This week Alcatraz staff and volunteers were invited to visit their neighbour, Angel Island for a tour. While we are very familiar with Alcatraz’s history, it was really fascinating to see the same history but from the perspective of Angel Island.
Angel Island is a State Park that is only 1 mile away from Alcatraz and is the largest island in the San Francisco Bay. Unlike Alcatraz, coastal natives, the Miwok, did live on Angel Island with its source of fresh water and a population of deer established when the island was still connected to the mainland.
Alcatraz is described as a ‘layered cake of history’ and our tour of Angel Island took us through many layers. Like Alcatraz, the military had a very strong presence to protect the Bay with the start of the Civil War. In 1863, artillery guns and batteries were constructed, houses were built and camps were set up. In the coming years, Angel Island was used as a quarantine station for immigrants and troops returning from the Spanish-American war in 1899, a discharge station for troops coming and going to the Pacific, an immigration station from 1910 to 1940 and a prisoner of war facility for the second World War.
The island is best known for being the Ellis Island of the West – an immigration station. The earthquake of 1906 destroyed all of San Francisco’s City Hall’s records and this became an opportunity for established immigrants to invite family members to America. Officials became wise to the sudden influx of immigrants and soon changed the rules – now extensive interviews were required and family member’s answers must match each other in closed interviews. Angel Island became a holding facility while the interviews were being carried out. Stays could last anywhere from a couple of weeks to 20 months. Today, the immigration station is open for visitors and it really is moving. Alcatraz was a place where inmates were imprisoned for behaving badly, whereas Angel Island’s detainees were imprisoned for wanting a better life. Poems were inscribed in the wooden walls, many are in Asian languages, to release the anger and frustration felt. Our ranger described how the officials filled in the carvings with
wood putty and painted over the repair to erase the ‘graffiti’, only to have more poems take their place. In their efforts to erase the poems, the wood putty actually preserved the writings! Many of the poems have been translated and a few of them speak of being surrounded by green fields. It turns out that the original paint had been a jade green. In Chinese culture, jade brings luck and good fortune, so it must have been especially cruel to be held in a green holding room uncertain of your future.
I was especially interested in the plant life on the island. Alcatraz’s topsoil actually had been imported from Angel Island and the ranger joked that we have their soil. Initially, the military chopped down all the trees on Angel Island to use for construction and then
realized that perhaps a few trees would look much better. Eucalyptus groves were planted, much like on Alcatraz and in the Presidio in San Francisco. As well, around Officers’ homes gardens were planted. Today, the gardens are suffering from neglect with lack of funding for garden staff to revitalize them. With deer constantly grazing, it will be a challenge to restore them (I’ll take my 2000 seagulls any day).
The gardens around the Bake House were very interesting. The pathways were set with brick edges with the stamp of the brick maker – I noted some C.H. (from city hall) and Carneige that we have on Alcatraz too. There were also a few plants in common with Alcatraz – chasmanthe, calla lilies, a few rambling roses, Echium, Agave and daffodils in bloom. One of the more interesting plantings was a row of Monterrey cypress trees planted by the hospital. The row had actually been maintained as a high hedge!
I hope Angel Island will someday have the good fortune that Alcatraz has had with the gardens being restored and the garden story being told. I really do think the gardens are the icing on the layered cake of history.