San Francisco Bay - Alcatraz (Photo by Jon Sullivan)
Situated in middle of San Francisco Bay about 1.5 miles to the closest shore, is one of the harshest penitentiaries in the country, Alcatraz. Lucky for lawbreakers, the cell doors permanently closed to prisoners in 1963. Today, Alcatraz is one of the most popular tourist attractions of the United States, luring visitors to the grounds that once housed notorious criminals such as Al Capone and George “Machine Gun” Kelly.
Civil War soldiers on Alcatraz (Photo courtesy of The Bancroft Library)
Alcatraz was first documented in 1775 by Spanish Explorer Juan Manuel de Ayala when he charted San Francisco Bay, and named the barren island La Isla de los Alcatraces, which translates to "Island of the Pelicans." More than 70 years later in the 1850s the U.S. Army constructed a military fortress on the island, serving to protect the entrance to San Francisco Bay. More than 100 cannons were installed, making it the most fortified military site on the West Coast.
Alcatraz: Walkway between cellblocks nicknamed "Broadway"
Due to its isolation, frigid waters and strong currents, “The Rock” as it was nicknamed, was considered an ideal location for holding captives and soon prisoners from the Civil War (1861-1865) and Spanish-American War (1898) were being held on Alcatraz. The U.S. Army would use the island for 80 years until 1933 when the Military transferred Alcatraz to the Federal Bureau of Prisons. It became a maximum-security, minimum-privilege penitentiary designed to deal with the most hardened inmates and to display the Government’s seriousness about stopping the rampant “gangster” crime of the 1920’s and 30’s.
More than 1,500 convicts were incarcerated at Alcatraz before rising costs and deterioration forced its closing in 1963. Under the direction of the National Park Service, it opened to the public in 1973 as a tourist attraction and welcomes more than one million visitors from around the world each year. There is no admission fee to visit the island, but there is a charge for the ferry service to and from the island. Alcatraz Cruises is the only company that can take you to the island – all other boats pass by, but are not allowed to stop.
Some interesting facts:
Alcatraz was the site of the first operational lighthouse on the West Coast, built in 1854.
During its 29 years of operation, 36 prisoners attempted to escape Alcatraz. Twenty-three were caught, six were shot and killed during the escape, two drowned and five are listed as “missing and presumed dead”.
No prisoners were ever executed at Alcatraz, although there were eight murders and five suicides. Fifteen men died of natural causes.
Contrary to popular belief, Robert Stroud, the “Birdman of Alcatraz” wasn’t allowed to keep birds in his cell at Alcatraz like he did during his stay at Leavenworth Prison.
There have been about 30 films made at or about Alcatraz including Birdman of Alcatraz (1962), Escape from Alcatraz (1979) and The Rock (1996) and Catch Me If You Can (2002).
More Information: Alcatraz Cruises
Pier 33, San Francisco, California 94111
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