A Forgotten Small SF Building Had A Colorful Past, Alcatraz Ties


A long and unusual part of San Francisco’s past caught fire Tuesday afternoon when a small building on a rocky bluff at the edge of the northern waterfront caught fire and was destroyed.

It was abandoned, forgotten and empty when it burned down, but Fort Mason Pier 4, as it was officially called, had another name and a story to tell.

“It was universally known as the Alcatraz pier,” said prison island historian and expert John Martini. For years, it was the gateway to Alcatraz, first as the army’s punishment barracks, then as the main dock of America’s toughest and most feared prison.

Until a new pier was built nearby, the launch rides operated from the small building were the only way to get on and off Alcatraz.

It was one of those unique places in San Francisco. The main boarding point for Alcatraz Jail was at the end of Van Ness Avenue, a short walk from the water park’s sandy beach, just off the long municipal pier, always full of walkers and fishermen. Alcatraz Pier is located in one of the most beautiful places in the world.

“There’s a pretty spectacular view there,” Martini said.

The small building – 600 square feet with waiting rooms and bathrooms – was beautiful in its day. It was built in 1925 with white paint and a red roof to match the look of Fort Mason’s military piers.

But the prison closed in 1963, and the years weren’t kind to the building and the bay dock.

“It had been closed to the public for a long time,” said Charles Strickfaden, director of communications for the Golden Gate National Recreation Area, which owns the building. “It was in a state of high disrepair.” In fact, it was a wreck and a ruin, and when a fire broke out on Tuesday, the building burned like kindling. The remaining charred wreckage will be demolished.

“It had no historical value,” Strickfaden said. But the ruins have a story.

It started before the construction of the Golden Gate and Bay Bridges and transformed the Bay Area. In the Roaring Twenties of the last century, the Bay Area was surrounded by military posts – besides the Presidio of San Francisco, the US Army had three forts in the Marin Headlands and installations on Angel Island and Benicia. Alcatraz was a punishment barracks, a military prison. The army had a fleet of ships to supply all of this, and a new wharf at the foot of Van Ness Avenue was exactly what was needed.

And then the military turned Alcatraz over to the Bureau of Prisons, which turned it into an escape-proof, high-security prison. The first prisoners – including Al Capone – were landed at Alcatraz in the summer of 1934 by barge from Tiburon. But after that, for about 25 years, the wharf in San Francisco was the gateway to the Rock.

Some of the era’s most notorious criminals rode the boat at Alcatraz – Alvin “Creepy” Karpis, once listed as Public Enemy #1, George “Machine Gun” Kelly, Robert Stroud, the notorious “Birdman” . The prisoners were brought to the boat in small groups, wearing handcuffs and leg irons and kept in a small holding cell at one end of the boat terminal.

The other end was a waiting room “like a tram terminal,” Martini said, where fellow passengers waited sheltered from the wind for the next boat.

Other passengers were guards who lived in San Francisco and traveled to work on the island, families of guards who lived in Alcatraz, people visiting Alcatraz inmates, and occasional government officials. The public was never allowed, so rumors spread about what was happening on this mysterious island: there were tortures, dungeons, secret murders.

But Alcatraz really looked like a small company town where the main industry was a prison. Outside of the cell block and restricted areas, Alcatraz was the safest neighborhood in San Francisco. The civilian residents never locked their doors. There were incredible views: San Francisco shimmering over the hills, a short ride. “The most beautiful place in the world to work,” said boat pilot Harry Dawson years later.

The Alcatraz boat also looked like a school bus. John Cantwell, a former National Park Service ranger from Alcatraz, knew many prison families and heard many stories of Alcatraz kids boating and then walking up Van Ness Avenue to Galileo High School, or taking the Muni bus to Marina Junior High. or St. Brigid’s Catholic School.

Some Alcatraz family members commuted to work in the city. Dawson remembers keeping tabs on Laura Francis, who lived in Alcatraz and worked at the I. Magnin store in Union Square. She was always dressed in proper San Francisco style: a hat and gloves on the boat every morning.

Of course, the fascination with Alcatraz and its history has made the island one of the most famous tourist sites in the world. And a pile of burnt planks is all that remains of the pier where dangerous prisoners, guards, schoolchildren and commuters rode daily by boat from the city to the country’s most notorious prison. “It’s a loss,” Martini said.

Carl Nolte’s columns appear in the Sunday edition of The Chronicle. Email: cnolte@sfchronicle.com


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