Every hour, long queues are seen at Pier 33 in San Francisco. People are in a hurry to catch the ferry that whisks them away to an island that Sean Connery escaped only to return while Clint Eastwood left to never return. We are, of course, talking about Alcatraz, which has found an “entertaining” place in films.
Shut since 1963 (except for an 18-month occupation between 1969 and 1971 by a group of rebellious Native Americans), Alcatraz Island is now one of the most sought-after tourist destinations where people land up for most of the day. Some decades ago, nobody thought people would pay to get into the big house — complete with a souvenir store — and have a mini picnic.
Some of the cells at Alcatraz Federal PenitentiarySourced by The Telegraph
The Eastern State Penitentiary in Philadelphia has also met a similar fate, but Alcatraz remains a bigger draw. In 1971 the National Park Service opened the decaying remains of the maximum-security prison to visitors and has since become one of the biggest tourist attractions in Northern California.
At Alcatraz, visitors are told the story of escapes and escape attempts. In its 29 years as a federal prison, from 1934 to 1963, 34 men tried to flee during 14 escape attempts, including two who tried to escape twice. Six were shot, 23 were recaptured and at least two drowned. Also, three men broke free in 1962 but were never seen again.
Ruins of a building on Alcatraz IslandSourced by The Telegraph
AL CAPONE AND MATES
After closing down in 1963, Alcatraz was in the news only once. On November 20, 1969, 70-plus Native Americans boarded three boats and sailed to the island, to claim a territory that they said belonged to them. The brainchild of Adam Nordwall, an Ojibwe businessman from the Red Lake Reservation in Minnesota, they occupied the island for a year and a half, protesting the government’s mistreatment of Native people. They moved into the buildings that once housed prison warden and they scribbled a message on the water tower: “Peace and Freedom. Welcome. Home of the Free Indian Land.”
On November 20, 1969, 70-plus Native Americans boarded reach Alcatraz Island three boats and sailed to the island. They scribbled a message on the water tower: “Peace and Freedom. Welcome. Home of the Free Indian Land.”Sourced by The Telegraph
Visitors come here to learn about how the likes of George (Machine Gun) Kelly, Floyd Hamilton (Bonnie and Clyde’s driver), Robert (the Birdman) Stroud and Al Capone, who were some of the famous inmates here. In fact, Capone is a connecting factor between Eastern State Penitentiary and Alcatraz. The gangster served a nine-month stint in the former and was released on March 17, 1930. The next year, he was found guilty of tax evasion and sentenced to 11 years in prison. He served out seven years, six months and 15 days of this sentence at both the Atlanta federal penitentiary and Alcatraz. Diagnosed with syphilis, he retired to his Florida estate, where he died in 1947.
The walk towards the prisonSourced by The Telegraph
A WAREHOUSE TO CONTAIN BADDIES
It’s a forbidding place, yet visitors like to walk the narrow tiers where the likes of Capone and Machine Gun Kelly once “lived”. The word ‘Alcatraz’ is known around the world — perhaps because of its portrayal in Hollywood — and it stands for one of the worst places to be in. The volcanic island was ceded by Mexico to the US in 1848 and till 1868 it was a citadel fort.
At the ferry ride that needs to be taken to reach Alcatraz IslandSourced by The Telegraph
As one goes through the damp rooms, the small windows in some of the cells can’t be ignored. It once offered prisoners a glimpse of San Francisco, filling them with a yearning for freedom. During the tour, some of the myths around Alcatraz are cleared up, like the Birdman never kept birds there. One also gets a sense of the era of gangsters and how it was more of a “warehouse” to keep them contained. After the first set of prisoners arrived on the island, the warden telegraphed the attorney general: “Fifty-three crates furniture from Atlanta received in good condition — installed — no breakage.”
What it could have looked like inside one of the prison cells of Alcatraz Federal PenitentiarySourced by The Telegraph
Reporters was not allowed on the island. The only people who could visit were blood relatives and wives to discuss family matters and they spoke through a phone as a guard listened in. No talks of the world outside were allowed and I doubt if prisoners got to know anything about the Second World War.
Many of us struggle to appreciate history by reading books,so a visit to the island — however bleak that may sound — will surely put a glint in the eye of anyone interested in the past, unsolved mysteries and, of course, films.
With every step, you will be reminded of what Frank Morris (Clint Eastwood) is told in Escape From Alcatraz: “If you disobey the rules of society, they send you to prison. If you disobey the rules of prison, they send you to us.”