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Alcatraz Island, San Francisco Bay, July 2, 2017
Alcatraz Island (/ˈælkəˌtræz/) is located in San Francisco Bay, 1.25 miles (2.01 km) offshore from San Francisco, California, United States. The small island was developed with facilities for a lighthouse, a military fortification, a military prison (1868), and a federal prison from 1934 until 1963. Beginning in November 1969, the island was occupied for more than 19 months by a group of Native Americans from San Francisco, who were part of a wave of Native activism across the nation, with public protests through the 1970s. In 1972, Alcatraz became part of a national recreation area and received designation as a National Historic Landmark in 1986.
Today, the island’s facilities are managed by the National Park Service as part of the Golden Gate National Recreation Area; it is open to tours. Visitors can reach the island in a little under 15 minutes by ferry ride from Pier 33, located between the San Francisco Ferry Building and Fisherman’s Wharf, San Francisco. Hornblower Cruises and Events, operating under the name Alcatraz Cruises, is the official ferry provider to and from the island.
Alcatraz Island is home to the abandoned prison, the site of the oldest operating lighthouse on the West Coast of the United States, early military fortifications, and natural features such as rock pools and a seabird colony (mostly western gulls, cormorants, and egrets). According to a 1971 documentary on the history of Alcatraz, the island measures 1,675 feet (511 m) by 590 feet (180 m) and is 135 feet (41 m) at highest point during mean tide. However, the total area of the island is reported to be 22 acres (8.9 ha).
Landmarks on the island include the Main Cellhouse, Dining Hall, Library, Lighthouse, the ruins of the Warden’s House and Officers’ Club, Parade Grounds, Building 64, Water Tower, New Industries Building, Model Industries Building, and the Recreation Yard.
1.1 Military garrison
1.1.1 Military prison
1.2 Alcatraz Federal Penitentiary
2 Post-prison years
2.1 Native American occupation
6 Fauna and flora
7 In popular culture
Alcatraz Island on a clear day
Alcatraz Island, 1895.
Alcatraz in the dawn mist, from the east. The “parade ground” is at left.
Alcatraz Island and lighthouse at sunset
The water tower and powerhouse (at right), which generated electricity for the island.
A model of Military Point Alcatraz, 1866–1868, now on display at Alcatraz Island
The first Spaniard to document the island was Juan Manuel de Ayala in 1775, who charted San Francisco Bay and named one of the three islands he identified as the “La Isla de los Alcatraces,” which translates as “The Island of the Pelicans,” from the archaic Spanish alcatraz (“pelican”). Over the years, the Spanish version “Alcatraz” became popular and is now widely used. In August 1827, French Captain Auguste Bernard Duhaut-Cilly wrote “… running past Alcatraze’s (Pelicans) Island … covered with a countless number of these birds. A gun fired over the feathered legions caused them to fly up in a great cloud and with a noise like a hurricane.” The California brown pelican (Pelecanus occidentalis californicus) is not known to nest on the island today. The Spanish built several small buildings on the island and other minor structures.
The earliest recorded owner of the island of Alcatraz is Julian Workman, to whom it was given by Mexican governor Pio Pico in June 1846, with the understanding that Workman would build a lighthouse on it. Julian Workman is the baptismal name of William Workman, co-owner of Rancho La Puente and personal friend of Pio Pico. Later in 1846, acting in his capacity as Military Governor of California, John C. Frémont, champion of Manifest Destiny and leader of the Bear Flag Republic, bought the island for $5,000 in the name of the United States government from Francis Temple. In 1850, President Millard Fillmore ordered that Alcatraz Island be set aside specifically as a United States military reservation, for military purposes based upon the U.S. acquisition of California from Mexico following the Mexican–American War. Frémont had expected a large compensation for his initiative in purchasing and securing Alcatraz Island for the U.S. government, but the U.S. government later invalidated the sale and paid Frémont nothing. Frémont and his heirs sued for compensation during protracted but unsuccessful legal battles that extended into the 1890s.
The lighthouse tower adjacent to the prison cell house
Following the acquisition of California by the United States as a result of the Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo (1848) which ended the Mexican–American War, and the onset of the California Gold Rush the following year, the U.S. Army began studying the suitability of Alcatraz Island for the positioning of coastal batteries to protect the approaches to San Francisco Bay. In 1853, under the direction of Zealous B. Tower, the United States Army Corps of Engineers began fortifying the island, work which continued until 1858, eventuating in Fortress Alcatraz. The island’s first garrison at Camp Alcatraz, numbering about 200 soldiers and 11 cannons, arrived at the end of that year.
When the American Civil War broke out in 1861, the island mounted 85 cannons (increased to 105 cannons by 1866) in casemates around its perimeter, though the small size of the garrison meant only a fraction of the guns could be used at one time. At this time it also served as the San Francisco Arsenal for storage of firearms to prevent them falling into the hands of Confederate sympathizers. Alcatraz, built as a “heavily fortified military site on the West Coast”, formed a “triangle of defense” along with Fort Point and Lime Point, and ensured security to the bay. The island was also the site of the first operational lighthouse on the West Coast of the United States. Alcatraz never fired its guns offensively, though during the war it was used to imprison Confederate sympathizers and privateers on the west coast.
Because of its isolation from the outside by the cold, strong, hazardous currents of the waters of San Francisco Bay, Alcatraz was used to house Civil War prisoners of war (POWs) as early as 1861.
Following the war in 1866, the army determined the fortifications and guns were being rapidly rendered obsolete by advances in military technology. Modernization efforts, including an ambitious plan to level the entire island and construct shell-proof underground magazines and tunnels, were undertaken between 1870 and 1876 but never completed (the so-called “parade ground” on the southern tip of the island represents the extent of the flattening effort). Instead, the army switched the focus of its plans for Alcatraz from coastal defense to detention, a task for which it was well suited because of its isolation. In 1867, a brick jailhouse was built (previously inmates had been kept in the basement of the guardhouse), and in 1868, Alcatraz was officially designated a long-term detention facility for military prisoners. The facility was later discontinued for POWs in 1946. Among those incarcerated at Alcatraz were Confederates caught on the West Coast, and some Hopi Native American men in the 1870s.
In 1898, the Spanish–American War increased the prison population from 26 to over 450, and from 1905 to 1907 it was commanded by U.S. Army General George W. McIver. After the 1906 San Francisco earthquake, civilian prisoners were transferred to Alcatraz for safe confinement. On March 21, 1907, Alcatraz was officially designated as the Western U.S. Military Prison, later Pacific Branch, U.S. Disciplinary Barracks, 1915. In 1909 construction began on the huge concrete main cell block, designed by Major Reuben Turner, which remains the island’s dominant feature. It was completed in 1912. To accommodate the new cell block, the Citadel, a three-story barracks, was demolished down to the first floor, which was actually below ground level. The building had been constructed in an excavated pit (creating a dry “moat”) to enhance its defensive potential. The first floor was then incorporated as a basement to the new cell block, giving rise to the popular legend of “dungeons” below the main cell block. The Fortress was deactivated as a military prison in October 1933 and transferred to the Bureau of Prisons.
During World War I, the prison held conscientious objectors, including Philip Grosser, who wrote a pamphlet entitled Uncle Sam’s Devil’s Island about his experiences.
Alcatraz Federal Penitentiary
An exterior view of the Alcatraz main cell block from the exercise yard.
The United States Disciplinary Barracks on Alcatraz was acquired by the United States Department of Justice on October 12, 1933, and the island became a federal prison in August 1934. Alcatraz was designed to hold prisoners who continuously caused trouble at other federal prisons. At 9:40 am on August 11, 1934, the first batch of 137 prisoners arrived at Alcatraz, arriving by railroad from the United States Penitentiary in Leavenworth, Kansas at Santa Venetia, California, before being escorted to Alcatraz, handcuffed in high security coaches and guarded by some 60 special FBI agents, U.S. Marshals and railway security officials. Most of the prisoners were notorious bank robbers and murderers. The prison initially had a staff of 155, including the first warden James A. Johnston and associate warden J. E. Shuttleworth, both considered to be “iron men”. The staff were highly trained in security, but not rehabilitation.
Cell 181 in Alcatraz where Al Capone was imprisoned
During the 29 years it was in use, the jail held some of the most notorious criminals in American history, such as Al Capone, Robert Franklin Stroud (the “Birdman of Alcatraz”), George “Machine Gun” Kelly, Bumpy Johnson, Rafael Cancel Miranda (a member of the Puerto Rican Nationalist Party who attacked the United States Capitol building in 1954), Mickey Cohen, Arthur R. “Doc” Barker, James “Whitey” Bulger, and Alvin “Creepy” Karpis (who served more time at Alcatraz than any other inmate). It also provided housing for the Bureau of Prisons staff and their families.
During its 29 years of operation, the penitentiary claimed that no prisoner successfully escaped. A total of 36 prisoners made 14 escape attempts, two men trying twice; 23 were caught alive, six were shot and killed during their escape, two drowned, and five are listed as “missing and presumed drowned”. The most violent occurred on May 2, 1946, when a failed escape attempt by six prisoners led to the Battle of Alcatraz.
On June 11, 1962, Frank Morris, John Anglin, and Clarence Anglin carried out one of the most intricate escapes ever devised.
Because the penitentiary cost much more to operate than other prisons (nearly $10 per prisoner per day, as opposed to $3 per prisoner per day at Atlanta), and half a century of salt water saturation had severely eroded the buildings, then Attorney General Robert F. Kennedy ordered the penitentiary closed on March 21, 1963. In addition, citizens were increasingly protesting the environmental effects of sewage released into San Francisco Bay from the approximately 250 inmates and 60 Bureau of Prisons families on the island. That year, the United States Penitentiary in Marion, Illinois, on land, opened as the replacement facility for Alcatraz.
Native American Occupation
A lingering sign of the 1969–71 Native American occupation (2006 Photograph).
Alcatraz Island was occupied by Native American activists for the first time on March 8, 1964. The event was reported by, among others, the San Francisco Chronicle and the San Francisco Examiner.
Beginning on November 20, 1969, a group of Native Americans called United Indians of All Tribes, mostly college students from San Francisco, occupied the island to protest federal policies related to American Indians. Some of them were children of Indians who had relocated in the city as part of the Bureau of Indian Affairs’ (BIA) Indian termination policy, which was a series of laws and policies aimed at the assimilation of Native Americans into mainstream American society, particularly by encouraging Indians to move away from the Indian reservations and into cities. A number of employees of the Bureau of Indian Affairs also occupied Alcatraz at that time, including Doris Purdy, an amateur photographer, who later produced footage of her stay on the island.
The occupiers, who stayed on the island for nearly two years, demanded the island’s facilities be adapted and new structures built for an Indian education center, ecology center and cultural center. The American Indians claimed the island by provisions of the Treaty of Fort Laramie (1868) between the U.S. and the Sioux; they said the treaty promised to return all retired, abandoned or out-of-use federal lands to the Native peoples from whom it was acquired. (Note: The Treaty of 1868 stated that all abandoned or unused federal land adjacent to the Great Sioux Reservation could be reclaimed by descendants of the Sioux Nation.) Indians of All Tribes then claimed Alcatraz Island by the “Right of Discovery”, as indigenous peoples knew it thousands of years before any Europeans had come to North America. Begun by urban Indians of San Francisco, the occupation attracted other Native Americans from across the country, including American Indian Movement (AIM) urban activists from Minneapolis.
The Alcatraz cellhouse, lighthouse, and Warden’s House which was burned out during the 1969–71 Native American occupation.
The Native Americans demanded reparation for the many treaties broken by the US government and for the lands which were taken from so many tribes. In discussing the Right of Discovery, the historian Troy R. Johnson states in The Occupation of Alcatraz Island, that indigenous peoples knew about Alcatraz at least 10,000 years before any European knew about any part of North America.
During the nineteen months and nine days of occupation by the American Indians, several buildings at Alcatraz were damaged or destroyed by fire, including the recreation hall, the Coast Guard quarters and the warden’s home. The origin of the fires is disputed. The U.S. government demolished a number of other buildings (mostly apartments) after the occupation had ended. Graffiti from the period of Native American occupation are still visible at many locations on the island.
During the occupation, President Richard Nixon rescinded the Indian termination policy, designed by earlier administrations to end federal recognition of tribes and their special relationship with the US government. He established a new policy of self-determination, in part as a result of the publicity and awareness created by the occupation. The occupation ended on June 11, 1971.
The entire Alcatraz Island was listed on the National Register of Historic Places in 1976, and was further declared a National Historic Landmark in 1986. In 1993, the National Park Service published a plan entitled Alcatraz Development Concept and Environmental Assessment. This plan, approved in 1980, doubled the amount of Alcatraz accessible to the public to enable visitors to enjoy its scenery and bird, marine, and animal life.
Map of Alcatraz
- Baker Beach
- Boat Dock
- Building 64
- Dining Hall
- Former Military Chapel (Bachelor Quarters)
- Main Cellhouse
- Model Industries Building
- New Industries Building
- Officers’ Club
- Parade Grounds
- Power House
- Recreation Yard
- Wardens House
- Water Tower
Today, American Indigenous groups, such as the International Indian Treaty Council, hold ceremonies on the island, most notably, their “Sunrise Gatherings” every Columbus Day and Thanksgiving Day.
The Global Peace Foundation proposed to raze the prison and build a peace center in its place. During the previous year, supporters collected 10,350 signatures that placed it on the presidential primary ballots in San Francisco for February 5, 2008. The proposed plan was estimated at $1 billion. For the plan to pass, Congress would have to have taken Alcatraz out of the National Park Service. Critics of the plan said that Alcatraz is too rich in history to be destroyed. On February 6, 2008, the Alcatraz Island Global Peace Center Proposition C failed to pass, with 72% of voters rejecting the proposition.
The coastal environment of the San Francisco Bay Area has caused deterioration and corrosion of building materials throughout Alcatraz. Beginning in 2011, the National Park Service began major renovations on the island, including the installation of solar panels on the cell house roof, slope stabilization near the Warden’s House and the stabilization and rehabilitation of the outer cell house walls.
Recently, Alcatraz has been home to several art installations. The famous Chinese artist/dissident Ai Weiwei staged an exhibition which explored “questions about human rights and freedom of expression” called @Large. This 2014, exhibit included Lego portraits of famous political prisoners. In 2016, Nelson Saiers used math and prison slang as central elements in a six-month installation that addressed irrationally long prison sentences.
Fauna and Flora
Brandt’s cormorant nesting on Alcatraz Island
- Cisterns. A bluff that, because of its moist crevices, is believed to be an important site for California slender salamanders.
- Cliff tops at the island’s north end. Containing a onetime manufacturing building and a plaza, the area is listed as important to nesting and roosting birds.
- The powerhouse area. A steep embankment where native grassland and creeping wild rye support a habitat for deer mice.
- Tide pools. A series of them, created by long-ago quarrying activities, contains still-unidentified invertebrate species and marine algae. They form one of the few tide-pool complexes in the bay, according to the report.
- Western cliffs and cliff tops. Rising to heights of nearly 100 feet (30 m), they provide nesting and roosting sites for seabirds including pigeon guillemots, cormorants,
- Heermann’s gulls, and western gulls. Harbor seals can occasionally be seen on a small beach at the base.
- The parade grounds. Carved from the hillside during the late 19th century and covered with rubble since the government demolished guard housing in 1971, the area has become a habitat and breeding ground for black-crowned night herons, western gulls, slender salamanders, and deer mice.
- The Agave Path, a trail named for its dense growth of agave. Located atop a shoreline bulkhead on the south side, it provides a nesting habitat for night herons.
Alcatraz prison and its surroundings.
Flowers on Alcatraz
Gardens planted by families of the original Army post, and later by families of the prison guards, fell into neglect after the prison closure in 1963. After 40 years, they are being restored by a paid staff member and many volunteers, thanks to funding by the Garden Conservancy and the Golden Gate National Parks Conservancy. The untended gardens had become severely overgrown and had developed into a nesting habitat and sanctuary for numerous birds. Now, areas of bird habitat are being preserved and protected, while many of the gardens are being restored to their original state.
In clearing out the overgrowth, workers found that many of the original plants were growing where they had been planted – some more than 100 years ago. Numerous heirloom rose hybrids, including a Welsh rose (Bardou Job) that had been believed to be extinct, have been discovered and propagated. Many species of roses, succulents, and geraniums are growing among apple and fig trees, banks of sweet peas, manicured gardens of cutting flowers, and wildly overgrown sections of native grasses with blackberry and honeysuckle.
In Popular Culture
Alcatraz Island appears often in media and popular culture, including films dating from 1962: The Book of Eli (2010), X-Men: The Last Stand (2006), Catch Me If You Can (2002), The Rock (1996), Murder in the First (1995), Escape from Alcatraz (1979), The Enforcer (1976), Point Blank (1967) , Birdman of Alcatraz (1962) and J. J. Abrams’ 2012 television series Alcatraz.
It also was featured in the Yu-Gi-Oh! Duel Monsters anime, in the book Al Capone Does My Shirts, in the video game Tony Hawk’s Pro Skater 4 as a playable level, and in the video game Call of Duty: Black Ops II in a downloadable zombie survival map called “Mob of the Dead”. It is also featured as a playable racetrack in the 1996 arcade racing video game San Francisco Rush: Extreme Racing. Alcatraz has also been portrayed often as a safe haven or base of operations in many post-apocalyptic movies, such as The Book of Eli.
Alcatraz is featured in the episode “Bird Mummy of Alcatraz” in the children’s program, Mummies Alive! and was also featured in a mission in the video game “Watch Dogs 2”. Alcatraz has also been featured as a map in the game “The Escapists”, as downloadable content
A panorama of Alcatraz as viewed from San Francisco Bay, facing east. Sather Tower and UC Berkeley are visible in the background on the right. (Drag image left and right to show full panorama.)
Different view of the Water Tower built in 1940.
Alcatraz Utility House and Power Plant Chimney, built in 1939.
School House (two story building in the middle) and the Electric Repair shop (foreground) built in 1930s.
Views of both long sides of the island.
Alcatraz Island harbor guards tower.
Alcatraz Island view from the west. Image shot from an altitude of approximately 1,800 ft (549 m).
Alcatraz view from tour boat.