This retired Alcatraz ranger spent more time on the rock than any prisoner

The end of May marks the end of the queue for National Park Service ranger John Cantwell, who has been the public face of Alcatraz Island for years.

He is retiring after 30 years of record service on Alcatraz. “It’s about time,” Cantwell said. “I have done my time.”

Cantwell, who is a master storyteller, likes to point out that his 30 years on the Rock breaks the record set by Alvin “Creepy” Karpis, who was held there for 26 years, longer than any other criminal.

There is, however, a big difference. “I have to go home at night,” Cantwell said. The FBI has named Karpis as Public Enemy # 1. Christian Davis, overseeing the Alcatraz ranger, calls Cantwell a “stellar official.”

Cantwell’s quarry reflects the transformation of the 22-acre island in the middle of the San Francisco Bay, from the hardest prison in the country to a major tourist attraction. Before coronavirus restrictions limited access to the island, it attracted 1.4 million visitors a year. People are drawn to the Rock by movies, television, books, and the place’s fierce reputation as the end of the line in the American prison system. It was a federal prison for 29 years, and when it closed in 1963, Frank Weatherman, the last inmate to leave the island, delivered his epitaph: “Alcatraz has never been good for anyone.

Yet he had a fascination. “When I was a kid selling newspapers on Fisherman’s Wharf, I always noticed people putting money into telescopes to watch Alcatraz. I even took a look myself, ”said George Devincenzi, who then spent eight years as a guard and wrote a book about his time on the Rock. “People are fascinated,” he said. “I still get three or four letters a month from people all over the world. They want to know what it was like. They want to hear the stories of Alcatraz.

And no one is better at telling the story of Alcatraz – or stories – than Cantwell.

“He dedicated himself to the island and its history,” said Frank Dean, former general superintendent of the Golden Gate National Recreation Area. Dean has known Cantwell since they worked together at Fort Point National Historic Site near the Golden Gate Bridge. Dean was a rookie ranger and Cantwell was a 14 year old kid who worked in the site bookstore and so immersed himself in the story that he wore the uniform of a Civil War soldier and gave tours.

After school, Cantwell drove a truck and did a few other things, but realized that his ambition was to be a National Park Service ranger in San Francisco. He wanted to explain things. He wanted to help people understand. He was good at his job and after a few years he was offered transfers to other regions and promotions. He refused them all. “One of my former supervisors said to me, ‘Cantwell, you can’t visit all your life. You must learn to sit behind a desk or carry a gun. You have to decide. ‘ Well, I proved him wrong, ”Cantwell said.

He was a force at Alcatraz. For years, he held Alcatraz reunions, bringing back former inmates, former guards, and families who lived on the island.

At the meetings, visitors would see ex-inmates and ex-guards look at each other warily and listen to the men talk about what it was like to spend their lives locked in a 5 by 9 cell. the island, the families of the guards have never locked their doors. It was the safest place in the world.

Cantwell has also been a master at getting help from outside the parks service – park partners, the government calls them. He had a private prison company fix all the locks on the main block, convinced another team to rebuild an old fire truck, and asked automotive friends to restore a classic Chevrolet truck, all at no cost to him. government.

But above all, he was the public face of the island and its history. “This place has layers of history,” he says. “It wasn’t just a prison, it was also a fort, and it has a natural history.” He talks about the symbolism of the island and its role in the year-long occupation by the American Indians. He notes the signs and graffiti left behind.

Cantwell is typically the man the Parks Service chooses to give tours to VIP visitors: he showed the island to Hillary Clinton, dozens of Congressmen, the daughters of President Barack Obama, and Johnny Depp and Gwyneth. Paltrow. He has appeared on television 100 times and worked with several Alcatraz filmmakers. “Escape From Alcatraz” is his favorite. Clint Eastwood, he says, “is a really nice guy.”

Cantwell, who is tall and lean, looks like a ranger. “He’s a star,” said former inmate Bill Baker, “he’s the John Wayne of the Alcatraz rangers.”

“When I was at Golden Gate,” recalls former Superintendent Dean, “Adm. Karl Schultz, then in charge of the local Coast Guard area, asked for a look at Alcatraz. I asked John to show him around. The admiral received the full treatment: cell block, wet basement cells, ancient fortifications, prison industry sites, lighthouse, natural history, weather, water currents, the works. Later the admiral called Dean. “This guy is amazing,” he said.

For his part, Cantwell believes all of the visitors and public attention to Alcatraz Island has changed the place. “It’s a healing process,” he says. “All the people in the past 30 years have chased the bad vibes.”

Cantwell is 62 years old now. “It’s time for a change,” he said. “I want to do other things. I will stay away for a year and come back to work as a volunteer.

The Carl Nolte Chronicles air on Sunday. Email: cnolte@sfchronicle.com Twitter: @Carlnoltesf




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