05 October 2006

A Secret of Alcatraz

Alcatraz Island is a popular destination for tourists and locals in the San Francisco Bay Area. The US military decided in the 1850's that Alcatraz (so named by a Spanish explorer in 1775, after the local pelicans - alcatraces) was well situated to be a fort, although it was never needed to defend the San Francisco Bay. Alcatraz housed prisoners from the Civil War onwards. In 1934 it was released by the military to the US Department of Justice, who converted the island into a federal penitentiary. Isolated and surrounded by swift chilly currents, Alcatraz was an ideal location for a prison. For the next 30 years, Alcatraz housed some of the most infamous criminals in the country.

So far, all of this is info you can get from the audio tour. The secret part I learned this past weekend, when J convinced me to volunteer with him for the Alcatraz Historic Garden Project. Initially, Alcatraz was mostly bare rock - the soil now on the island was brought over from nearby Angel Island, and all the vegetation was placed there over the last 160 years. Over time there were many gardens on Alcatraz, either planted by officer's wives or planted and maintained by the inmates themselves.

We worked in an area where three Victorians used to stand. Between the houses were terraced gardens, and when the houses were torn down in the 1940's, the foundations were used to plant vegetables and flowers for cutting. Landscape duties were highly valued among the inmates, and some brought flowers back to their cells. The gardens had been neglected for the last forty years, until 2003 when the Historic Garden Project started to rehabilitate the gardens on the island.

One group was given recipes of chicken manure and other yucky smelling dirt type stuff to rehabilitate the soil in the house foundations. Our group was assigned the more fun task of cutting back a huge overgrowth of ivy that was covering the path along the bottom of the house foundations. The photo above shows what it looked like when we were done - when we started, the view and the path were both completely obscured with ivy six feet tall. Those flagstones had not seen sunlight for forty years! The gardens will be replanted this fall, the concrete railing that was torn apart by the ivy will be replaced, and eventually the gardens will be open for docent tours.

I worked alongside one girl who enjoyed breaking rusty rebar with her bare hands, and had a knack for finding unusual objects as we worked. Among her finds: a shard of porcelain (probably from a plumbing fixture) and a penny (date obscured). J found a large pile of bones, mostly chicken, which were probably dropped there by trash-picking seagulls. Our team also found a manhole cover leading to the sewer, which had been long forgotten.

Despite the early and foggy morning and the smelly boat ride with the stacks of chicken manure, volunteering in the garden was extremely satisfying. We even got a behind-the-scenes tour of Alcatraz! If you are interested in volunteering, check out the info here about the Conservancy's work.

No comments: