Alcatraz Island - History and Facts | History Hit

Alcatraz Island

San Francisco, California, United States

Alcatraz Island in San Francisco was a military base turned federal prison, which housed many of the US’s most notorious criminals.

Image Credit: Shutterstock / f11photo

About Alcatraz Island

Alcatraz Island was the site of a notoriously harsh prison based off the coast of San Francisco, California, this isolated position earning it the name of “The Rock”. However, prior to becoming a prison, Alcatraz Island had a long history as a military base.

History of Alcatraz

Initially discovered by a Spanish explorer in 1775 (its name literally meant Isle of the Penguins originally), Alcatraz Island was first used by the US military in 1853, when it established a base there, transforming it into Fortress Alcatraz. This heavily fortified structure was completed in 1859.

In the course of the American Civil War, the defences of Alcatraz Island were a Union stronghold used to ward off the Confederates. It was also at this time that Alcatraz was first used as a prison, to house Confederate prisoners of war. This military prison continued to expand and was used throughout the late nineteenth century to hold, amongst others, Native American prisoners and those from the Spanish-American War. Over the years, the army kept building more prison sites on Alcatraz Island to hold the increasing number of inmates.

Alcatraz Island’s role as a site of imprisonment was cemented in August 1934. The US government had bought the site the year before and decided to use it as a federal prison, a function it would serve for twenty-nine years.

During this time, Alcatraz held some of the US’s most infamous criminals, including the gangsters Al Capone, Robert Stroud and George Kelly. Many inmates attempted to escape Alcatraz Island and, although no prisoners have “officially” escaped, one of the fourteen recorded attempts resulted in the disappearance of the escapees, Frank Morris and Clarence and John Anglin. Presumed drowned, their bodies have never been recovered.

In the 1960s, Native Americans claimed sovereignty over Alcatraz as a spiritual retreat – they occupied Alcatraz for a number of months following the US government’s refusal to acknowledge Native American claims to the land. Public support for the campaign meant that eventually President Nixon was forced into strengthening indigenous rights and restore some Native territory.

Alcatraz Island is today managed by the National Parks Service, and remains a popular tourist attraction.

Alcatraz today

Ferries depart regularly from Pier 33: there are multiple tour options available. Bring your own earphones for the audio tour, and expect a visit to last at least hours (including the ferry to and from the mainland). It’s an eerie yet fascinating journey into the workings of this famous site, and exploring Alcatraz Island’s varied and often dark history is a memorable experience.

Getting to Alcatraz

Alcatraz Island is accessible by ferry only: these depart regularly from Pier 33, on the Embarcadero. The tram stops a few hundred metre away (The Embarcadero & Greenwich St) and bus routes 27, 54 and 72 also stop very close by. There’s private parking close by – expect to pay handsomely for the privilege.

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