keeping an eye on the prisoners. The gallery is separated from the cells by metal bars. For their own safetly, to prevent prisoners taking control of them, the guards patrolling the floor were not armed, although the guide mentioned that they often secretly carried sticks and tasers for protection. The idea was that the guards in the gun gallery would be able to shoot prisoners if necessary.
The tour told of an escape attempt where a prisoner had made a tool, known as a bar spreader, which he planned to use to gain entry into the gun gallery, steal weapons and take over the prison. He was successful in gaining access to the gallery and getting weapons, but the prisoners weren’t able to get out of the cellhouse because one of the guards had taken the key to the exercise yard and not returned it to where it was usually kept.
Several guards were taken hostage and locked in cells, and the escaping prisoners shot five of them. After that, Marines were sent in to recover the prison from the prisoners, by dropping grenades from the ceiling. You can still see marks on the concrete where the grenades exploded, and a hole in the ceiling where the Marines had positioned themselves.
After that interesting story, the tour went past some cells where we could see items the prisoners made, such as paintings, carvings and even crochet! Apparently one of the prisoners had learned to crochet from his grandma, and then taught other prisoners how to do it. It was interesting to see this side of prison life, although I think these sorts of privileges would’ve been reserved for very well behaved prisoners.
Next stop was the visitation area, where prisoners could have family members come visit. I think they were only allowed an hour a month, and all conversations were supervised and through glass which was a couple of inches thick. We were also able to walk through the officers area, past the armoury and prison control centre where officers did paper work and key communication equipment was set up.
Outside the tour went past the lighthouse and along the edge of the island where there were great views of the city and Golden Gate Bridge. The path went past some gardens and around to the exercise yard.
Back inside the cell house the next stop was a set of cells with the airvents removed from the back wall where you can see the hole has been widened. The prisoners chiselled away at the concrete wall to make it wide enough for them to fit through. The guards believe they used spoons to do this, because after their escape several worn down spoons were discovered in the prison.
Behind the cells is a small gap where pipes and cables run to provide the cells with water and electricity for lighting. The prisoners climbed up the pipes to gain access to the roof. They don’t know exactly what happened to the prisoners, but they were never found. It’s assumed they drowned on their way back to the mainland, but their bodies were never discovered.
The last stop before the end of the tour was the dining hall. It’s a really big room where the prisoners came together to eat. In the ceiling there are jets that look like fire sprinklers, but they actually squirt pepper spray. The idea was that if trouble ever broke out, it could be used to bring everyone back under control. A couple of guards would normally be in the dining hall with the prisoners, so I’m not sure how they would have survived something like that. The pepper spray was never used, but maybe the threat of it was enough to keep the prisoners under control.
The kitchen was behind bars, and where the knives hang on the wall they had painted it black where each knife should be so they would easily notice if a knife was missing. Above the kitchen they still have the menu of the final breakfast served on March 21, 1963 – assorted dry cereals, steamed wheat, scrambled eggs, fruit, toast, bread and butter.
At the conclusion of the audio tour it was time to make my way back down to the dock. The last ferry leaves at 6.30pm and it was 6pm. I had time to stop in at the gift shop and buy a piece of concrete from a ruined building, then walk back down the hill to the dock. Again, there were some great views of the city from the ferry on the way back – definitely the clearest day of my visit!
Back on the mainland it was heading towards 7pm. Pier 39 is just down the road, a main tourist area on the piers. I hadn’t been there yet, so went to check it out. It was basically a big pier covered in souvenir shops, arcade halls and restaurants. It reminded me of Navy Pier back in Chicago, but bigger and busier. I wandered the shops for a bit, until I came to the end of the pier. The view out over the bay was awesome, and I was keen to watch the sunset.
There was a Japanese restaurant with tables overlooking the water, so I decided to go there for dinner. Wanting to make the most of the location, I had an entree and a main and was soooo full by the end. It was a lovely way to end the day and wrap up my visit to San Francisco.
Dinner finished and the sun gone, I walked the rest of the strip between Pier 39 and the cable car. This took me past more market-like shops and restaurants, where I’d had dinner on my second night. There was a bit of a wait for the cable car, and for some reason they had to leave in 20 minute intervals even though there was a queue of cars waiting to go. I think it had something to do with both directions sharing a stretch of track, so they had to time it so they didn’t get in each other’s way. This was my third ride on a cable car, so I definitely got good value from my three day ticket! It was really exciting riding at night, and I was standing on the platform again, right up the front.
I spent a little while walking around near Union Square and checking out the city by night, then jumped on the connecting street car back to the hotel to pack and get ready for the morning. I’d had a great few days in San Francisco, and although I’d seen a lot it had been a relaxing visit.