Tourists still flock to Alcatraz

The island of Alcatraz in San Francisco Bay is synonymous with notorious criminals. It is the fascination with Al Capone and the Birdman, Robert Stroud, which make this disused jail a major tourist attraction.

Booking a visit is an almost hopeless task unless done well in advance. In 1847, the United States government, which had annexed California from Mexico, bought the uninhabited island from the Mexican government.

Alcatraz suddenly became important when the gold was discovered in California in 1849. San Francisco became a boomtown. The gold boosted trade and ship traffic into the bay increased enormously. The US wanted to protect the West Coast’s most important harbour, so a fort was built on Alcatraz.

By the time the civil war broke out in 1861, San Francisco was a target for Confederate attackers and thus Alcatraz took on an important strategic role. More than 100 smooth-bore cannon were installed, including the latest word in war technology — a 25-ton cannon which fired 440- pound cannonballs three miles.

The oldest building on the island is the guardhouse, built in 1857. It was used to hold Confederate sympathisers. A lighthouse was built in 1852 and came into operation in 1854. By the end of the 19th century, the military importance of Alcatraz had declined and its facilities were in 1907 converted into a military jail with a capacity of 600 prisoners.

The old citadel was demolished and the present cellhouse was built. It was something of an engineering challenge to bring all the material for the steel-and-concrete building to the island by barge and complete construction using mainly unskilled prison labour.

The prisoners built their own cells. The jail became a federal prison in 1934. Visitors walking around the island can still see traces of gardens, especially at the warden’s house and on the slopes below the cellhouse. Among the skills prisoners learned was gardening — to help rehabilitation, it is said. In 1924 the California Spring Blossom and Wildflower Association made contributions of top grade seeding ranging from rose bushes to lilies.

Vegetables grown in the gardens were served in the dining room and cut flowers were displayed in guards’ homes. With more than 140 plant species brought from many part of the world, the Alcatraz gardens became a wild botanic micro-culture — diverse gardens filled with rare roses and massive South American succulents as well as Mediterranean plants. Alcatraz won a reputation as a magical garden. Today the prison is a tourist attraction. Every year more than a million visitors take the short ferry ride from San Francisco to the nine-hectare island.

Alcatraz housed the most notorious of America’s criminals in the 20s and 30s — Al Capone — the best-known tax evader in history — George ”Machine Gun” Kelly, Floyd Hamilton and Doc Barker. Another famous inmate was the Birdman Robert Stroud, immortalised in a film starring Burt Lancaster. But most of the 1 545 convicts who did time there were not notorious. They were there because they were likely to escape from other jails. The waters surrounding the island made escape almost impossible. Strong currents come out of the bay and the water is almost always cold. During its time as federal penitentiary there were 14 escape attempts, all unsuccessful. In 1962, Frank Morris and John and Clarence Anglin tried to swim to freedom. They were never recaptured but are presumed to have drowned, sucked down in the currents.

Strangely enough, no one knows which cell housed Al Capone. The records of the time are incomplete. Another odd point: Stroud did not have birds on the island. He worked with canaries at another prison, Leavenworth. In 1963, Attorney-General Robert Kennedy closed Alcatraz as a penitentiary.

In 1969 Richard Oakes, a Mohawk Indian, and a group of Indian supporters symbolically claimed the island for the Indian people. Eleven days later, the symbolic occupation became a full-scale occupation which lasted 19 months until June 1971. – Sapa-DPA

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