Thursday, September 28, 2006

Fog City Primer: Alcatraz

That scourge of modern society, international terrorism, had almost defeated us, but we were actually here in San Francisco, Fog City. Friends had recommended the major sights, and many hours of research in guides and on the internet had slimmed down the wealth of visitor attractions to those that the whole family could enjoy.

Our first destination was Alcatraz. What a better way to start a holiday than in jail, but what a location! That was the cruel irony of the place when it was a fully functioning hotel for felons: its proximity to the mainland. The inmates could sense the city and all of its charms, but it was tantalisingly out of reach across a narrow straight of water in San Francisco Bay.

We crossed that divide by Blue and Gold ferry, booked in advance thankfully to avoid the August queues. The terminal on Pier 39 was already thronged with people at 10am in the major tourist district of Fisherman's Wharf, with all of its souvenir shops and Clam Chowder stands. It was a bright morning although cool, as the trademark fog had yet to fully disappear. Alcatraz island appeared smaller than I expected, but its eerie mystery pervaded the air nevertheless as the boat neared the dock after the 20 minute ride.

With such a relatively small island and everyone arriving in batches, organising the vistors was key and you were marshalled up to an area where one of the national park rangers explained the rules and what there was to see. After this short introduction, we journeyed up the hill to an exhibition hall where we saw a film giving an insight into the history of the place, and some of its more famous residents. Then it was time to make the final ascent to the jailhouse perched on top of the rock.

The cells were claustrophobic and primitive - this was surely no luxury place. After all, what designer apartments have a 'gun gallery' at the end of the block? The security of the whole place rested on this separate area at the end of the main hall, where the armed guards patrolled with a full sight of the prisoners below. Consequently, when one of the inmates managed to use a home made bar spreader, he quickly overpowered one, grabbed his gun and then used the cell keys to lock up his former captors, with one of the more psychotic residents shooting them in cold blood for good measure.

These stories from the past, and the rows of stark, dank cells, brought a real chill to the spine. As it is such recent history, it felt very real, very tangible and the horror of the place felt ingrained in the fabric of the building.

If you like your history raw and relevant, go there.

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