Tuesday 11 March 2014

California: Day Eight - Alcatraz, San Jose, Los Angeles

Before arriving in San Francisco, I had booked our Alcatraz tickets for the morning we were leaving. It’s a good thing I did, as we were the first tour time and it was packed.

Bye-Bye Union Square 
We loaded up our suitcases and left them with the valet at the hotel. Then we caught a cab to take us to the pier. We were on the 9:10 boat, and by 9:20 were on Alcatraz. What a depressing island – as you approach it and get off the boat this large, imposing, stone building looms above you. We listened to a brief introduction about the island and how it became a prison. Then we were pointed toward a theater room that was showing a more in-depth documentary about the history.

Alcatraz wasn’t used much until it became a military fortress in the 1880’s due to it’s proximity to San Francisco. The costs of building and repairing were expensive, so in the late 1800’s it became a military prison. When those costs also became to high, it was sold to the Department of Justice and became a Federal Prison in 1934. It was for the “worst of the worst” offenders – those who had committed awful crimes and those who caused problems at other facilities. It was the “gangster era” so most prisoners were killers or bank robbers. 

According to Wikipedia: During the 29 years it was in use, the jail held some of the most notorious criminals in American history, such as Al Capone, Robert Franklin Stroud (the Birdman of Alcatraz), George "Machine Gun" Kelly, Bumpy Johnson, Rafael Cancel Miranda (a member of the Puerto Rican Nationalist Party who attacked the United States Capitol building in 1954), Mickey Cohen, Arthur R. "Doc" Barker, James "Whitey" Bulger, and Alvin "Creepy" Karpis (who served more time at Alcatraz than any other inmate). It also provided housing for the Bureau of Prisons staff and their families. During its 29 years of operation, the penitentiary claimed that no prisoner successfully escaped. A total of 36 prisoners made 14 escape attempts, two men trying twice; 23 were caught, six were shot and killed during their escape, two drowned, and five are listed as "missing and presumed drowned".[ The most violent occurred on May 2, 1946, when a failed escape attempt by six prisoners led to the Battle of Alcatraz. On June 11, 1962, Frank Morris, John Anglin, and Clarence Anglin carried out one of the most intricate escapes ever devised.
Because the penitentiary cost much more to operate than other prisons (nearly $10 per prisoner per day, as opposed to $3 per prisoner per day at Atlanta), and half a century of salt water saturation had severely eroded the buildings, then Attorney General Robert F. Kennedy ordered the penitentiary closed on March 21, 1963. In addition, citizens were increasingly protesting the environmental effects of sewage released into San Francisco Bay from the approximately 250 inmates and 60 Bureau of Prisons families on the island. That year, the United States Penitentiary in Marion, Illinois, on land, opened as the replacement facility for Alcatraz.”

The tour was done as a self-guided audio tour. Normally I don’t enjoy audio tours as I prefer to read the information, however this one was great. It was recorded by former prisoners and guards which brought the history to life. It was an engaging presentation, and both Brian and I enjoyed it.

I hadn’t known much about Alcatraz before the tour, so I learned a lot. Something that surprised me was learning that the guards and their families lived on the island as well. The audio tour included stories from them and what it was like as a child growing up beside the prison.

We got to see the cell-blocks, visiting area, library, office areas, solitary confinement, as well as the kitchen. It was very interesting and enjoyable tour but they didn’t touch too much on the Native American occupation that occurred in the 1960’s and lasted for two years. But the traces from that time were evident in the graffiti on the buildings.

Alcatraz is a fascinating place with a much more detailed history then I ever imagined.

After Brian and I arrived back at the pier, we took a cab to the hotel and loaded up the car. We got out of San Francisco and stopped for a quick lunch at a Panera. We made another stop at a mall in San Jose because there were a few stores I wanted to have a look in. I initially directed us to the wrong mall, so we lost a bit of time due to that. But by 4:00pm we were on the road and heading toward Los Angeles.

If this had been opened at the San Jose Mall I would have dragged Brian!
We took the more direct route down to LA which cut through the state, rather then going along the coast. It still took a number of hours, but was a lot more scenic then I imagined. When I had thought of California, I always pictured palm trees, beaches and desert. This route was similar to Ireland, as it was full of green hills and in some areas had farms with cattle. We passed by the reservoir, which was beautiful. Brian picked up an AUX Cable at the gas station so we were able to listen (and sing along) to music from my iPhone (we kept losing radio stations). We stopped for pizza and a break around 10:00pm and didn’t pull into the LA area until after midnight.

Google Street View Car - Brian had me get a photo. 
The scenic drive 
I was grateful it was so late because the highways were far more insane then I had imagined. They crisscrossed everywhere, and the speed limits are higher then you would expect. Despite the late hour cars were whizzing by us, and it was relatively busy. I could only imagine what it would be like during the day.

Our first night’s hotel was the Hilton Garden Inn by Marina Del Ray, but since it was so late we checked in and went right to sleep. It had been a long day, and we had five more full days ahead of us.   

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