Alcatraz Island sits about a mile and a half off the north coast of San Francisco. Roughly 0.3 x 0.1 miles across, this island is one of 18 in the San Francisco Bay (this count includes both uninhabited rock formations and larger bodies like Angel Island, Alcatraz, and Treasure Island. Alcatraz was named after the Spanish or Portuguese word for “pelican”, for the birds that roosted on the island. It was called “La Isla de los Alcatreces” (the island of the pelicans), and was later shortened to “Alcatraz”.
The island of Alcatraz became a military asset in the early 1850s at the end of the Mexican-American war, when California became a part of the United States. In the beginning of the American Civil War (1860s), it was determined that Alcatraz was a good protection from approach by sea, and over 100 cannons were mounted on the island. The island functioned as the arsenal for San Francisco’s firearms and began to be used as a holding place for military prisoners (mostly Confederate sympathizers).
In 1868 (after the war), Alcatraz was designated as a long-term military detention facility, and the population increased during the Spanish-American War in 1898. In 1907 the prison was officially designated as the Western United States Military Prison, and in 1909 construction began on the main cell block that still stands today.
Alcatraz is most famous for its time as a Federal Prison from 1934-1963, when it housed such famous prisoners as Al Capone, and George “Machine Gun” Kelly. Most of the inmates were bank robbers and murderers, and they came from all over the US. While there are many urban legends about escapes from Alcatraz, it is believed that no inmate ever successfully escaped from The Rock.
The federal prison was closed in 1963 by Robert F Kennedy (then the US Attorney General) for financial and environmental reasons.
From 1964 to 1971, the island of Alcatraz was occupied by Native American activists, the major occupation taking place from 1969 to 1971. The Native Americans were protesting federal policies that denied land rights to native tribes. This occupation continued until President Richard Nixon created new legislation that rescinded the previous policies that denied federal recognition of the tribes. The occupation, which lasted 19 months and 9 days, ended in 1971. To this day, there are many cultural activities and exhibits on the island recognizing the native people that occupied the island.
In 1972, Alcatraz became a national recreation area under the protection and management of the National Parks System, and was declared a National Historic Landmark in 1986.
More than one million people visit Alcatraz Island annually to learn about its rich history. Book your tickets today to see The Rock for yourself!
See Alcatraz Island back-lit by the beautiful sunset!
Take your time to walk around the island and see the old buildings
Take an audio tour through the cellblock
Visit Alcatraz Island and learn the history of “The Rock”