Gloria Wing’s eyes lit up when she saw the red brick building where she once taught precocious children their ABCs.
“Heaven on earth,” Wing said, of life on McNeil Island.
Wing was a teacher on the island for three years in the early 1980s. Her students were the children of the prison staff.
But her connection to the 6.6-square-mile island go farther back, to her father’s family who settled on McNeil before the prison was built.
“They used to pick berries,” Wing said.
Wing, along with about 70 others, were on a History Cruise around McNeil Island aboard the Tacoma-based charter boat “My Girl” Sunday afternoon. The cruise was organized by the Key Peninsula Historical Society.
It was a picture-perfect afternoon to be on the Puget Sound — a bright sun, blue sky and calm water.
“I wanted to get a different view of the island besides what I can see from the ferry,” Tracy Brock said, standing on the port side of the boat with her husband Patrick.
The view Brock was alluding to was the narration provided by speakers from the McNeil Island Historical Society.
Cruise participants learned everything about the island’s history.
It was established as a prison in 1875 as the Washington Territorial Penitentiary. It was a federal prison until 1981 and a state prison for 30 more years, before it was shuttered in 2011. Its roster of infamous inmates include Charles Manson and Robert Franklin Stroud — who arrived on McNeil as a 19-year-old, long before he became known as the “Birdman of Alcatraz”.
For many on the cruise it was also a chance to see their home from the water.
Roy Ewen and Linda Wickstrom pointed out to their new friends their home along Pitt Passage.
“We don’t really have a connection to McNeil Island except for a beautiful view of it,” Roy Ewen said. “We are here for the history and to meet more wonderful people.”
Judi Mills, president of the Key Peninsula Historical Society, was aboard “to have fun… learning about McNeil Island.”
Mills laughed at stories of escaped prisoners, real or imagined, as she flitted from bow to stern.
But the idea of escape from the island prison seem real enough.
In its history as a prison, at least 100 inmates have broken out of the McNeil prison compound or work detail, according to The News Tribune. Maybe two dozen made it off the island, perhaps fewer.
The Tacoma newspaper reports prison authorities said they could not be certain of the count because they do not know how many actually survived the swim and how many drowned trying.
McNeil Island is three miles by water to Steilacoom, but only a few hundred yards from the Key Peninsula on the narrowest point along Pitt Passage.
Ewen said “you could practically wade across at low tide.”
Everyone had a fine time on the two-hour cruise.
Joyce Smith ought to know. She was working the bar in the main salon of the boat.
Smith is also a boat captain in Tacoma and was aboard helping out Paul Stanfill, owner and skipper of the charter boat.
She named her 34-foot trawler “Seawillow” after a grandmother from Soddy Daisy, Tenn.
Smith said her grandmother went to one of her AARP meetings and told her friends “I bet none of you has had a ship named after them.”
Stories, it seems, just kept coming.