Train to Alcatraz: A Closer Look

by John Martini

Among the photos currently being catalogued for OpenSFHistory is a set of curious images taken in 1934 showing a train being loaded onto a barge in Tiburon and ferried across the bay. At first glance you might wonder why these would be included in a photo archive focused on San Francisco history. While train and ferry operations are cool, 1930’s railroading in Marin County seems a bit far afield from our usual scope.

However, this was a very special train, and it carried a very special cargo: new arrivals at the new penitentiary on Alcatraz Island.

53 federal prisoners (including Al Capone) arriving by train to be loaded directly on railroad barge bound for Alcatraz prison, August 22, 1934.Federal prisoners arriving by train to be loaded directly on railroad barge bound for Alcatraz prison, August 22, 1934. (wnp14.3035; courtesy of a private collector)

When the United States Department of Justice acquired Alcatraz from the U.S. Army in late 1933, the announced purpose was to house the nation’s most dangerous and devious federal inmates. As Director James Bennett of the Bureau of Prisons colorfully put it, the islands population would include the “desperados, irredeemable, and the ruthless.”

Cellblock interior of Alcatraz during inspection tour by Mayor Angelo Rossi, Warden James A. Johnston, and U.S. Attorney General Homer Cummings. August 22, 1934.Cellblock interior of Alcatraz during inspection tour by Mayor Angelo Rossi, Warden James A. Johnston, and U.S. Attorney General Homer Cummings. August 22, 1934. (wnp14.3049; courtesy of a private collector)

The first occupants of the new super maximum-security prison were actually 32 military convicts left behind when the military vacated the island. Bringing in prisoners from other federal prisoners across the country would be a tricky affair, though, because the risk of escape attempts was always present. The solution was to create heavily guarded prison trains, with bars welded over the windows and convicts securely handcuffed to their seats for the entire journey. Armed federal marshals ensured there’d be no attempts at mass breakout from the train cars. At each stop for water and fuel, a cordon of federal agents armed with machine guns surrounded the train, thwarting attempts by curious onlookers to approach the train.

The first convicts arrived on August 11, 1934. Brought down quietly from McNeill Island in Washington State, the initial “chain” of fourteen prisoners was brought to Oakland via train and transported to the penitentiary on the island’s motor launch. Only after they were safely ensconced in their cells did the newspapers get wind of their arrival.

First federal prisoners arriving in Tiburon, bound for Alcatraz. August 22, 1934.First federal prisoners arriving in Tiburon, bound for Alcatraz. August 22, 1934 (wnp14.3036; courtesy of a private collector)

On August 22, another trainload was scheduled to reach Alcatraz and this time the media was awake. Massive publicity surrounded the departure of 53 men from Atlanta Federal Penitentiary, and reporters staked out the railroad terminal at Oakland anticipating the train’s arrival.

The train reached Martinez just before 6:00 a.m. on August 22, 1934, three and a half days after it left Atlanta. “News of its arrival immediately set federal and local authorities on edge throughout the Bay district. It was assumed that either Richmond or Oakland would be made the point of transfer to the Alcatraz Island tug.[…] It was at these points that gangster gunplay was expected,” the Oakland Tribune reported.

Staying a step ahead of the press and breakout conspirators, the prison authorities rerouted the heavily guarded train off the main line and sent it south to the little railroad town of Tiburon. There, the three-car train—minus its locomotive—was rolled onto a railroad barge and towed to Alcatraz by a tugboat.

Prison train cars on barge en route to Alcatraz, August 22, 1934.Prison train cars on barge en route to Alcatraz, August 22, 1934. (wnp14.3048; courtesy of a private collector)

Not to be outdone, news reporters chartered boats of their own and dogged the barge and train all the way to the island. Kept at a distance by a Coast Guard cutter and the Alcatraz launch, the press photographers snapped pictures of the train loading at Tiburon, departing the ferry slip, and crossing the bay, passing the partially completed Golden Gate Bridge en route, and finally tying up at the Alcatraz dock.

Prisoners being transported from Tiburon to Alcatraz in train on barge. Coast Guard Cutter Daphne, WPC-106, in foreground. August 22, 1934.Prisoners being transported from Tiburon to Alcatraz in train on barge. Coast Guard Cutter Daphne, WPC-106, in foreground. August 22, 1934. (wnp14.3029; courtesy of a private collector)

Once on the island, the federal marshals guarding the train turned over their human cargo (referred to in official documents as “53 crates of furniture”) to the Alcatraz correctional officers. We can only imagine the physical and psychological condition of the inmates at the end of their cross-country, height-of-August-heat, chained-to-their-seats train trip.

Once off the barge, the island guards shackled the weary convicts together into a long line, with each man chained to the prisoner in front of and behind him. Then began a circuitous march around the island’s perimeter road and up to the back entrance of the cellhouse on the summit. Guards armed with machine guns lined the route, which led right past the windows of the island’s civilian residents.

53 federal prisoners finish their trip from Atlanta Federal Penitentiary to Alcatraz, August 22, 1934.53 federal prisoners finish their trip from Atlanta Federal Penitentiary to Alcatraz, August 22, 1934. (wnp14.3039; courtesy of a private collector)

The family population of Alcatraz had been given strict orders not to leave their residences until the convicts were safely locked in their cells; no hostage situations were going to mar the penitentiary’s opening day. But the rules didn’t say anything about watching the passing parade of prisoners.

The civilians peeked through curtained windows and carefully scrutinized the faces of the convicts as they shuffled up the road outside their houses. They had a very good idea of who should be in that chain. The newspapers had been full of rumors since the train left Atlanta four days previously.

Teenager Mary Elliot, who’s father ran the island powerhouse, nudged her mother and pointed to a stocky man with a pronounced double chin shuffling in the chain of exhausted prisoners. “There he is, mama! That’s Al Capone!”

U.S. Penitentiary Alcatraz was open and ready for business.

Coliseum Theatre: A Closer Look

by Woody LaBounty

The hulking building on the southeast corner of 9th Avenue and Clement Street in the Richmond District has a Walgreens drug store occupying the ground floor and fourteen condominiums above. These are mundane if functional uses, but details on the facade—including the relief of a lyre high on the pediment—hint of a more dramatic history.

Coliseum Theatre building on 9th and Clement, July 11, 2017.The old Coliseum Theatre building, July 11, 2017 (Woody LaBounty photo)

One hundred years ago this week, on November 22, 1918, the Coliseum Theatre opened to the public with a Mary Pickford motion picture, Johanna Enlists. First night had been delayed because of concerns of contagion during the great influenza pandemic, which peaked in late October. World War I had ended just eleven days before and all receipts from the evening were donated to the Red Cross. With all the tumult in the city and the world, the diversion of a new movie house for the Richmond District drew a big crowd.

Coliseum Theatre opening night, November 22, 1918.Coliseum Theatre opening night, November 22, 1918 (wnp67.0096; Jack Tillmany Collection)

With 2,200 seats, the Coliseum’s capacity exceeded some of the big theatres downtown and reflected the popularity and importance of movies in America at the time. As late as the 1980s, Richmond District residents had five different theatres from which to choose for a night’s entertainment. In addition to the Coliseum Theatre, the Bridge, Coronet, Alexandria, Balboa, and 4 Star showed everything from foreign films to major blockbusters.

The Coliseum was made into a “talkie” with the introduction of sound in 1929. Movie theatres always tried to appear modern and current, and most underwent frequent renovations. In 1931, the Coliseum received a lush Art Deco remodel with geometric designs painted throughout its interior and the theatre ceiling stenciled with a vibrant jungle of palm fronds. A decade later, a cleaner, streamlined look was the fashion and out went the zig-zags and tropical forest.

Coliseum Theatre interior remodel in 1931.Coliseum Theatre interior remodel in 1931. (Jack Tillmany Collection)

The Coliseum closed for a few years in the early 1950s, losing business to the Alexandria and the new Coronet Theatre on Geary Boulevard. When the Coronet began hosting long-run shows such as Oklahoma! (44 weeks) and Around the World in 80 Days (96 weeks—almost two years!), the opportunity arose for the Coliseum to reopen showing second-run films. Another modernizing remodel brought a new vertical sign with three simple letters: “COL.” The theatre’s most successful period came in 1975, when it had the exclusive San Francisco showing of Jaws. The film ran for six months, with lines around the block. (Nine years old, I begged my mother to let me go. To her credit, I suppose, she refused.)

On October 17, 1989, the Bay Area was abuzz with the San Francisco Giants and Oakland A’s meeting for Game 3 of the World Series. The Coliseum appropriately, although perhaps over-optimistically, was playing the baseball fantasy film, Field of Dreams. (What baseball fan would see a movie over the World Series?) The Loma Prieta earthquake struck forty-one minutes before the first scheduled showing of the day, and the 71-year-old movie house never screened another film. The Coliseum’s operators, United Artists, decided the expense to repair earthquake damage wasn’t worth the declining ticket revenues.

Coliseum Theatre building in 1995. (Richmond ReView collection)

The Coliseum sat boarded up and graffiti-blighted for 11 years. (Not as long as the Alexandria Theatre building on Geary and 18th Avenue has been closed:14 years and counting.) Finally, the building was sympathetically redeveloped with much of its exterior details, including that lyre, preserved.

Of the handful of neighborhood theatres left in San Francisco today the Richmond District has two, the Balboa and the 4 Star, although the latter has been for sale recently and may not be with us much longer.

Thanks to movie historian and friend Jack Tillmany for images and insight. Read more about the Coliseum and Richmond District theatres on our sister site,, and on Bill Coulter’s excellent blog, San Francisco Theatres.

Red Cross Building: A Closer Look

by Woody LaBounty

With donated land from the city and donated labor from local trade unions, the Red Cross opened a new building in the Civic Center in October 1918. Because of World War I, the organization of mercy—now so associated with relief work following disasters—had mobilized charitable work, increased fundraising, and expanded its presence in San Francisco. Red Cross nurses and volunteers tended both to the needs of soldiers fighting in Europe and their families at home. The new Civic Center building was intended primarily for administrative and office work.

Fulton Street entrance to the Red Cross Hospital Business Office between Hyde and Leavenworth Streets.Fulton Street entrance to the Red Cross Hospital Business Office between Hyde and Leavenworth Streets. (wnp27.2314; courtesy of a private collector.)

But, even before the doors opened, paperwork and the war quickly became secondary concerns. One hundred years ago this month the Red Cross had to fight a deadly battle right in San Francisco. The influenza pandemic of 1918, which would eventually claim 50 million people worldwide, was raging through the city.

Man with flu mask, which by San Francisco law, were compulsory to wear in public in late 1918.Man with flu mask, which by San Francisco law, were compulsory to wear in public in late 1918. (wnp26.1205; Norma Ball Norwood Collection.)

In late October 1918, newspapers printed hopeful talk of quick abatement, possible cures, and a decline in cases—only 103 deaths on October 30 whereas there had been 124 the day before—but adjoining columns on the pages told grimmer stories. A popular newsboy succumbed and his colleagues raised money for funeral flowers. The police sick list ran to 140 names. Hospitals filled to overflowing, with San Francisco General contending with 1,100 pneumonia cases and the city Health Department forced to commandeer other hospitals for space. Lines of cots had to be set up for ill and feverish people in schools, churches, and even streetcar storage barns.1

The Red Cross administration building, nearing completion, was quickly transformed into a 300-cot hospital ward primarily for children. Many of the young patients came from North Beach, the so-called “Latin Quarter,” which was much less prosperous and far more populated with families than the neighborhood of today. The San Francisco Chronicle noted:

“Over in the Latin quarter the struggle against the epidemic continues to be acute, and the mortality percentage alarming […] the trouble is the children. There are so many of them over that way, and ever so many of these are, by reason of their multitude, neglected. One family boasts a progeny of eleven. The mother is sick, the father is sick and some of the little folks are sick, too.”2

Red Cross nurses, along with forty sailors assigned from Mare Island, ran the temporary hospital through the height of contagion. Despite all efforts, over the next five months 45,000 San Franciscans would get sick and 3,000 would die from the flu. The city population then was just 500,000.

The site of the Red Cross building, which was set on a small rise at the time, is hard to recognize today. It stood off Hyde Street where the line of Fulton Street would continue east past the main library and Asian Art Museum. In the photo below, 100 years ago this week, are gathered nurses, sailors, city officials, and even comedian Fatty Arbuckle, in town on tour, attending a delayed dedication and flag raising ceremony for the building.

Red Cross Hospital flag ceremony, November 21, 1918.Red Cross Hospital flag ceremony, November 14, 1918. (wnp36.01945.jpg; Horace Chaffee photograph, Department of Public Works Book 23, DPW image 5637; copy courtesy of a private collector.)

By the spring of 1919 the flu epidemic in the city had mostly passed and the war was over. The Red Cross building was used for its original administrative purposes as the agency ministered to the needs of returning soldiers and their families. Veterans could apply for disability pensions and compensation at the office. A tearoom was opened in the building for servicemen in transit as well as the general public. An Army surplus store opened. University extension lectures on topics from eugenics to Russia to the psychology of advertising were held in the auditorium. Volunteers came to sew and knit in support of those in need around the world.

Eventually the Red Cross moved to other locations and the building was used for Boy Scout meetings and even high school classes while Galileo High was under construction. In 1930, the city donated the land for a new federal government office building. The last piece of the Civic Center plan, the Beaux-Arts Style building now stands on United Nations Plaza, managed by the United States’ General Services Administration and home to its regional office.

The American Red Cross is still serving those in greatest need, including those requiring relief from the deadliest wildfire in California. Please donate today.


1. San Francisco Chronicle, October 31, 1918, pg. 9.

2. “Red Cross Mercy Workers Aiding Stricken Children,” San Francisco Chronicle, November 2, 1918, pg. 9.

Political Conventions: A Closer Look

by Arnold Woods

With another voting day upon us, my thoughts turn to my most direct experience with politics, when I attended the 1984 Democratic National Convention at the Moscone Center here in San Francisco. I was there as reporter/producer for a radio network and quickly learned that a convention was, by then, largely a four-day press conference for the party and a chance for some party up-and-comers to make a presence on a national stage. It was nonetheless a terrific show and one that San Francisco had helped stage for both parties several times.

Gary Hart speaking at Moscone Center during Democratic National Convention, July 1984. (Arnold Woods photograph.)

On one of my recent digs through our OpenSFHistory image collection I found a number of San Francisco convention-related images. The first national convention to be held in San Francisco was the Democrats in June and July 1920 at the Civic Auditorium (now Bill Graham Civic Center). This was the first national convention held on the West Coast by either party. There was a parade down Market Street by state delegates to the Civic Auditorium. The key issue was whether to adopt a “wet” or “dry” plank, i.e., whether to favor or oppose continuing Prohibition. The Democrats nominated Ohio Governor James Cox as their presidential nominee after 44 ballots, but he lost to Ohio Senator Warren Harding in the general election.

Ohio delegation marching down Market Street during Democratic Convention, July 1920.Ohio (?) delegation marching down Market Street at McAllister during Democratic National Convention, July 1920. (wnp30.0097; Emiliano Echeverria/Randolph Brandt Collection)

The Republicans came to San Francisco for their national convention on August 20-23, 1956, likely to take advantage of the rising popularity of Vice President Richard Nixon, a California native. There were no party challengers to President Dwight Eisenhower, but there were concerns about his health after he suffered a heart attack the prior year. Perhaps to quell those concerns, Eisenhower stood up in a convertible automobile to wave to well-wishers who lined his motorcade route up Geneva Avenue to the Cow Palace for the convention. The Eisenhower/Nixon ticket soundly defeated the Democrats in November, though the Republicans fared poorly in other national races.

President Eisenhower on Geneva Avenue on way to Cow Palace for Republican National Convention, August 23, 1956.President Eisenhower on Geneva Avenue on way to Cow Palace for Republican National Convention, August 23, 1956. (wnp14.3680; courtesy of a private collector.)

The Republicans returned to the Cow Palace on July 13-16, 1964. Without Nixon on the ticket to help carry California as the Republicans had done in the previous three presidential elections, the GOP was no doubt looking for an edge in holding California in the general election. Arizona Senator Barry Goldwater had clinched the nomination before the convention, though a platform fight at the convention between liberal Nelson Rockefeller Republicans and conservative Goldwater Republicans ensued. The Goldwater delegates largely prevailed. However, the idea of coming to San Francisco in the hopes of securing local votes in the general election may have been misguided then, as the city was in throes of civil rights and pro-marijuana marches and rallies that year. The Lyndon Johnson-led Democrats ended up trouncing Goldwater in the November 1964 election, both in California and the country at large.

This brings us to the July 16-19, 1984 Democratic National Convention at the Moscone Center that I attended. The 1984 Democratic race was a hard fought one featuring Colorado Senator Gary Hart, the Reverend Jesse Jackson, and former Vice President Walter Mondale. Though Mondale prevailed in the end, both Hart and Jackson gave well-received speeches at the convention. This San Francisco convention featured two significant female firsts and one significant LGBTQ first. New York Representative Geraldine Ferraro became the first female vice president nominee of a major party and Kentucky Governor Martha Collins was the first woman to chair a major party’s convention. In his speech, Jackson described the USA as a quilt with places for numerous types of people, specifically mentioning lesbians and gays, the first such mention in any national convention address. Mondale and Ferraro would go on to lose the general election to sitting president Ronald Reagan in one of the biggest electoral landslides ever.

Jesse Jackson speaking at Moscone Center during Democratic National Convention, July 1984. (Arnold Woods photograph.)

It is now 34 years since the last national convention in San Francisco and it’s unknown if and when one will return here. Political conventions have become less important as party officials no longer need to gather to establish their platforms and determine winners. Consequently, the media provides less coverage of the conventions today. We may never again experience the types of conventions that we did in San Francisco in 1920, 1956, 1964, and 1984.

Moscone Center during Democratic National Convention, July 1984. (Arnold Woods photograph.)