Former Alcatraz prisoner touts book as Golden Gate National Recreation Area turns 50

Fifty years ago today, some of San Francisco and Marin County's most famous tourist spots became a national park.

In 1972, then-president Richard Nixon signed legislation to create the Golden Gate National Recreation area. It became the first urban national park in the U.S.

During peak season at Alcatraz, as many as 4,000 people a day take the ferry to-and-from the island to visit and learn about its long and storied history.

"It's a living history. It's a living site that continues to tell stories," said National Park ranger Christian Davis.

Bill Baker is part of that living history.

He was Alcatraz prisoner number 1259. He is now 89 years old and one of the last surviving former inmates of Alcatraz.

"When I was 18 I stole a car in Oregon. They caught me and put me in jail. I escaped, so they put me in prison," Baker explained. "When I escaped that prison they sent me to Alcatraz."

Baker remembers his first impression of Alcatraz prison, walking onto the site and seeing other inmates playing cards, basketball and even sketching and painting their views of the Golden Gate Bridge.

"I said, 'Wow, these guys aren't so tough after all.' That was my first thought, my perception."

"When asked if that initial impression was accurate, he said: "It was wrong. It was very, very wrong. There were a lot of bad boys in there."

More than 60 years later, with permission from the National Park Service, he wrote a book about his experiences called Alcatraz, #1259, a reference to his inmate number. It's sold more than 200,000 copies. He lives in Toledo, Ohio, but travels to the Bay Area to speak about his experiences and sell and sign copies of his book.

"Now I have a house, a wife, a dog and car and I earned it all legally and I am proud of it," he said.

It took decades to reach that point. He said after serving three years in Alcatraz, the prison sent him on a train back to his home in Kentucky, where he said he worked on his post-prison career:

"I learned how to do counterfeit checks, payroll and drivers licenses. In Alcatraz, I learned how to become a better criminal. I'm not saying that's a good thing but it is what it is," Baker said.

When asked if he ended up in prison again later in life he said, "Of course. We all did. We met each other again and again for the rest of our lives, in prisons."

National Park Rangers like Christian Davis, who works at Alcatraz said Baker is now a well-known and welcome figure at Pier 33, where he greets visitors as they line up to board the ferry.

"He has a great perspective and a great history. He's one of the last remaining people who actually lived in the prison and was incarcerated here who's still able to come and talk about it," Davis said.

Baker's story is just one part of a weekend of activities, events, guest speakers and volunteer opportunities to mark 50 years since the establishment of the Golden Gate National Recreation Area.

"We have scavenger hunts in the area, guests and speakers," Davis said. "We encourage people to get involved and give their input for the next 50 years and beyond when we're still commemorating this place."

More than 15 million people every year visit the Golden Gate National Recreation Area, making it one of the most visited national parks in the United States.