Betty Wallar, age 87, daughter of Gangster-Era Correctional Officer, returns to see ‘greener’ side of Alcatraz Island!
Daughter of Correctional Officer, Staff Photographer, and Cellhouse Locksmith, was never allowed to see most of this little island when her family lived here between 1935 and 1951.
Betty’s family lived in the creatively named ‘Building 64′ – which towers over the dock area and enjoys a sweeping view of the east bay and beyond. Family members had no direct contact with convicts here, but did send their clothes to the Prison Industries Laundry to be washed, tumble-dried and folded by the convict workforce – which included America’s most notorious ‘Gangsters’ – like Al Capone…
For prison staff and their families, living on Alcatraz Island was very different. Each school, shopping and church day would require a boat ride to and from the Alcatraz Dock at Fort Mason – in San Francisco. The vessel would usually be the Warden Johnston - named for the commanding first man-in-charge of U.S.P. – Alcatraz.
The convicts were generally safely locked in the Cellhouse when the children were home from school – and the prison facility was fenced off from the employee’s living quarters by towering cyclone fences topped with barbed-wire. Armed Correctional Officers manned ‘gun-towers’ at the dock area, on top of the cellhouse, and around the perimeter of the island. Unauthorized boats which approached too closely, would be greeted by a very real warning shot ‘across the bow’ to remind them to stay away. Prisoners who may have considered testing the gun-tower marksmen, were dealt a strong dose of reality in 1936, when the first to try – Joseph Bowers – was fatally gunned-down trying to scale a fence… ‘Welcome to ‘the Rock!‘
The towers are mostly gone now, save the imposing Dock Tower – rebuilt by Hollywood for ‘Murder in the First’ – and it is now safe for the former children of Alcatraz to roam the entire island. Betty Wallar, 87, a retired RN, joined us for a recent visit – and was ‘pleasantly stunned’ by areas of the island she had never seen before!
We started our day with a stroll to the south of the dock area and onto the Agave Trail, an enchanting setting just where you might least expect to find one – Alcatraz! Open only from September through mid-February – as this is a nesting area for seabirds – the trail meanders along the island’s south shoreline and enjoys a tremendous view of the San Francisco skyline. Several comfortable benches provide ‘strategic’ viewing and/or resting opportunities.
The trail is lined with distinctive blue-green cacti, which reach six to eight feet in height, and send flowering chutes ten to fifteen feet beyond – and are commonly referred to as ‘century plants’. This is actually the Agave Cacti – source of the valuable fruit from which tequila is made… (if only the Convicts had known!)
Children on Alcatraz enjoyed playing on a large, flat concrete area above the Agave Trail and below the cellhouse known as the Parade Ground – a name dating back to the US Army’s Fortress Alcatraz -and the island’s early military history. Unfortunately the families who lived on ‘the Rock’, also had to conform to strict rules issued by the Warden, and weren’t allowed to have any pets – or bicycles! (talk about doing ‘hard-time on ‘the Rock’!)
After a full day on ‘the Rock’, Betty summed it up from her perspective; “It’s a nice place to visit, but I wouldn’t want to live there – again!
Recommended Reading (for ‘kids’ of all ages!): ‘Al Capone Does My Shirts‘, a novel by Gennifer Choldenko, G.P. Putnam’s Sons, 2004