A History of Alcatraz Island
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 Californias 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 Mexicos jurisdiction. After a few sales and legal battles, the
island eventually became the property of the United States government; explorer John
Frmont purchased it on the nations behalf for $5000 in 1846.
Two years later, when gold was discovered at Sutters 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 islands 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 islands 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 islands 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 militarys 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 penitentiarys 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 Franciscos Fishermans Wharf neighborhood. Some Alcatraz Island
attractions include the scenic bay view, the islands flora and fauna, and tours of the
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A History of Alcatraz Island