Alcatraz Island. Island in San Francisco, California

Alcatraz Island

Island in San Francisco, California

Alcatraz Island Photo © Marit & Toomas Hinnosaar

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Alcatraz Island

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Alcatraz Island. The guards tower. - Alcatraz Island
Alcatraz Island. The guards tower. - Alcatraz Island. Photo by Mark Brandon
Alcatraz Island, also known as “The Rock” is a 22-acre island one and half miles off the coast of San Francisco in San Francisco Bay. The island has been a lighthouse, military base, maximum security prison, and protest site. Today, it is one of the top tourist attractions in northern California.


The aboriginal natives who inhabited what is currently northern California used Alcatraz Island for thousands of years prior to the arrival of the European settlers. The first known European to the island was Juan de Ayala (Wikipedia
	Article) who noted the many pelicans and named the island after them: Las Isla de los Alcatraces, or Island of the Pelicans. Through the years and many dialects that spoke the name, the island's designation was adapted to simply Alcatraz.

Once controlled by the Mexicans, the island was given to Julian Workman in the early 1800s by the Mexican Governor so a lighthouse could be built on it. The island passed to the control of the United States at the conclusion of the Mexican-American War in the mid-1800s. It was turned into a military defensive battery to protect San Francisco Bay during the American Civil War, but was mainly used to house captured Confederate soldiers and pirates. Even in 1861, the strong currents, numerous sharks, freezing water, and isolated location was seen as a perfect place for a prison. By 1867 the military had removed its cannons and artillery and built an official prison for military prisoners. The large concrete Alcatraz cell blocks most people are familiar with were first constructed in 1909. The monolithic concrete structure is the main feature on the island to this day.

The main cellblock on Alcatraz Island as viewed from the gardens on the west side of the island. - Alcatraz
The main cellblock on Alcatraz Island as viewed from the gardens on the west side of the island.. Photo by Digital Archaeology

Prison Years

In 1933 the island was turned over to the US federal government to be a maximum security prison. The prisoners who were sent to Alcatraz were those who were too violent or notorious to be held at other prisons. The first group – 137 of them – arrived on August 11, 1934. Much of the prison's notoriety comes from the prisoners who were housed there. A few of the more infamous prisoners that were incarcerated at Alcatraz were the gangster Al Capone (Wikipedia Article), Robert Stroud (the Birdman) who spent 42 of 54 prison years in solitary confinement, George Machine Gun Kelly (Wikipedia Article); the first kidnapper to be tried under the Lindbergh Law making kidnapping a federal offense, Mickey Cohen; a one-time gangster with Al Capone and Bugsy Siegel, and the only inmate to ever be bailed out of Alcatraz (by US Supreme Court Justice Earl Warren, no less), James Whitey Bulger who after leaving Alcatraz was once the FBI's number 2 most wanted man behind only Osama bin Ladin, and "Creepy" Alvin Karpis who was the last of the depression-era mobsters and the final “Public Enemy Number 1”; he spent 26 years in Alcatraz – more than any other inmate in the prison's history.


It was said that escape from Alcatraz was impossible, and as a maximum security prison you would be shot for trying. During the prison's 29 years as a federal penitentiary there were 14 escape attempts involving 36 prisoners. Six were shot, 2 drowned, 23 were captured alive, and 5 are the stuff that legends and movies are made of...missing and presumed drowned.

The perfect storm of a deteriorating cell block, environmentalists protesting the waste being dumped into San Francisco Bay, and the famed escape by Clarence Anglin, John Anglin, and Frank Morris in 1962 led Attorney General Robert F. Kennedy to close the site down on March 21, 1963. The prisoners were mostly sent to the new “supermax” prison in Marion, Illinois.

National Landmark

Alcatraz Warning - Alcatraz Island
Alcatraz Warning - Alcatraz Island. Photo by vgm8383
Alcatraz Island is now a national landmark managed by the National Park Service. Visitors can somewhat experience what it must have been like to have been a prisoner on the rock. Getting off the boat you are instantly met with a giant black and white sign: WARNING: PERSONS PROCURING OR CONCEALING THE ESCAPE OF PRISONERS ARE SUBJECT TO PROSECUTION AND IMPRISONMENT. This should set the stage for the seriousness of what The Rock used to stand for as visitors tour the prison facilities including the old cell block. Included in the cost of the tour is a multimedia package with headphones that present the information in a wide variety of languages. As visitors go through the different areas they are presented with facts, figures and stories to enhance their understanding of what they are seeing. Walk through the old shower room, the dining hall, the weight room and gym area, sit in a cell block and think about spending your life there. Spend some time in the rec yard and think about watching your back, and so much more.

Today, the island that was named for so many pelicans that their take off was said to sound like a hurricane is no longer home to them. In fact, none are known to nest on the island at all, though there are gulls, cormorants, and egrets that call The Rock home. In many areas the once austere grounds have been recaptured by nature and many original plants have come back as have many of the flowers that were planted to beautify the grounds almost 100 years ago. You will find Welsh roses, geraniums, apple and fig trees, blackberries, and honeysuckle, and many other wildflowers.

In addition to being a tourist site, the island is now also listed as a protected bird sanctuary and feeding ground and cannot be disturbed from February to September. This is important since many people like to kayak the bay and want to pull up onto the island. Others enjoy the challenge of swimming the channel and want to jump off The Rock and swim back to the city, but instead must start off a boat moored 100 yards away.


Alcatraz has a special place in Americana culture and has almost a mythical lore. This is aided in no small part by the number of movies and television shows that have taken place on or in and around the famed island. A few of the movies that have featured the famous prison are: The Rock, Escape From Alcatraz; The Bird Man of Alcatraz, Murder in the First; The Enforcer, X-men the Last Stand, and Half Past Dead.

Getting There

You can only access the island by ferry from Pier 33 near Fisherman's Wharf.

There is no parking at Pier 33 and parking in the area can be very hard to find and expensive. Your best bet is to take public transportation to the pier. The Muni F line runs right past the ferry terminal.

Other Things to See and Do in San Francisco

While Alcatraz is an absolutely must-see, must-do in San Francisco, there are countless other places to see and things to do while you are there. A few examples include: Visit the monolithic Transamerica Pyramid, drive, bike or walk the Golden Gate Bridge, ride the famous cable cars, explore the distinct and historic San Francisco neighborhoods (Presidio, Sea Cliff, Nob Hill, Chinatown, etc), be dazzled by the gorgeous architecture and elaborate details of the Fairmont Hotel or Hotel Whitcomb, stroll or eat your way through Fisherman's Wharf, or take a short drive out of town and experience the wonders of Yosemite National Park. While this is just a short list of a few of the more popular attractions, it should be enough to get you started!

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Author: Robert. Last updated: Apr 15, 2015

Pictures of Alcatraz Island

Alcatraz Island from Pier 39, San Francisco - Alcatraz Island
Alcatraz Island from Pier 39, San Francisco - Photo by David Jones

Alcatraz Island - Alcatraz Island
Alcatraz Island - Photo by Michael


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