The Rock sits above the Bay’s icy waters, its past as murky as the waves that smolder against the crumbling brick facade.
As the small ship, tossed about in salty somersaults, slips toward the dock, the sun begins to fade and the twilight fogs stretches at the corners of the island.
In 1858, 200 soldiers and 11 canons arrived here, on Fort Alcatraz, in much the same way visitors arrive today: a chilly but brief jaunt across the San Francisco Bay by boat.
When War broke out in 1861, 105 cannons were set up around the island to protect the bay from the Confederate Army and to imprison Southern rebels unfortunate enough to get caught in the fray. Not a single cannon was ever fired here, each one laying in wait and in silence until the end.
By the 1870s, the military technology there was rendered obsolete, and instead, the cells were filled with civilian criminals, Indians who refused to comply with white rule and, perhaps most nefarious, conscientious objectors opposed to war.
You can wander through the cells, experiencing the art and games of inmates…
… and even try out solitary confinement, if you are so inclined.
During its 29 years as a federal penitentiary, Alcatraz claims to have never let a soul loose. Thirty-six escape attempts — considered unsuccessful — but three men managed to disappear into the frozen fog of the Bay and were never found, leaving behind papier-mâché doppelgangers and holes in the wall.
In 1946, the most violent attempt claimed the lives of two guards and three inmates. US Marines stormed the prison, dropping mortars and grenades through the roof and adding to the many scars of Alcatraz.
The Birdman of Alcatraz — guilty of manslaughter and considered psychotically apathetic and dangerous — called the island home for 17 years, split between the solitary D Block and the cushy confines of the hospital wing.
Al Capone paid his due respects to Alcatraz, as well, and continued to run his mob empire from his sea-view accommodations.
Machine Gun Kelly spent his days on the good sides of the guards as a model inmate and on the bad sides of his fellow visitors as he spun yarns of the fantastic deeds he never did.
More than 60 families also called the island home, and voices of happy children recall the good times: playgrounds and school friends and warm summer days spent on the beaches of the Rock. As the concrete buildings began to dissolve into the sea, the prison slowly slipped into the past, the last of the inmates and civilians setting sail on March 21, 1963.
For years, the cultural significance of the island was largely ignored; but the United Indians of All Tribes set out to change history: on November 20, 1969, they seized the island and its buildings in a nearly two-year occupation, claiming the land as their own. When the demonstrations became old news, occupiers began to destroy buildings, and the federal government rescinded the Indian Termination Policy and established new rules for the self-determination of tribes.
The island has been more or less open to the public since the 1970s (my father can remember visiting soon after the occupation and told me of how run down and rustic it was then), and the National Park Service began to redevelop and rehabilitate the facilities in the early 1990s.
To get to Alcatraz Island, you have to take an organized tour. Try Alcatraz Cruises, which does day and evening tours that include boat trip, audio tour and park entrance fee; the sunset cruise also includes a short tour by a qualified ranger or guide.