Lieutenant Juan Manuel de Ayala stumbled upon a seabird sanctuary in 1775 and called it Isla de Los Alcatraces—the Isle of Pelicans. Alcatraz Island, just 1.5 miles from San Francisco's shoreline, has experienced many intriguing chapters since the 18th century. But it looms large in the American imagination as a maximum security prison with tales of notorious psychopaths and criminals like Machine Gun Kelly and Robert 'Birdman' Stroud and deadly escapes. Alcatraz is also known as The Rock, and the eponymous 1996 action thriller starring Sean Connery, Ed Harris, and Nicolas Cage further entrenched the island in pop culture. Join us as we trace the history of this unique landmark and tourist attraction.
The U.S. government bought Alcatraz for $5,000 in 1849 and installed the West Coast's first lighthouse within five years. A cell house blocked the lighthouse in the 20th century, so a new one took over guiding duties in 1909. But the original lamp built in 1854 to aid ships passing through the Golden gate still blinks today.
Alcatraz became home to troops in 1859, and two years later, it was decided that the island would hold military offenders. Prisoners ran the gamut from American defectors in the Philippines during the Spanish-American War to Hopi Indians whose only offense was refusing to assimilate, reach land agreements, or send their children away. During the Civil War, Union deserters were also sent to Alcatraz.
Between 1934 and 1963, Alcatraz transformed into a federal prison, and its inmates took on a new flavor. They weren't just the worst offenders in California but among the most dangerous captives in the country. Italian-American mobster Al Capone served nearly five years at Alcatraz Federal Penitentiary, and his stint on the island was eventful. As a reward for good behavior, he was allowed to play banjo in the prison band, The Rock Islanders. His brain, wrecked by syphilis, put him in Alcatraz's hospital wing for a time, as did a stabbing by a fellow inmate.
Alcatraz is 1,675 feet by 590 feet and covers 22 acres. On average, there were 260 inmates held here at any one time, and they stayed for approximately eight years. In total, about 1545 men served time on the island. Eight prisoners were murdered by fellow prisoners, five men committed suicide, and 15 died naturally.
Alcatraz's reputation was far scarier than its reality. The prison had one-man cells, which inmates preferred, and the first warden insisted on serving sizable portions of good food to prevent protests. There were book, magazine, music, and movie privileges, and softball was popular. And there was hot water in the showers. One theory posits that this prevented escape attempts, as bodies unused to cold water wouldn't manage the frozen ordeal awaiting them.
A significant aspect of Alcatraz's infamy was its 'inescapable' status. The chilly waters of San Francisco Bay surround The Rock, and great white sharks sometimes visit. But it's possible to swim to the mainland—in 1934, a 17-year-old girl swam to shore in just 47 minutes. In 1962, three inmates duped guards with hair from the barber shop after chipping away at the walls with spoons. They escaped on a raft made from raincoats, and the outcome remains a mystery. Other inmates made a break with varying results—guards killed six men, 23 were recaptured, and there were two confirmed drownings.
The same warden that prioritized solid meals, James Johnston, also enacted a soul-sucking no-talking rule in the prison's first few years—breaking the rule led to a stay in the dungeons. So while there weren't any riots about the nosh, the inmates collectively protested not being able to communicate with each other, realizing there weren't enough solitary cells to hold all of them. It worked, and the rule changed.
In early May 1946, six prisoners attempted an escape plan. They took numerous hostages and shot at officers. Two officers died in the ensuing chaos, and 14 were injured. The main culprits died at Alcatraz, and two were executed simultaneously in the San Quentin gas chamber in 1948. The movie The Birdman of Alcatraz depicts a fictionalized version of the events.
How do you manage society's chronic rule breakers when they break a prison rule? At Alcatraz, officers would put inmates in D-Block, and they'd only be allowed out for a single hour a week. If they continued to make trouble, they'd end up in the hole where an iron door blocked out the light, and at least one of the five special cells had a hole rather than a toilet.
In November 1969, the Indians of All Tribes sailed to Alcatraz to claim or reclaim it, depending on your perspective, for their people. The prison had long been shut down at this point, and these Native American civilians had ideas for the unused land. They 'paid' for the island with $24 in the form of glass beads and red cloth and wrote a poignant proclamation at the outset. The occupation lasted 18 months and was ultimately unsustainable, but Alcatraz is still a symbol of resistance for the Native American community.
Because of Alcatraz's reputation as a severe place, it isn't easy to imagine kids running about on the island while the prison was operational. But the guards could bring their wives and kids to live with them, which made for a rather unusual childhood. Employees lived at Building 64, and there was a pool table, bowling alley, and convenience store, although frequent shopping trips to the mainland were essential for stocking up on supplies. Families could fish, and the youngsters would be on the lookout when new inmates were due to arrive.
Alcatraz closed down for numerous reasons, money being chief among them. Eventually, higher-ups couldn't justify running America's most expensive prison, which cost thrice as much as other federal penitentiaries. Facilities needed high-priced upgrades due to saltwater erosion. Millions of gallons of freshwater needed to be shipped in regularly, and waste had to be shipped out. It was too much of a bother. The 1962 movie Birdman of Alcatraz came out mere weeks before The Rock ceased operating, and the island became "surplus government property."
The last guard tower on Alcatraz was actually a movie prop built for the movie The Rock. The island has also appeared in multiple films during the 21st century, including The Book of Eli, X-Men: The Last Stand, and Catch Me If You Can. The artists Ai Weiwei and Nelson Saiers created exhibitions on the island to reflect on freedom and human rights issues.
Alcatraz is high on the priority list of many visitors to San Francisco. In 1972, the National Park Service bought Alcatraz, and the government has since invested money to open the island to the public and turn it into a museum and tourist attraction. More than 1.7 million tourists book a ferry to The Rock every year. It makes a fair amount of money but still costs a pretty penny to operate.
Alcatraz was named for its bird colonies. Bird numbers have swelled since the prison closed, and gulls and at least eight other species are among the first creatures to welcome visitors to the island. Avian enthusiasts and Audubon societies may be interested to know that there are bird-focused tours of the island.