A History of Alcatraz Island

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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.

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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

Fr�mont 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.


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