Thursday, December 22, 2016

Golden Gate NRA -- Alcatraz Edition

Golden Gate NRA encompasses about 20 different sites around the Golden Gate area, providing activities from military history to camping to nature viewing. During my short stay in San Francisco, I had the opportunity to visit four of those sites.  I decided to walk from San Francisco Maritime NHP downtown to Fort Point NHS, what I thought was only about a 2-mile trip.  It turned out to be a 3.5-mile trek (7 miles round trip), but if you're up to it, I highly recommend it. I walked up the steep rise to the upper green of Fort Mason, then down the stairs into the heart of the historic Army post. From there, a little farther down Marina Ave on my way to Fort Point, I traversed Crissy Field, an expansive open space for beautiful beach views or just relaxing.

Besides taking in spectacular views of its namesake, however, the most popular attraction within Golden Gate NRA is Alcatraz.  I have always had a bit of a fascination with the place -- a prison we sent the most hardened criminals to and one that was said to be unbreakable, despite many inmates' best efforts.

The Cell House from halfway up from the dock.  The Cell House sits about 300 feet above the water.
Scale model of what Alcatraz looked like when operational
I recall, as a kid, watching several Alcatraz movies and thinking how cool it would be to visit. By far my favorite Alcatraz movie was Alcatraz:  The Whole Shocking Story.  It told the story of an 18-year-old kid, named Clarence Carnes, who was sent to prison for murder -- the youngest person ever sent to Alcatraz. While in Alcatraz, he took part in two organized escape attempts, including the 1962 escape attempt, where three inmates made it off the island but were never heard from again (they're presumed drowned).  Though Carnes took part in both escape attempts, he himself did not attempt to escape.  As it turned out, the audio tour of the site highlighted both of those escape attempts!  I was fulfilling my dream as I walked the cell block and recalled the names of those convicts and how the story unfolded!  The below pictures give a bit of a glimpse into what life was like on The Rock and how those two escape attempts unfolded.

My tour began the same place it did for those prisoners.  Those are showers in this picture.  New arrivals were ordered to strip down and shower then make the long walk in their birthday suit down the first cell block to the hoots and hollers from those they passed.
The hallway between Cell Blocks B and C
D Block.  This is where those that couldn't play by the rules were sent.  Those that still refused to adjust were sent to solitary confinement cells for a period of time:  those with the solid doors in the lower right corner.  There were no lights in there.
Every prisoner had a job.  Some worked in the kitchen preparing the food.  Notice the silhouettes in the knife cabinet.  This made it easy to tell at a glance if one was missing.
The Control Room.  There were no closed-circuit cameras or radios to each officer here -- just a few phones scattered throughout that called here and the ability to dispatch other officers to locations around the compound as necessary.
That barred-in area above is the Gun Gallery -- the only place in Alcatraz that had armed officers.  In the 1946 escape attempt, Bernie Coy created a bar spreader using a bolt and a piece of pipe from the Machine Shop.  He starved himself to make himself as skinny as possible and greased himself up to slip between the spread bars in the Gun Gallery, where he surprised the officer on duty there, who had stepped away for a few minutes.  Coy and his cohorts later took several officers hostage in the cells near where the people are standing in this picture.  One of the officers ultimately prevented the escape by hiding the key on his person even though it was against regulations for the officers to keep cell keys on them.
In the 1962 escape attempt, three prisoners pulled off the most sophisticated escape attempt ever tried at Alcatraz.  The short version is they used spoons from the kitchen to dig out around the vents in their cells, patching it up every night with paper, cardboard, and paint (notice the dug-out vent hole in the cell).  They also created dummy heads with a modified papier-mache and glued hair to them (notice the recreation in the picture).  The cells pictured above belonged to the Anglin brothers, two of the escapees.  The discovery of their ease in digging through the cement walls led to the shutdown of Alcatraz the next year.
Not a great picture, but this is the utility corridor that the three escapees climbed into from their cells the night they escaped.  The corridor is open up to the roof, so they climbed the pipes up the three stories and out onto the roof, down a pipe and down to the water where they got in a raft made of raincoats.  They weren't discovered until the morning, and they were never heard from again. 
Some of the best views of the Golden Gate Bridge are from Alcatraz.
Fort Point can clearly be seen sitting under the Golden Gate Bridge and dwarfed by the immense structure.
Sadly, Alcatraz is falling apart.  In fact, that is exactly what allowed Frank Morris and the Anglin brothers to escape in 1962.  Thankfully, the Park Service continues to do restoration (at great cost) to preserve such a well-known and unique landmark for tourism.

Outside of Alcatraz and the other areas I saw, there are still a few areas of Golden Gate NRA that I would like to explore.  While researching this site, I saw a picture of a tent at Marin Headlands, near the water, just a stone's throw from the Golden Gate Bridge. How cool of a camping spot would that be!?  The views from Lands End on the western edge of the southern peninsula look stunning as well.  Finally, it would be hard to pass up a little history lesson at a Nike Missile Site that protected the west coast from Soviet bombers or the turn-of-the-century Fort Baker Army post, tucked in a beautiful spot beside the Golden Gate Bridge.  Then, of course, there are so many other sites in San Francisco to see.  I think on my next trip, I should plan to stay a while!

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