Alcatraz Island sits out in San Francisco Bay beckoning. And although I have been to San Francisco many times, for a myriad of reasons I had never been to Alcatraz, until last week.
The reasons why it was last week among all the others that was the day I went to Alcatraz is as varied as the reasons why I had never been. But I do know why I was very motivated to go this time – the gardens of Alcatraz.
Alcatraz Island has a long history, starting in the 1840s as the location of the first lighthouse on the West Coast, then a US military base and ending its tenure as a maximum-security prison. It is famous partly for housing Al Capone, partly for being ‘inescapable’ and partly because it is in San Francisco Bay. Throughout its history there have always been gardens, and although they have never been as famous as their location the recent restoration project is bringing them their due attention.
When Alcatraz was a maximum-security prison from 1934 – 1963 as many as 70 families of guards and staff lived on the island to service the prison. Under the unusual conditions of living on a desolate island along side a maximum-security prison, these families lived normal lives, including gardens. It is the gardens of this period of the island’s history, mainly the 1940s and 1950s, that are being restored. One warden had a garden and a greenhouse built for his wife, the officer’s had gardens along Officer’s Row, there was a Rose Terrace, the West lawn and Terraces and the Cellhouse Slope which faced San Francisco. This slope was covered in iceplant, called “Persian carpet” by the inmates. The plantings served two purposes. One was erosion prevention and one was to soften the look of the island from the residents across the bay in San Francisco.
In addition to working on the gardens of the warden and officers, the prisoners had their own garden at the end of the West Road. This garden was along the route that the prisoners took daily on their way to work in the prison industries. The soil was amended with garbage, a birdbath appeared, staff provided seeds and the prisoners gardened.
Alcatraz is an inhospitable place, known as “The Rock”. It is barren, windswept and sea splashed, not ideal garden conditions, but the residents – the voluntary and involuntary – created gardens for over a century. In the 1930s the warden’s secretary, Fred Reichel, contacted the California Horticultural Society and other western plant breeders to find out what types of plants would do well on the island’s harsh conditions and planted them.
The prison closed in 1963 and the island was abandoned. For 40 years the abandoned gardens were untouched. Beginning in 2003 the Garden Conservancy, the Golden Gate National Parks Conservancy and the National Park Service began a joint effort to preserve and restore the gardens. Remarkably, under the random growth of 40 years of neglect, the original gardens and hundreds of the original plantings, including those researched and used by Fred Reichel, were found to alive.
Today, 11 years after restoration began, but decades after planting, the gardens are there to be seen. They are still works of restoration, but easily distinguished as gardens, and remain, as all gardens, marvels of determination and survival.