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Alcatraz after dark: Once a military prison, eerie evening visit offers extras

Aug. 4, 2011 - 03:52PM   |   Last Updated: Aug. 4, 2011 - 03:52PM  |  
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When night falls on The Rock in San Francisco Bay, visitors move shadowlike through the former federal and military prison's lantern-lit hospital rooms, a gloaming against dingy walls with peeling blue paint.

A hard wind whooshes and rattles a window in the hospital cell where Robert Stroud, "The Birdman of Alcatraz," spent 11 of his 17 years when this was the dankest, hardest federal prison in the U.S.

Yet, most of the more than 1 million tourists who visit the famous former prison annually never get to experience Alcatraz Island at night or see its spooky, decrepit hospital — experiences unique to the night tour. At dusk, the island prison that housed some of the nation's most notorious criminals is often enshrouded by fog, and the lamps on the grounds emit a ghostly glow.

Lucky visitors who find a guide who isn't too busy can also tour "The Dungeon," a usually off-limits area of the prison that can be accessed at night.

It's left over from when Alcatraz was a military prison, and has a series of small alcoves where Civil War and World War I-era prisoners were held, said Jim Bradon, a guide. Shine a flashlight on the wall of one dark alcove and you can see the inmate numbers of former prisoners carved into the bricks.

The difference from the daytime tour is apparent from the start. The ferry from San Francisco motors slowly around the west side of the isle, passing decrepit buildings surrounded by Alcatraz's new residents: black Brandt's cormorants, Western gulls and the other birds that have made their home there since U.S. Attorney General Robert Kennedy shuttered the prison in 1963.

After leaving the boat, visitors begin a winding ascent past the prison's official sign, where a faded "Indians Welcome" written in red paint is still visible, remnants of the Native American occupation of the island from 1969 to 1971. The island became a national park in 1972.

"You're following in the footsteps of every federal prisoner who ever came here," said Eric Knackmuhs, a Golden Gate National Parks Conservancy guide.

Passing the guano- and rust-covered buildings that once housed the families of prison guards, the park's employees tell of a failed Friday the 13th escape attempt in January 1939 — one of many attempts recited in detail that are not included on the daytime tour.

Once inside the prison, the audio tour features stories from ex-inmates and former prison guards in their own voices.

The tour leads visitors through D Block, or solitary confinement, where you can stand inside a dark cell and listen to the voices of inmates who spent time there. Close your eyes and you can sense the isolation, the desperation.

As the sun sets and the lights inside the penitentiary dim, the employees open up the hospital at 8 p.m. Visitors walk through the dark rooms past old metal operating tables, the former X-ray room with windows painted black and the psych ward.

The hospital visit is unique to the night tour, and it is a significant addition to Alcatraz's story.

"You ever see ghosts here?" a tourist asked an employee in the hospital's hallway, shadows dancing on the walls as tourists passed before lanterns.

After a brief pause, she said no.

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