Out West student blog

Alcatraz: More than Meets the Eye

A comparison of the road in Alcatraz today to a photo from 1882, when officer’s housing stood on this same hillside. (Photo credit: Nineveh O'Connell)

By Nineveh O'Connell
Mathematical and Computational Science '20
GIS Geographer, Golden Gate National Recreation Area

It’s not often that San Francisco begins the day without its signature low-lying blanket of fog. On the occasional clear morning, though, I am fortunate enough to take in an amazing view of Alcatraz Island while biking across the Golden Gate Bridge to the Archaeology Lab in Marin Headlands. Alcatraz, then, is a part of my day before I’ve even finished my commute, at which point it becomes my sole focus.

A model of the Pacific Coast's first lighthouse, which was destroyed in 1909. (Image credit: Nineveh O’Connell)

I have spent this summer scouring through records of all the structures that have stood on Alcatraz over the last 150 years in order to recreate past stages of the island as 3D digital models. As management of the island shifted with time, so did the detail with which records were kept of the island’s buildings. While some buildings on Alcatraz are so well documented that their models practically build themselves, others seem to only exist in between the lines of a ghostly paper trail. Working with Peter Gavette, the Golden Gate National Recreation Area’s Park Archaeologist, I’ve learned to recreate Alcatraz’s past from the resources that the park archives and past studies have to offer, even when they don’t seem to tell the whole story.

On my first visit to Alcatraz, I saw the island as much more than the notorious maximum-security prison that attracted the tourists surrounding me. Most visitors were there to get a peek at the life and conditions that Al Capone and “the Birdman” lived in as some of America’s most wanted. While this is a large of the island’s history, Alcatraz also served as a fort and military prison in the many decades of occupation prior to being converted to a maximum security prison.


As my digital reincarnations come together, GGNRA will be able to identify potential sties of buried history and continue to learn more about one of this nation’s greatest curiosities.

As I walked up the steep switchbacks of Alcatraz’s main road and looked around at the incredible bay views from the Summit, I saw not only the buildings and exhibits that have been preserved today but also the open spaces and abandoned foundations where I knew buildings once stood. It’s intriguing to imagine the historic artifacts that may be buried beneath these sites. The tales to be told within the prison’s walls have been explored for years, yet so much more of this island’s history may remain undiscovered. As my digital reincarnations of this landmark come together, the Golden Gate National Recreation Area will be able to identify these potential sties of buried history and continue to learn more about one of this nation’s greatest curiosities.

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