BACK HOME ON
Alcatraz seen from above the Maritime Museum
Alcatraz, the Rock, America's Devil's Island, my home!
Today Alcatraz is probably San Francisco's biggest tourist attraction. But back in 1947 to 1949 it was home to me and my family. My father, James R. Craig, was a correctional officer on Alcatraz.
The GUARDians of Alcatraz 1947-1948
My mother and I took a short vacation last August (1997). We revisited this old home of ours. This was one of the those mother-daughter things. You know, the usual list:
1. Sailing from our homeland to America in 1946.
2. Returning to Australia in 1995 and touring the country by bus, plane and train.
3. Spending a night in a cell on Alcatraz on August 9, 1997.
This weekend was the 63rd anniversary of the opening of Alcatraz as a Federal Penitentiary. The event was a get-together of Alcatraz alumni-former guards, their families and ex-prisoners. Such a strange gathering! It's definitely an elite group, the only prerequisite being that one must have worked/lived on the island.
Saturday morning, August 9th, we arrived. We had to be at Pier 41 by 8 AM, complete with backpack, sleeping bags and a folder of old documents and pictures from our original stay on Alcatraz. It seemed weird hauling sleeping bags to San Francisco. But, then, this wasn't a normal trip.
The National Park Service-Golden Gate National Recreation Area-footed the bill for some 40 of us former residents. It included a boat trip to and from the island, a place to sleep and five meals (free room and board….just like the prison used to do) and they even issued each of us a blue Alcatraz Anniversary T-shirt.
Iris and Erin in front of the Warden's House
Building 64. Above left is the remains of the Warden's House
From the dock where we landed we could look up at Building 64-our old home. Second floor (first floor of apartments), apartment 198.
Who says, "You can never go home again?" We did!
Our old apartment was in better condition than most. Hollywood had used our apartment for a scene in the movie, "The Rock."
Nicholas Cage had been hiding in my parents' bedroom, clutching the last rocket guidance chip when the bad guy in our kitchen reached through our wall and grabbed poor Nick. Then the villain threw him through our bedroom window onto the metal grating where I used to play as a child. That was my backyard-this metal "sidewalk."
Erin biking on the rock
Erin enjoying afternoon snack outside the back door of apartment 198
Erin with nary a crumb or nibble
The view from our front porch was gorgeous-Angel Island, the Marin shoreline, the Bay Bridge and Yerba Buena Island. And we didn't have to pay extra for the view.
Mum remembers standing on the porch one day when we lived on Alcatraz Island looking down on the wharf below when she was bumped on the arm. She turned to see Cary Grant and his then-wife, Betsy Palmer.
They had been visiting the warden up on the hill. The two continued down the porch to the dock and boarded the launch for the mainland.
Our apartment was just above the storage area on the docks. That and having steam heating seemed to encourage cockroaches. So, every night Mum sprayed poison on the kitchen floor and every morning she would mop it up before we two children woke. When we moved to El Centro in 1951, Mum was a seasoned bug battler.
Our island living was confining regarding the areas where we were allowed to go. Never up the hill to the actual prison area. Never to be seen wearing shorts. No glass, razor blades or other sharp objects in our garbage, as prisoners were detailed to pick it up. Plumbing and electrical repairs to our apartment were done by a prisoner under guard. The laundry was picked up once a week to be washed in the laundry building by the prisoners and delivered back one week later.
The prison launch, "Warden Johnson," made scheduled 12-minute trips back and forth across the bay to San Francisco. It carried commuting officers to and from work and ferried women and children to the city for school, jobs and shopping. If we had any visitors, we would first have to get permission and then travel on the launch to San Francisco to verify our visitors before they were allowed to board the launch for the island.
Alcatraz has no water supply so the water boat used to come over from Angel Island daily. Our stoves used bottled gas. The one thing Mum never got used to was waking up in the middle of the night thinking there was a ship in her bedroom…..the foghorns were a startling awakening.
But that Saturday night, as she looked from the top of the Rock toward San Francisco, breathed in fresh ocean air, saw the sparkle of lights on the wate and thought of the heat in Imperial Valley, she knew she had never really appreciated the beauty of living on Alcatraz.
For this trip we stayed in cell 27, Cellblock D, second tier. Cellblock D had been reserved for violent or disruptive inmates. The men were confined to these cells 24 hours a day.
Iris unpacking in her not-so-new room
Actual Alcatraz Accommodations
As it worked out, Mum got a cot with a mattress and I got the concrete floor. I could have had my own cell but, since I forced my dear mother to stay in a cell, I thought I should be with her. However, next time, I'll be sure to take a pad or two for under my sleeping bag.
And, no, they didn't lock our cell door!
Just as well, since the amenities in the cells either didn't work or weren't there anymore. We had to descend from our second-floor "apartment" through the cellblocks, past the prisoners' visiting area, through the administration section, out past the lighthouse, beyond the warden's house to the Port-a-Pots.
It was an adventure just hiking to the toilets!
Because there is no source of water, there are no bathing facilities.
So we bathed as best we could with the package of moist towelettes we'd carted up from the desert. And we brushed our teeth with bottled water. Just like camping out.
Oh, yes, ….about our neighbors. There was a nice young couple to the right of our cell and an ex-prisoner to the left. I don't know if he was sleeping in his old cell or not. He seemed quite harmless…..for someone who had spent 10 years in Alcatraz for burglary, robbery and kidnapping. Nowadays he spends time on the Rock answering questions from the tourists and autographing the book he wrote about his "time" on Alcatraz.
Alcatraz housed an average of 250 prisoners. There were a lot of infamous individuals on this little island:
Al Capone, Mickey Cohen, Creepy Karpis and Doc Barker, to name a few. Machine Gun Kelly and Robert Stroud, the Birdman of Alcatraz, were confined there when we lived on the Rock……just down the road!
Saturday, while the park rangers were conducting their first-ever evening tour for the regular tourists, we old folks were given special tours into the lighthouse and onto the roof of the cellblock. Regular folks don't get to see these places. The climb up into the lighthouse was breathtaking, literally! I was huffing and puffing by the time I reached to top. But what a terrific view! A 360- degree spectacular panorama of the San Francisco Bay.
About 7 PM we went up through the hospital area and the theatre/chapel room to reach the roof of the cellhouse. The first item pointed out by our guide was the now-sealed ventilation shaft through which Clint Eastwood…..oops…..I meant Frank Morris and the Anglin Brothers escaped in 1962.
Looking in the direction of the Golden Gate Bridge, all we could see was the fog rolling in from the Pacific. We could see the skyline of San Francisco being enveloped by that same fogbank. Carefully peering over the edge of the cellhouse roof, we could see the tiny tourists way down there wondering why we were so special. We could tell they felt slighted. Tough! We'd paid our dues.
After the tourists had all gone back to the mainland Saturday night, we alumni still got to wander around by ourselves. It's an eerie feeling, walking around the cellblocks and not seeing another soul, hearing their voices(alumni or ghosts?) and walking in my father's footsteps of 50 years ago--hallways that he walked, guard towers in which he stood for hours. Strange that that old Merchant Mariner from before World War II, who had visited the exotic ports around the Pacific and a few in the Atlantic, would end up here on the Rock surrounded by the waters of San Francisco Bay.
Guard tower on north side of the island
The group of Alcatraz alumni here included a lady who had lived on the island as a child back in the 1920's when it was still a military prison. Other returnees had been on the island more recently-up into the 1960's when it was closed as a penitentiary. We didn't meet anyone who was on the Rock at the same time we were except for the 92-year-old Captain of the Guards and his daughter.
Mum did remember them.
Former Captain of the Guards, Phil Bergen, with Iris Craig
There were a lot of lectures/programs given by former guards, prisoners and family members. And lots of old pictures, home movies and memories. That was an awful lot of history all on one rock!
I even heard some Alcatraz stories from my mother that I'd never heard before.
After spending two days on Alcatraz, I think I could lead my own tours of this place.
I was just 2 ½ to 3 ½ years old when we lived on this infamous island. But after listening to all the "war stories" from the Alcatraz alumni, I feel adequately indoctrinated in Alcatraz history. I can't wait until next year!
Originally written in 1997. Updated with additional pictures later.
Dates: 5 Aug 1947 to 7 Jan 1949
Erin Craig is a Great-Great-Grand daughter of Henry Gralton.
A 1996 Action Thriller Movie
Stars: Sean Connery, Nicolas Cage and Ed Harris
A renegade general and a group of U.S. Marines take over Alcatraz threatening San Francisco Bay with biological weapons. A chemical weapons specialist and the only man to have ever escaped from the Rock will attempt to prevent chaos.