Alcatraz Island: Golden Gate National Recreation Area

Perhaps this is what our national parks hold for us: stories, of who we have been and who we might become—a reminder that as human beings our histories harbor both darkness and light. To live in the United States of America and tell only one story, from one point of view, diminishes all of us.

– Terry Tempest Williams, The Hour of Land

Monday, September 9 was our trip to Alcatraz Island in San Francisco Bay. The twenty-two acre island, now part of Golden Gate National Recreation Area, was once a rounded hill in the valley that would become San Francisco Bay after sea levels rose at the end of the last ice age. During the Gold Rush in the middle of the nineteenth century, the island held a lighthouse and a military fort. Later, the fort was converted to a military prison with a cellhouse at the top of the island completed in 1912. In 1934, the Federal Department of Corrections took control of the island and turned it into the nation’s first and most notorious maximum security prison. It served that function until 1963 when it was shut down by the Kennedy Administration. The island languished for over six years until it was occupied by Native American rights activists in November 1969. The occupation lasted nineteen months. The following year, the National Park Service purchased the island to add it to the newly established Golden Gate National Recreation Area. Shortly after taking ownership of the island, the Park Service began offering tours of the facilities in what had been intended to be a short term use while the agency decided what to do with Alcatraz. The tours proved to be so popular that they have continued for some forty-five years with annual visitation now topping 1.4 million tourists.

Our ferry to Alcatraz didn’t leave until 11:30am, but I woke at 6:30, some five hours before. I showered and dressed and grabbed some coffee in the lobby before trotting off to the nearby SoMa Enterprise office to pick up our rental for the coming road trip portion of our adventure. There were two issues at Enterprise. First, the computer system showed that I still had an open rental. This was apparently some sort of billing issue between Enterprise and Openlands around my final rental for work. The manager of the branch got involved and when he found out that the branch in question was in Chicago, he said, “Well he didn’t drive it out here, so go ahead and rent him a vehicle.” Good grief. The second issue was that the vehicle they had for me was an upgrade to a Cadillac SUV. I was not totally comfortable with that because the hiking guides for Redwood National Park noted not to leave valuables in your vehicle at the trailheads (the only guide thus far that I’d seen that warning in). I didn’t particularly relish having a vehicle that might attract break-ins, particularly since both Sean and I had laptops with us. The only other thing that the agent could offer us that would be appropriate for camping was a Dodge Journey, which would be way too big. So I reluctantly took the Cadillac.

Trying to get back to the hotel, I almost got trapped on I-80 and forced across the Bay Bridge to Oakland. Back at the hotel, I squeezed into the last available parking space. Sean showered and dressed, and we headed out into the city.

Our plan was to head down to Pier 33 where the ferry was and find some breakfast nearby.

We rode an old timey F streetcar, which was a lark.

Sean was amused by the clusters of cyclists making their ways down Market Street next to our streetcar.

Image: Sean M. Santos

When we disembarked near Pier 33 there really wasn’t anywhere close by to eat, so we walked back down the Embarcadero to the Ferry Terminal.

There we picked up breakfast sandwiches, hash browns, and coffees, which we ate while looking out at the bay.


Then we walked back to Pier 33, pausing a few places along the way, like the whisper installation outside the Exploratorium.

Coit Tower

Pier interior

Pier 33

We arrived back at Pier 33 at 11am, checked in, and got in line to board.

While we were in line, Sean needed to schedule an important, several-hour-long work meeting that would need to happen sometime in the next two weeks while we were on our trip. Of the three times being suggested by the participants, one was on a driving day (which risked spotty service), one was on a full day at Redwood National Park (which also threatened spotty service), and one was on our planned full day at Crater Lake National Park. I quickly verified that the lodge at Crater Lake had WiFi, so Sean opted for that day on Tuesday morning of the following week. He’d be able to sit in a lodge lobby and connect via WiFi. It felt like the safest bet.

Soon we were boarding our ferry, the Hornblower Discovery.

Telegraph Hill

We opted for seats on the upper deck. Compared to the multi-hour ferry crossing and tours we’d done to and in such National Parks as Isle Royale, Virgin Islands, Dry Tortugas, Channel Islands, and Kenai Fjords, choosing good seats for the twelve-minute crossing to Alcatraz seemed beside the point.

Alcatraz Island

It was a beautiful morning for the crossing.

North Beach

Golden Gate Bridge

North Beach

On the ferry, Sean remarked that he was glad he was doing this with me. He had attempted to go years before when he’d been in San Francisco, but the ferries had been sold out that day.

Image: Sean M. Santos

Barracks/Apartments (foreground) with the Lighthouse and Cellhouse above

As we approached the dock, it was already different from what I’d imagined, both older architecturally and less fortified.

Guardhouse and Sally Port (left), Water Tower, Officer’s Club, Storehouse, and Power Plant

Lighthouse and Warden’s House

Barracks/Apartments and Dock

Immediately the layers of history were apparent. A sign on the barracks/apartments building, which itself dated from the military era, read United States Penitentiary. Visible behind it, though, was writing in red: “Indians Welcome.” During the occupation, the sign had been altered to read “Indians Welcome, United Indian Property, Indian Land.” The Park Service installed a replacement sign, but didn’t remove the graffiti on the background. It’s a complicated question: which layer of history has right of place here?


We disembarked and joined the throng on the dock.

A ranger on a platform oriented us to Alcatraz. It reminded me of Ranger Liz at our arrival on Isle Royale over eight years earlier. Only there were way more people here.

I wondered how many people arrived on this dock to encounter a National Park Ranger for the first time. How many came for Al Capone without realizing that this place is held as part of our heritage by the National Park Service?

Guard Tower

I won’t say that Sean and I didn’t listen to the ranger. We did. But we positioned ourselves on the periphery, ultimately waiting for our fellow ferry passengers to move on along up the island before we started our exploration.


Guard Tower

I think one of the weirdest things about the place is that what is arguably the most notorious prison in the nation, the famous Alcatraz, is itself built on the remnants of other uses. The lived reality here is a far cry from the mystique. Even at the dock, the disconnect between the legend and the reality of the place was palpable.

Western Gull

We were right on the cusp of the season when a certain species of fly torment visitors to Alcatraz. They don’t bite, but they are a nuisance. We didn’t need fans on the blustery day we visited, but they were at the ready.

Here’s how it works: visitors are able to take any ferry they want back to San Francisco (first come, first served). They are free to wander the paths of the island. Most people head straight to the cellhouse at the top. If visitors need assistance to get up there, they can get a lift in a little tram.

We wandered up, stopping in the little museum under the Sally Port to stamp our passports. In the museum, the layers of history were again immediately on display. A glass case offered a model of the island in its period as a military fort.

And there were artifacts and signage from the Native American occupation. The nonviolent protesters who set up camp on the island fifty years ago were protesting both the general state of affairs on reservations and the specific policy of termination, authorized by Congress in 1953, that sought to disband tribes, move members off of reservations, and sell their land. It was a mid-twentieth-century attempt at forced assimilation. The occupiers called themselves the Indians of All Tribes (IOAT) in order to convey that all Native Americans were welcome. They claimed sovereignty over the island under the 1868 Treaty of Fort Laramie, which authorized that all surplus military land be returned to Native Americans.

Although ultimately removed by federal marshals in June 1971, the IOAT occupation of Alcatraz was successful. It brought to the general public awareness of policies that were opposed by most Americans and helped spur the end of the termination policy. It also very visibly claimed an aspect of the Civil Rights zeitgeist of the late 1960s for Native Americans and spurred a new spirit of advocacy that has extends all the way to Standing Rock in this decade.

One of the demands of the occupiers was that Alcatraz be used for a Native American cultural center. Although that specific demand never came to pass, the occupation did help to shape what ultimately happened to Alcatraz Island:

In some ways, the initial idea to have a community center has come true so many years later. We don’t have a deed or “ownership,” but we don’t believe you can own land. We have access to the island for sharing stories, building community, and learning about the past. Twice a year we gather on the island for sunrise ceremonies on Thanksgiving and Indigenous People’s Day, and every year it gets bigger and bigger. There’s a nursery where volunteers can help pull weeds and grow trees. Young native kids are here learning the history and how to canoe. The culture and history are still alive on the island.

Occupier Eloy Martinez

The occupation both delayed proposed development of a casino on the island and created interest in and sensitivity around the island’s legacy so that the Nixon administration after removing the occupiers assented to its transfer to the National Park Service.

Angel Island from the Sally Port

Sean and I continued our walk toward the top of the island.

Sally Port

Image: Sean M. Santos

Image: Sean M. Santos

Officers’ Club

We passed the remains of the Officer’s Club, one of the buildings that burned in an accidental fire during the occupation.

Military Chapel

Electric Shop

The road to the top was laid out as a few lazy switchbacks that allowed for buildings to be placed on terraces along the way.

Military Chapel

Angel Island

Water Tower

Near the top, we encountered the water tower. It had been installed in 1940 when Alcatraz prisoners began to be used to provide laundry services for the military. In one of the occupiers’ first acts, the IOAT painted their core message on the water tower so that it would be visible on a San Francisco Bay landmark. Although the “graffiti” was removed by the National Park Service, in 2012 NPS invited original occupiers and their families back to rewrite the messages on the restored tower. Now it is again the most visible artifact of the occupation.

Water Tower

In the autumn of 2019, the National Park Service and the Golden Gate National Parks Conservancy are celebrating the fiftieth anniversary of the occupation with dozens of exhibitions and events on Alcatraz and across the Bay Area, including this powerful honoring of the occupation in October: Occupy Alcatraz: Native American Activism in the Modern Era.

At the top of the island, we reached the infamous cellhouse, a tour of which was the central experience for most visitors to Alcatraz, including us.

That day, there was a former inmate in the bookstore signing his memoir about his time as an Alcatraz inmate. He is part of what is apparently a small cottage industry of former inmates selling their stories.

Shower Room

We entered the building through the prison showers.

Shower Room. Image: Sean M. Santos

There we were offered the free interpretive audio tour, which we declined. The fellow who offered the tour said that the experience of the cellhouse was designed around the audio tour and that it would be much richer with it. So we each took one and then climbed the stairs into the main cellhouse.

Overall, it was brighter, shabbier, and more industrial than I’d been expecting. It looked like nothing out of a Nicholas Cage action flick. The Park Service had installed interpretive signage, perhaps most effectively indicating prisoners’ and guards’ nicknames for various parts of the prison, such as “Michigan Avenue” for cellblock A.

Many of the cells themselves were simply bare, but some included artifacts.

Image: Sean M. Santos

The audio tour itself was interesting and perhaps not entirely successful, at least for us. To its credit, it attempted to be immersive, specifically indicating a path through the cellhouse and including sound effects to help set the scene. A former guard narrated, and other former guards and inmates lent their voices and stories to the narrative. On the other hand, it walked right up to and occasionally even over the line of being lurid. Sean, who is critical of the American prison system generally, was ultimately turned off by the tour’s glorification of the prison and its celebrity inmates like the Birdman and Al Capone.

I for one felt it was too long. Alcatraz was a brutal, often hopeless place. The tour topped out at about an hour, but felt longer. By the forty-five minute mark, I was also pretty much done with it.

The views outside were beautiful, though, and there was something symbolic about the contrast of mountains, air, and sea with dingy industrial confinement. It was no less powerful for being an obvious contrast.

Brandt’s Cormorants

Flocks of cormorants and gulls inadvertently mirrored the press of tourists at Alcatraz.

Western Gulls

Mount Tamalpais


The “Hole,” or the solitary confinement block, was disturbing.

I chose to have a look into cell thirteen because, well, why not?

Sean and I were both amused to see Chris Ware’s Building Stories in the prison library.

Because virtually everyone in the space was listening to the audio tour, there was an additional level of the surreal to everything because everyone had a sort of disconnected look. We were there in the physical space with our fellow tourists, but we weren’t interacting with each other. Sometimes we moved en masse as, depending where we were in the tour, we were told to stand in front of such and such cell to hear a story about something. But there was no opportunity for discussion or connection between those of us who were there. Each of us was forced to absorb it all by ourselves.

I felt like a shambling zombie amid a throng of other shambling zombies in a brutal industrial space.

Art created by Alcatraz inmates during incarceration

The tour included affecting stories of connection or disconnection with families and lives on the outside. It breathlessly recounted attempted escapes. And it almost-too-vividly told the story of the Alcatraz uprising that left both guards and prisoners dead.

Eventually, although I kept the narrative running, I had to step outside to get some air and take in the views of the city.

The proximity between the prison and the city really was stunning. I could easily see cars moving up and down the streets of San Francisco’s North Beach neighborhood.

In a symbolic instance of graffiti from the Native American occupation, the occupiers subtly altered the stripes on the seal to spell “FREE.”

Back inside the warden’s office, I was very much done as I stood in front of the mannequin wearing a guard’s uniform. I wondered about the level of interpretive detail and how it connected to the public fascination with the place and the monies that flowed to it and how other less-famous but more important NPS sites might be interpreted with such a level of support.

Golden Gate Bridge


The audio tour concluded in the dining hall and kitchen. The breakfast menu for the final morning that Alcatraz operated as a federal penitentiary, March 21, 1963, still hangs in the dining hall. At the time that it closed, Alcatraz was the only federal prison that had not yet been desegregated. It wasn’t that the Kennedy Administration was opposed to desegregating Alcatraz, but many of the white inmates from the rural South were so racist that they were more trouble than they were worth to African-American guards. That, coupled with the expense of maintaining the island facility and a growing unease among residents of San Francisco that such notorious criminals were so close, contributed to its closure. It was replaced that year with the federal supermax prison in Marion, Illinois.

After we finished our tour of the cellhouse, we began our descent from the top of the island.

Power Plant

Model Industries Building

Halfway down, we headed to the northernmost point of the island to the New Industries Building, which houses exhibitions and special programs.

New Industries Building

I was particularly curious to see the original installation site of Trace, part of Ai Weiwei’s @Large installation project on Alcatraz. Trace, which Sean and I had seen in a gallery setting in Chicago, was conceived for the New Industries Building. The piece covered the floor with 170 large scale portraits of current political prisoners and others incarcerated for “their beliefs and affiliations.”

From the exhibition catalogue:

If the sheer number of individuals represented is overwhelming, the impression is compounded by the intricacy of the work’s construction: each image was built by hand from LEGO bricks. The images of Chinese and Tibetan prisoners were assembled in the artist’s studio, while others were fabricated in San Francisco to the artist’s specifications. Assembling a multitude of small parts into a vast and complex whole, the work may bring to mind the relationship between the individual and the collective, a central dynamic in any society and a particularly charged one in contemporary China.

Ai had himself been arrested and undergone psychological torture in 2011 for criticizing the Chinese government. In 2014, when the exhibition opened, he was still barred from leaving China.

“Future IDs at Alcatraz” in the New Industries Building

“Future IDs at Alcatraz” in the New Industries Building

The exhibition on display that day was Future IDs at Alcatraz, which “features ID-inspired artworks created by and with individuals who have conviction histories as they conceive and develop a vision for a future self. In stark contrast to prison-issued IDs, these artworks represent individual stories of transformation and work to amplify the voices and visions of individuals returning to everyday life after incarceration.”

“Future IDs at Alcatraz” in the New Industries Building

We both liked it quite a lot.

New Industries Building. Image: Sean M. Santos

After we finished taking in the exhibition, we continued toward the dock to catch the ferry back to the city. We needed to be on the 2pm boat so that Sean could get on a work call when we were back.

Belladonna Lily

We got in line at the dock and soon we were on board.

The passage back to San Francisco was uneventful.

Marin Headlands

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