Behind the Scenes Tour of Alcatraz

Recently, a tour was given of scenic Alcatraz Island to the San Francisco chapter of IFMA. The purpose was to introduce the Golden Gate National Parks Conservancy (GGNPC) as the newest member to the chapter and familiarize the membership with some of what the Conservancy does.
The tour was designed to focus on both the historical and current management of a facility such as Alcatraz. The Conservancy works in partnership with The National Park Service in a number of different ways to assist in the ongoing operational efforts of the Golden Gate National Recreational Area. On Alcatraz, this includes visitor service functions, operational support, and project funding. Currently the Conservancy staffs visitor service for the audio tour and the bookstores, historical interpreters, a custodial team, and a small administrative team.

Operating a facility such as Alcatraz has always been, and continues to be, a significant undertaking. Alcatraz has all the same basic systems and items that have to be dealt with from a maintenance perspective, but what sets it apart is that it has no “hard” connections to the mainland. As such, everything that is needed to run Alcatraz has to be brought to the island, or otherwise collected or generated there. Therefore, the cost of running Alcatraz compared to other facilities is higher due to the cost of shipping everything that is needed to Alcatraz itself. The three main facilities concerns that were addressed in the tour were:


  • The structures themselves
  • Power
  • Water

One of the biggest maintenance issues facing Alcatraz has always been the condition of the  buildings. A majority of the buildings are steel reinforced concrete, which are especially susceptible to the harsh marine conditions of Alcatraz. 

Spalling concrete is a real issue with which many of the structures on Alcatraz are faced. Currently the National Park Service is working to stabilize the Cell House. This includes repairs that will address the rust that is expanding within the walls, floors, and ceiling, and the repairing or replacement of areas where concrete has completely been lost due to spalling.

Power generation is another challenge area for Alcatraz. Until very recently Alcatraz has had to generate its own power. This has been accomplished by a few different methods over the years. Recently the National Park Service completed a project that installed solar panels in an effort to offset power that has been, thus far, generated by diesel-powered generators. The hope is that this new system will provide approximately 60% of the island’s power needs.

Lastly, the tour focused on water. One of the ironies that Alcatraz contends with is that, while Alcatraz is surrounded by water, it has no fresh water source of its own. Therefore, all fresh water has to be brought to Alcatraz. When the Gardens Conservancy got involved in the historic rehabilitation and preservation of the gardens on the island, a significant increase in water consumption was experienced. In an effort to help offset water usage for the gardens, a water catchment system was installed. The system collects water from the roofs of two separate buildings and runs it through a sand filter, then storing it in large holding tanks. This system collects, filters, and stores enough water to provide water for the gardens during the drier parts of the year with little to no extra water needed. Combined with waterless urinals and saltwater flushing toilets, this has reduced the amount of fresh water that has to be transported to Alcatraz for operational needs.

For more photos of the the tour, click here.

To learn more about Alcatraz and some of the topics covered in the IFMA San Francisco tour click on the the links below.

National Park Service Alcatraz
National Park Service Alcatraz historic preservation projects
The Golden Gate National Parks Conservancy
The Garden Conservancy efforts on Alcatraz

Patrick McAllister
Director, Alcatraz Operations
Golden Gate National Parks Conservancy

Leave a Reply