Hidden Alcatraz: What the Tours Don’t Show You

Alcatraz. The Rock. A decrepit old prison stuck out on a tiny island in San Francisco Bay… a rose by any name. Most people have heard of the place and millions of people have toured it. It’s easy enough to find great information about this fascinating piece of San Francisco, American penitentiary and Civil War history online (in fact, try this: Alcatraz Island), but what most don’t know is that there is a lot more to it than meets the usual tour. The place is spooky enough just walking through while plugged into their audio tour guide, but I got some extra creeps when a good friend of mine, who works out there as a docent, gave me a private tour into a few places that aren’t usually shown to the general public. Fortunately it was one of those gorgeous days in the dead of winter that we often have here in San Francisco, so the ghostly chain-clanking was at a minimum.

1. View of Alcatraz Island from the Ferry’s Bow:

We’ll start our tour with a breathtakingly beautiful ferry ride out to the island, which only takes about fifteen minutes.

2. The Golden Gate Bridge:

A little in the distance and just west of the island is the Golden Gate Bridge.

3. Our Tour Guide, Paul:

And here’s my friend Paul the Docent, greeting the island’s visitors just before he takes me on our private tour.


4. China Alley:

I had taken the audio/walking tour earlier and it’s wonderful, but Paul took me off the beaten path and onto the more hair-raising one… starting with China Alley, a Civil War-era ammunitions storage facility so named because it was reminiscent of the alleyways in San Francisco’s China Town.

5. An Old Gunpowder Storage Room:

We went inside one of those cryptic rooms, which is now used as a break room for employees. That back wall? Hey, they don’t call it “The Rock” for nothing…

6. The Earliest Prison:

In the early 1850’s, the first prison, which was underneath the guardhouse, housed military prisoners. Imagine being crammed with a bunch of other men into this icy little room…

7. Descent into the Prison’s Hidden Underbelly:

After that Paul took me way down deep under the Citadel, its early fortified barracks…

8. Early Prison Cells:

…and then into its veritable dungeon.

9. The Old Hospital Operating Room:

The spray-painted graffiti is a leftover from the island’s “Indian Occupation Era.” Creepy, no? Creepy, yes… but it gets even worse. Is there anything more disturbing than an old prison hospital?

10. The Hospital’s Hydrotherapy Room:

How about an old prison “hydrotherapy room,” where the crazier prisoners were treated to a dip in an ice-filled bathtub? And that curious porcelain container on the left? It seems hemorrhoids were a common problem on the island and a soak in this delightful little tub was the treatment. I guess the prison life fun never ended.

11. Lunch Area:

Alcatraz does have a nice lunch area, though, and it offers a wonderful view ofSan Francisco. But if you continue walking past the tables, you’ll discover another, lesser known reminder of why this prison was so famous for being inescapable. The sides of the island just below the prison are covered with agave plants and, as beautiful as they are, were planted to serve a more forbidding purpose. If anyone attempted an escape, trying to make it through these plants’ razor-sharp leaves was as deadly as running through barbed wire.

12. The Island’s Lethal Weapons:

On this grim note we concluded our private tour and headed back to the City for a little civilized dinner and drinks. Speaking of which, I thought it was pretty funny to learn that of all the penitentiaries in the U.S., this one had the reputation of serving the best food. Ah,San Francisco… never to be outdone on the great food score!

If you’d like to learn more about Alcatraz Island and its fascinating history, check out the sites listed below:

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Kim Diehl Written by:

Kim Diehl got lucky: her father was a ramblin’ man. And a foodie. And a barhopper. And a lover of art, music, comedy and all things history. He was also a really obnoxious American tourist, but that’s how the rest of his family learned how not to behave when traveling in foreign lands. Plenty of her childhood was spent traveling on the U.S. roads, especially along the Gulf coast, with the main intention of eating great food. She also spent several summers in Europe having fun while riding around on those dopey tour busses, singing ridiculous songs like “Tiny Bubbles” with a lot of blue-haired little old ladies. The great result is that the whole gang grew up knowing that seeing the world was a very do-able thing, and not just something other people did. As an adult, Kim continues to take up where the old man left off, travel-wise. She hits the road whenever possible, rooting out the best food, drinks, art, music, clubs, history and silly tours. She tries hard not to embarrass her country.