Alcatraz derives from the name Spanish explorer Juan Manuel de Ayala gave to one of the three islands in San Francisco Bay, “Alcatraces,” probably referring to the “strange birds” or “pelicans” he saw on it. Its strange name (its meaning still debated) is appropriate, given The Rock’s unique history as a federal penitentiary, but as our guide noted, some of the island’s truly unique artifacts are its gardens and the stories behind them.
Twice weekly, docents lead garden-themed tours of Alcatraz, introducing visitors to the beauty on this beast. By chance, we disembarked the Alcatraz Cruises ferry just minutes before the free tour was departing, alerted to it by the National Park Ranger during the overview briefing.
Our guide, docent Dick Miner, held our attention for an hour as we padded along the switchback road to the island’s summit, detouring occasionally to restricted areas. He regaled us with stories, weaving in the island’s history as he dished about the inmates and residents who created and tended the gardens.
Fort Alcatraz, built in 1850, morphed into a military prison in 1861. Despite the lack of topsoil and water, gardens have graced The Rock since the mid-1860s, when the military began importing soil to create a more comfortable life for those stationed here. In the 1920s, prisoners planted trees, shrubs, and seeds as part of an island-wide beautification project with the California Spring Blossom and Wildflower Association.
When Alcatraz became a penitentiary in 1934, it was all about containment and punishment, but families lived on the island and raised their children with some sense of normalcy. “They knew where the bad guys were, so they never locked their doors. They were more anxious in the city,” Miner said. Kids who grew up here, he added, recall it as a magical place.
When the penitentiary closed in 1963, the gardens lost their caretakers. For 40 years, they were neglected and left to Mother Nature’s whims. In 2003, the Garden Conservancy joined with the Golden Gate National Parks Conservancy and the National Park Service to restore and preserve them.
As we walked, Miner began filling in the blanks in the island’s gardening history. Credit Freddie Reichel, secretary to the first federal warden, for preserving the gardens created by the military prisoners. “He didn’t know a lot, but he knew the gardens should be preserved,” Miner said.
Reichel consulted with horticulturists, seeking advice for maintaining the gardens and adding new plants. In 1941, he recruited Elliot Michener, a counterfeiter transferred to Alcatraz after an attempted escape from Leavenworth, to help with the task. Michener had no gardening experience. Everything he learned came from information on seed pamphlets.
Miner guided us into a restricted area, pointing out the Bardou Job, a rare hybrid tea rose now known as the Alcatraz rose. Heritage roses grow throughout the island, but this one is “a real treasure,” Miner said. It had disappeared in its native Wales and was considered rare to extinct. The rose was adjacent to the island’s composting center, which Miner, “the Worm Man of Alcatraz,” designed. Passion edging his voice, he explained the process of making dirt from island waste — not just any dirt, but Marin County Fair ribbon-winning dirt.
Back on the main road, Miner stopped midway up the hill adjacent to the stone wall edging it. Cannonballs originally topped the military-built wall, but Mrs. Swope, the first warden’s wife, had them replaced with planters, now filled with ivy leaf geraniums (ruins pictured below). “Look,” he said, inviting us closer. “These are the secret gardens. Unless you look over the wall, you don’t see them.” He opened a chain, and we descended a stone stairway to explore these gardens, created in foundations of the former Officers Row.
We stopped again at the warden’s house ruins. “Michener developed a special relationship with Mrs. Swope, later becoming her houseboy,” Miner said. It’s alleged, he added, that Mrs. Swope baked fudge for Michener to smuggle into his cell: “a real no-no, as that was something the guys would kill for.”
From the lighthouse, we followed the West Road, pausing to view snowy egrets nesting in a thicket. At the road’s end, Miner pointed to a stairway rising through terraced gardens to the prison’s fortified recreation yard. Inmates would descend these steps en route to the industries building. “The rule of thumb was that you couldn’t plant anything big enough to hide behind,” Miner said. It was the only garden most inmates saw. Those who worked in it were allowed to bring cut flowers into their cells. “They would sacrifice drinking water to do so,” Miner said.
Before releasing us to climb the steps and explore the inside, Miner circled back to Michener, who appreciated the freedom the gardens afforded him, Miner said. When he was released after nine years tending them, he became a landscaper in the outside world. “He was of the few redemption stories out of Alcatraz.”
HILARY NANGLEHilary Nangle can be reached at Hilary@hilarynangle.com.