Even in typically sunny Californian weather, Alcatraz still sends a chill down the spine.
The 161 year old former fortress, lighthouse and prison is an isolated, wind-swept guardian in San Francisco Bay, passed by hordes of vessels daily.
These days, the island is in a national park and the cell house doors are almost exclusively the domain of tourists who flock to ‘The Rock’ in huge and ever-increasing numbers.
Most visitors are keen to uncover the true story of Alcatraz; much of which has been lost in a fog of myths, books and movies.
Tours of ‘The Rock’ are run almost year-round by the National Park Service, which is working to interpret the history of Alcatraz, preserve the buildings, protect wildlife and sustain gardens.
The tours discuss many escape attempts, including the time that one prisoner leapt into the bay while on rubbish detail and how another hid on a visiting military vessel.
Then there was the 1962 escape attempt when three men slipped into the bay using raincoats to keep afloat.
Although their bodies were never found, they are assumed to have drowned.
And, visitors also hear about the ‘Battle of Alcatraz’ – over two days in 1946 – when an unsuccessful escape attempt led to the death of two guards and three inmates.
Another convict and 11 guards were injured and two prisoners were later executed for their roles.
As well as the prison years, the tours touch on the use of Alcatraz as a fort during the American Civil War, when it boasted 111 smoothbore cannon.
Another fascinating episode in the history of ‘The Rock’ occurred from 1964, when Native American political activists occupied Alcatraz on three occasions.
The activists claimed the island in the name of “Indians of All Tribes”, however living on such a harsh and isolated landscape gradually took its toll on the occupation, which withered away.
Graffiti from the Native American occupation remains today and is one of the most striking features of ‘The Rock’ for tourists arriving on the dock.
Alcatraz is indeed a memorable and striking attraction for travellers to San Francisco. There is a range of tours, designed to suit most needs. Don’t miss it!