SAN FRANCISCO — There’s a quotation on the wall of the cafeteria at Alcatraz attributed to Frank Weatherman, the last inmate to shuffle out of the prison when it was shut down.
“Alcatraz,” Weatherman said, “was never no good for nobody.”
Times have changed.
Alcatraz inmate No. 1576 may have been right in 1963, but in the half-century since Attorney General Robert F. Kennedy closed the notorious federal penitentiary, the decaying island compound has become the gift that keeps on giving.
The Rock has been good for history buffs, mystery lovers, and anyone who appreciates an impeccable view of San Francisco and the bay. It’s been good for the city’s hotels and restaurants, it’s been a gold mine for Hollywood, and it drew some positive attention to the plight of Native Americans in the late ’60s and early ’70s.
It’s been great for the National Park Service, which will unveil an exhibit of historic photos Thursday at an event marking the 50-year anniversary of the bleak citadel’s closure on March 21, 1963. Fifty years after scores of the nation’s most incorrigible prisoners left Alcatraz, the island’s grip on the public imagination has not loosened at all.
“I suppose there’s a sort of dark romance about it, isn’t there?” mused Angus Cameron, who toured the island on Monday with his wife and infant daughter. The London couple hadn’t planned to visit Alcatraz, but after cruising by on a ferry from Marin County to San Francisco, they changed their minds. Something about the place simply drew them in.
Alcatraz began as a military fort and lockup during the Civil War era. Workers leveled areas of the rocky mound, named “Isle of the Pelicans” by Spanish explorers, to accommodate buildings.
It became a federal prison in 1934, when authorities needed an isolated facility to hold the gangsters that proliferated during the Great Depression. It wound up holding more than 1,500 inmates, including infamous criminals like Al Capone and James “Whitey” Bulger. Ultraviolent killer Robert Stroud, the “Birdman of Alcatraz,” was the subject of a celebrated 1962 film starring Burt Lancaster.
There were 14 escape attempts, two more famous than the rest. A foiled breakout in 1946 precipitated the bloody Battle of Alcatraz, in which three inmates and two guards were killed. An ingenious 1962 escape led by Frank Morris inspired Clint Eastwood’s 1979 movie “Escape from Alcatraz.” Morris and two accomplices are presumed to have drowned after making a getaway on an improvised raft.
Author Jolene Babyak lived on the island at the time of the escape — her father was acting warden. What makes the tale fascinating, said Babyak, is that no bodies were ever found, leaving a slight chance that they survived and eluded a massive manhunt.
“It’s the ultimate story, right? And there’s still debate, and that keeps the mystery alive,” said Babyak, one of numerous special guests who will attend Thursday’s commemoration. “It was the most sophisticated escape from the highest-security prison, in which men disappeared, vanished.”
By 1963 the cost of maintaining the complex had became too burdensome, and authorities closed the penitentiary after 29 years of operation. Native American protesters took over the island for nearly 19 months in 1969-71, a political stand that some credit with helping to end the U.S. policy of terminating tribal contracts.
The National Park Service assumed control of Alcatraz in 1972, making it part of the Golden Gate National Recreation Area. Today the island receives nearly 1.5 million annual visitors, more than many national parks. Tickets sell out nearly every day, sometimes weeks in advance, for audio tours of the main cell block and recreation yard plus the chance to stroll past the island’s gardens and ruined buildings.
The popularity of Alcatraz is a boon for the National Park Service, introducing the agency and its mission to thousands of people a day from America and abroad. And it’s a pillar of San Francisco’s multibillion-dollar tourism industry, noted National Park Service spokeswoman Alexandra Picavet.
“Alcatraz is an enormous economic driver for San Francisco,” Picavet said. “Studies have shown that people who go to Alcatraz tend to add an entire day to their trip.”
The allure of Alcatraz is unmistakable but sometimes hard to pin down. Movies and other popular accounts have accorded the island legendary status.
Angus Cameron’s interest was piqued by the proximity of this desolate place to a glittering, vibrant metropolis. The island lies just a mile and a quarter from Fishermen’s Wharf, and on New Year’s Eve and other nights prisoners could hear happy voices drifting from shore.
“There can’t be another prison where you have such an amazing view of the freedom that you don’t have,” Cameron said. “It could drive a man insane.”
Katie Dale, visiting from Iowa, tried to imagine what it felt like for prisoners to arrive at Alcatraz by boat. A woman from Bakersfield said she was curious to experience the inside of a prison.
Sam Bowling, a shamanic healer based in Los Angeles, said people are wired to explore things that spook them.
“Everybody wants to play in the dark,” said Bowling, who believes the island is brimming with spiritual energy, most of it sorrowful. “Everybody’s intrigued by what they can’t see and what they don’t think they understand.”