Out West student blog

Time Travel (and Donuts), Just a Ferry Ride Away

Checking out the interior of Alcatraz’s Power Plant. (Photo credit: Peter Gavette)

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



“Bob’s Donuts, anybody? They’re organic!”

Ranger Cantwell greeted us on Alcatraz with a pink box of hearty breakfast snacks as we walked up the road from the Wharf. On this visit to “The Rock” I was accompanied by both Peter Gavette, Park Archeologist, and John Martini, Architectural Historian. I had come with a number of questions in mind, holes to patch in my understanding of the history of the buildings of Alcatraz, that might be answered by studying what still stands.

Walking around Alcatraz with Peter and John was unbelievably informative. We’d venture over to an area I expressed an interest in and they would use photographs like tools to time travel, counting cracks in the rocky hillside and orienting themselves just right so as to stand in 2018 and look through this one perfect window back into 1929. (Of course I’ve heard the axiom that a picture is worth a thousand words, but never before had that value been proven to me. Show a picture of Alcatraz to John Martini and you’ll never question that saying again.

Working to create a three-dimensional digital reference of Alcatraz’s structural history through numerous periods of development, the dilemma I have faced time and time again is whether I am aiming to model, or to replicate.

It was enlightening to watch them use surrounding details that I would have easily missed if I hadn’t been looking carefully. While I found it fascinating to observe and try to implement this technique on my own, it also caused hesitation as I considered how my digital model of the island would play into this careful, detail-driven practice.

As I have been working to create a three-dimensional digital reference of Alcatraz’s structural history through numerous periods of development, the dilemma I have faced time and time again is whether I am aiming to model, or to replicate. The difference may seem subtle, but I learned quickly that trying to transfer every aspect of every building in perfect detail from grainy photographs to 3D sketches was difficult and impractical given the timeframe I was working in.

Alcatraz changed quickly and constantly, as can be seen with these maps of the island in 1867, top, and 1907. (Map credit: Park Archives and Records Center)

I was not going to resort to something so simple as creating plain rectangular prisms for each building and slapping photos on them haphazardly. Still, with each complicating aspect of a building I found myself considering whether it was worth preserving, and if so, to what degree? I initially found that this decision-making process could stop me for long periods of time because I didn’t have the background to be entirely confident that my decisions were reasonable. What if the crucial reference detail is the small, pesky staircase on the side of this building, or the ornate light pole behind that one? What cost is associated with each compromise I make to balance accuracy and efficiency?

It has been challenging to encounter such freedom of approach and execution in a way that I am not always afforded in my typical coursework, and the additional factor of working with new content matter definitely could have made this liberty daunting. But while I may not have extensive knowledge of architecture, military history, or archaeological siting, being able to consult people who are experts in these very things made the challenge welcome. Resources like Peter Gavette, John Martini, and the millions of records on hand at Park Archives have been incredibly valuable in piecing together the puzzle of Alcatraz’s history.

What greatly attracted me to this summer internship was the opportunity to work on something unlike anything else I have done before or will likely do again. While the unfamiliar aspects of it did cause some frustration, the project surely delivered in exposing me to new fields and skills that I otherwise might never have explored.

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