Located just off the coast of San Francisco, Alcatraz Island sits centrally in the San Francisco Bay. It’s easily see from San Francisco, Sausalito, Tiburon, The Golden Gate Bridge and other surrounding areas and has a long history dating back to the 1700s. While it is more famously known for the Alcatraz Penitentiary, which is now a tourist attraction, it has also been the home Fort Alcatraz as well as a Native American occupied territory for a couple of years beginning in November 1969.
The island was first documented by a Spanish Naval Officer by the name of Juan Manuel de Ayala in 1775 after charting the San Francisco Bay. He found 3 islands and named one of them “La Isla de los Alcatraces”, which is believed to mean “Island of the Pelicans” with alcatraz in archaic Spanish meaning “pelican” and the origin of the name Alcatraz Island. Historically, the island was a popular nesting spot for the California Brown Pelican, although they do not live on the island anymore.
A man named Julian Workman was given the island in June of 1846 with an understanding that he would build a lighthouse, but ended up selling the island to the John C. Fremont later that year for $5000 and eventually ending up in the hands of the US Government to be used for military purposes. In the following years, the first major development, Fort Alcatraz was built, which eventually became a military prison as early as 1859. After being used as a military prison for several decades, including housing prisoners during the Spanish-American War, the Island eventually changed hands for the last time and Alcatraz Federal Penitentiary opened in 1934.
On August 11, 1934 at 9:40AM, a group of prisoners, 137 in total, were transferred to Alcatraz and the prison was officially open. The opening of the prison was big news since it would be used to house some of the most violent and notorious criminals around, mainly due to the fact that it was located on an island surrounded by treacherous and cold waters of the San Francisco Bay and was thought to be the most secure prison in the United States. In fact, it is officially stated that no one successfully escaped from the prison despite 14 attempts involving 36 prisoners. Most were caught and a few were shot or drowned, but there are 5 prisoners that are officially listed as “missing & presumed drowned” so you can make your own assumptions.
Aside from the unique location, Alcatraz was equally well known for its notorious lineup of infamous prisoners. The most famous inmate was probably Al Capone, aka Scarface, who was an organized crime boss who rose to power by taking advantage of huge bootlegging profits during prohibition. Although the government was unable to prosecute him for a long list of murders and violent crimes, they eventually convicted him on 5 of 22 counts of tax evasion, sending him to Alcatraz at the age of 33. Although he was sentenced to 11 years, he was released after only 8 years due to debilitation from neurosyphilis. Other infamous prisoners include George “Machine Gun” Kelly, Bumpy Johnson, Mickey Cohen, Alvin “Creepy” Karpis and Robert Franklin Stroud (who is better known by the name “Birdman of Alcatraz”).
Despite the success of the prison, it eventually closed down in 1963 due to the fact that it was a very expensive penitentiary to operate and due to erosion of the buildings due to the surrounding salt water. It was briefly occupied by a group of Native American Activists from November 1969 to June 1971, before be added as part of the Golden Gate National Recreation Area in 1972 and being listed on the National Register of Historic Places in 1976. In 1986, the Island was declared and National Historic Landmark, leading the way to becoming a destination for tourists. With almost 2 million visitors per year, it has become one of the most popular tourist attractions in the San Francisco Bay Area.
To visit the Island, you need to purchase Alcatraz Tickets and schedule a trip on the Alcatraz Cruises Ferry to get to the Island. While there, you can enjoy a free audio tour, which will take you through various regions of the prison including the cells of famous inmates, the dining hall, the lighthouse, the officer’s club and the recreation yard. The island is also a sanctuary for birds and home to many unique habitats like tide pools, cisterns and cliffs.