The first place visitors to Alcatraz encounter when they arrive is the four-story barracks building. Built between 1865 and 1867, the structure, along with most of those on the island, actually predates the use of Alcatraz as America’s toughest federal prison.
Additionally, the nearby Alcatraz Post Exchange (PX), which served as the local grocery store, was built in 1910. After the mid-1930s, the PX was converted into a recreation hall and officers’ club. It was largely damaged by fire in 1970.
The 84-foot lighthouse tower, easily visible from San Francisco, was built in 1909 and replaced one constructed in 1854, which was the first lighthouse on the Pacific Coast.
Now fully-automated and maintained by the U.S. Coast Guard, the lighthouse remains in use.
Other significant structures on the island include the ruins of the Warden’s House, a Mission Revival-style erected in the 1920s that once boasted 17 rooms and great views of the bay.
The main cell house is perhaps the biggest building on the island. A portion of the building was constructed in 1912 to house military prisoners and it was expanded in the 1930s when the facility was converted to a maximum-security federal prison.
The latter building generates the most interest among visitors because it’s where you really get a sense of how it was to be an Alcatraz inmate. You can walk inside one of the tiny cells — an average-sized man can stand in the middle of the room and touch the two side walls.
Each cubicle had a small bed, sink, toilet and pull-down writing table — and not much more. Some of the rooms have been furnished the way they might have looked when inmates lived in them.
You can also wander into the claustrophobic chambers for prisoners placed in solitary confinement. Close the door and you see that very little light enters these cells, which have no furnishings. It’s just you and four blank walls — for days on end.
It’s in here that you begin to understand why inmates described Alcatraz as an island of despair and a place of hopelessness.
An optional audio tour points out the narrow space for pipes and utilities that is behind each cell. In 1962, several inmates led by Frank Morris, gained access to this small area and escaped from the prison. While never recaptured, it is believed they drowned in the bay. Their daring effort was popularized in the film “Escape from Alcatraz.”
You can also wander the grounds around the prison. Over the years, gardens originally planted by the inmates and guards (who lived on the island with their families) as well as other vegetation have exploded all over the island, making the Rock a little less ominous.
One of the best ways to tour the prison is using the self-guided audiocassette tour, which is available for a small charge. All voices on the tape are those of actual prisoners or guards who lived at Alcatraz.
There is also an excellent and informative brochure produced by the National Park Service, available for a nominal charge.
Alcatraz is open daily, except Thanksgiving, Christmas and New Year’s Day, from 9 a.m. to 4:30 p.m. The National Park Service, which operates Alcatraz, has contracted with a private ferry company to bring visitors to the island. For ticket information, go to www.alcatraztickets.com.
For information about the history of Alcatraz Island and the prison, go to www.nps.gov/alca/index.htm.
Rich Moreno writes about the places and people that make Nevada special.