Alcatraz Island is a small isle with a colorful history. Located in the San Francisco Bay,
the land has filled important functions for the United States since California’s Gold Rush. Today it is best known for housing the Alcatraz Federal Penitentiary. Alcatraz Island has been a national recreation area since 1963.
The island first became known to Europeans in 1775. That year, Spanish naval officer
Juan de Ayala discovered it while charting the San Francisco Bay. He named the land
mass “La Isla de los Alcatrices”, which translates to Pelican Island.
Spain put the island under Mexico’s jurisdiction. After a few sales and legal battles, the
island eventually became the property of the United States government; explorer John
Frémont purchased it on the nation’s behalf for $5000 in 1846.
Two years later, when gold was discovered at Sutter’s Mill, ships from around the world
set sail for San Francisco Bay. Sailors urgently needed a lighthouse for navigation, and
Alcatraz Island was a prime location. A lighthouse was set atop Alcatraz in 1853. That same year, the US Army began studying the island’s potential as a defense base.
The Army Corps of Engineers began a five-year fortification project in 1853. Soldiers
moved in by 1859. When the American Civil War broke out, resident soldiers mounted
more than 100 cannons around the island’s perimeter. They never fired the cannons, but
they did use a guardhouse basement to imprison west coast Confederate sympathizers,
Native American Hopis, and other persons deemed threats to the Union. Following the war, the government transitioned Alcatraz Island from a center of military defense to a detention center.
The island’s isolation amidst cold water and powerful currents made prisoner escape highly unlikely. A brick jailhouse was quickly constructed, and long-term military prisoners were delivered there by 1868. Alcatraz Island began housing civilian prisoners by the hundreds in 1906. This was a result of the San Francisco earthquake; with jails destroyed on the mainland, law enforcement needed a new secure location for the inmates. In 1907 the building was designated the Western US Military Prison.
The original lighthouse gave way to a three-story concrete cell block in 1909. (A second lighthouse was constructed later that year.) As a military prison, Alcatraz held a range of prisoners from convicted murderers to World War I conscientious objectors. Those who behaved well might enjoy time outdoors. Some even worked as servants for families who lived on the island! However, others experienced the military’s strict discipline; punishments included solitary confinement, severe food and water restrictions, and hard labor.
The prison drew interesting characters as Prohibition era crime developed. Famous
mobsters like Al Capone and George “Machine Gun” Kelly found Alcatraz was their new
home. The government responded to their especially ruthless reputations by upgrading
security. This included such additions as iron bars, metal detectors to screen visitors,
teargas canisters, and the cementing of old underground tunnels. Prisoners were closely
monitored with the issuing of one guard for every three inmates. There were also twelve
inmate countings per day! According to prison records, no inmates successfully escaped during the penitentiary’s 29 years in operation.
Most people who fled the island were shot, were returned, or were found to have drowned. Some escaped convicts are unaccounted for, but most people assume they perished in the frigid San Francisco Bay. A $1 million recapture reward offered by a local ferry operator remains unclaimed.
Despite the restrictions, prisoners also had recreation. By the 1920s these prisoners had
formed baseball teams, and on Fridays the Army hosted “Alcatraz Fights”, a tradition of
boxing matches between inmates.
The War Department closed the famous military prison in 1934. The prison had
unusually high operational costs, and waste from island residents was polluting the San
Francisco Bay. The Department of Justice assumed management until 1963. Today, the island is part of the Golden Gate National Recreation Area. The National Park Service provides tours. During the warmer months, tourists reach the island via a ferry that departs San Francisco’s Fisherman’s Wharf neighborhood. Some Alcatraz Island attractions include the scenic bay view, the island’s flora and fauna, and tours of the famous prison.