Sunday, August 29, 2010 : San Francisco, Alcatraz


Our last day in San Francisco is mostly dedicated to the visit of Alcatraz.


A cab picks us at the hotel. During the ride, as we cross the Financial District, the driver, who is obviously not short on humor, brings my attention to a modern, vaguely heart-shaped, sculpture at the base of a tower.


  • We call it the Bankers' Heart.
  • Why ?
  • Because it is made of stone !


Needless to say, I enjoy the joke !


As we arrive on Pier 33, we can see that even little birds have adapted : when it is very warm, and today it certainly is, they dip their feet in the water puddles left after the sidewalks have been thoroughly cleaned.

San Francisco, bird refreshing its feet

Even birds need to refresh their feet, when it's that warm !


While we're waiting for our boarding time (everything is planned, at Alcatraz Cruises !), we visit the part of the old merchant harbor, now converted into shopping malls, between piers 33 and 43. I call this pier review.


San Francisco, the sea lions

The famous San Francisco sea lions


The famous San Francisco sea lions (they are not seals !) have been gathered here a few years ago.


After honoring the souvenir photo ritual, we board our ship.


San Francisco, swimmer in the Bay

Yes, you can swim in 61°F water


There are all kinds of people in San Francisco, even swimmers who cross part of the bay in 61°F water. Kudos to them !


San Francisco, USS Jeremiah O'Brien

USS Jeremiah O'Brien, one of two remaining liberty ships


While our ship leaves the jetty, I have a look at the Jeremiah O'Brien, just in front of us. It is one of two remaining liberty ships in sailing condition. Those were cargo ships built during WWII to resupply Britain while under the Nazi blockade. No less than 2,710 of them were made !


San Francisco, the Golden Gate Bridge

The superb Golden Gate Bridge


The weather is way better than on the picture we took at the same place three weeks ago. The Golden Gate Bridge is now well contrasted against the hills and the Pacific in the background. How beautiful it is, in its simple elegance !


San Francisco, the Rock of Alcatraz

The Rock of Alcatraz


We are now within sight of the Rock of Alcatraz, featured in many films. The main building on top of the hill looks in good condition, but the view is misleading. And yet, since the site became a National Park in 1972, it has been relatively well-kept. But some secondary buidings are derelict or in ruins.


Alcatraz, the showers

The showers


As soon as we set foot on the Rock, we collect our audio-guides. These very handy devices, complete with headsets, will guide us all along our visit. Their features allow to go back and forth, visit a room a second time, basically do the tour at our own pace.


The visit begins with the showers. At 5'10, no problem for Frank Morris, but I wonder how Al Capone, who was short, did to pull the chain !


Alcatraz, the recreation yard

The recreation yard


On one side of the main building, Alcatraz had a recreation yard, of course fenced with a high wall. The first retaliation toward unruly inmates was to deprive them of that precious little time outdoors.


Alcatraz, the library

The library


There was a library, too. When the Federal Penitentiary closed its doors in 1963, the books were transferred along with the inmates, and the shelves now lie empty.


Alcatraz, the Gun Gallery

The gun gallery, from where wardens brought back order at gunpoint


We pass under the gun gallery, that dominates the ground floor of the main building, where cells are located. From this gallery, wardens brought back order with live ammunition, like during the 1946 riot, which lasted three days.


Alcatraz. Some inmates painted

To spend their time, some inmates painted


Between duties, when they did not work and were not punished, inmates kept themselves busy as they could. Some painted.


  Alcatraz. Some inmates knitted.

Others knitted


Others knitted. The idea of those guys, murderers, rapists and all other kinds of bloody brutes, taking to such a very quiet pastime can make smile, but you have to keep yourself busy one way or another, even in Alcatraz.


Alcatraz. The visitation room

The visitation room is really small !


At one end of the main building is the minuscule visitation parlor. Inmates did not use it a lot, either because they were not too keen on it, or because bad behavior had made them punished.


At its time (1934-1963), Alcatraz was the most restrictive institution of the whole Federal penitentiary system. Very few prisoners were assigned there directly. Most were transferred from other prisons after escape attempts, or when their behavior mandated it. Contrary to what is generally believed, Alcatraz never ran at full capacity.


  San Francisco, seen from Alcatraz

San Francisco, seen from the top of the rock


During a short walk outdoors, we take this picture of San Francisco. The weather is really superb, typical of end-August, and the straight streets appear very neatly against the background of hills.


Alcatraz, Chief Warden's Office

The Chief Warden's office


Back inside, the visit crosses the Chief Warden's office. Alerts were dispatched from here, in case of escape attempts. On the back wooden cabinet, we can see the radio set that was used to inform the police on the Continent.


  Alcatraz, Frank Morris' cell, with hole

Frank Morris' cell. They left the hole thru which he escaped


We then visit Frank Morris' cell. With two other inmates, Morris attempted to escape in the spring of 1962, and nobody ever saw him again. To this day, it is not known whether he drowned in the Bay (likely, but his body has never been found), or if he could make it to the shore. His story is told in Escape from Alcatraz, with Clint Eastwood.


Less than a year after his attempt, the penitentiary was closed down.


Alcatraz, cell open for visit

Some cells are open for visit


On the first floor, a few cells are open for visit. Even if I know that I am there for half a minute and nobody is going to lock that gate on me, it makes me kind of shiver to think of myself on the wrong side of the bars.


Alcatraz, the kitchen

The kitchen, where knives were carefully and endlessly recounted


Toward the end of the visit, we cross the kitchen, where some inmates worked. Obviously, wardens spent their time counting the knives again and again, just in case.


We also visit the morgue, which was used from time to time, since inmates served very long sentences, often life.


At the tip of the island is a secondary building, which hosted the workshops. It is in very bad condition and is not open for visit.


The galleries at the bottom of the hill can be visited. During the Spanish occupation, and later, when Alcatraz was a military prison, they were used to store ammunition.


San Francisco, cable car on the turntable

Cable car being turned around manually on the turntable


After the visit, we get back to the shore and walk in North Beach. Of course, a visit of San Francisco would not be complete without a cable car ride, and we gladly accept the necessary half-hour wait. The cable car is more a tourist attraction than a real urban transit. Only three lines are remaining.


At each end of each line is a turntable. The gripman (that's the name for the driver) ungrips the car from its cable with a big lever, pushes it a half-turn on the table, grips it back, and here we go ! Easy and straightforward !


For the last time of this trip, we get back to our hotel. Very early tomorrow morning, our long trip back to Europe begins.

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