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Alcatraz: The Rock
Originally named after the Pelicans that used to be inhabit the island, Alcatraz, has since become a symbol of San Francisco, as much as the Golden Gate Bridge and our cable cars. Most first-time visitors to the city by the bay will have it on their list of things to see and do here, along with Chinatown, Lombard Street and Fisherman’s Wharf. There’s just something about ‘the Rock’, as Alcatraz in known in San Francisco, that fascinates people. Probably it’s the idea of an unescapable prison being located on this small, rocky, outcrop just off San Francisco’s Embarcadero. One can feel the desperation of the imprisoned – so near and yet so far.
The federal penitentiary on the island closed in the early 1960’s, ending more than a century of incarceration there. Then, in 1973, the National Park Service opened the island to the public and today more than a million people visit every year. Now part of the vast Golden Gate National Recreation Area, the island of Alcatraz was declared a National Historic Landmark in 1986.
In this article I’ll give you the history behind this San Francisco icon, as well as recommending the best ways for visitors to, well, visit it.
Early History of Alcatraz
Spanish naval officer Juan Manuel de Ayala named the island La Isla de los Alcatraces in 1775, during the period that Spain was colonizing California. The name almost certainly referred to the pelicans that used to live on the island (using the old Spanish word for the birds). However, Ayala actually gave the name to what’s now called Yerba Buena Island and it wasn’t until the 1820’s that the British explorer Captain Frederick Beechey mistakenly bestowed the name on the nearby Rock, where it stuck.
A French Captain passing through the Bay Area gives us an idea of Alcatraz in 1827 with this description:
Alcatrazes Island (was) 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.Auguste Bernard Duhaut-Cilly
A few structures were erected on the island over the years, but development was minimal until the U.S. arrived in 1846, during the Mexican-American War. Unlike the Spanish and the Mexicans, the Americans had immediate interest in the potential of Alcatraz as a military base and, almost as quickly, as a jail.
The Rock Becomes a Fort
In 1850, President Millard Fillmore ordered that Alcatraz Island be set aside as a United States military base, to protect San Francisco Bay, newly important because of the Gold Rush. Three years later work began on building fortifications and placing batteries of cannons, finishing in 1859. Fort Alcatraz opened that year with a small garrison of 200 soldiers,
That same year the first prisoners began to be held on the island. Interestingly there is some evidence to suggest that the Ohlone, the First American people who originally occupied the Bay Area, also used Alcatraz to isolate community members who violated tribal laws, although even the idea of long-term incarceration would have been incomprehensible to the Ohlone.
Initially Fort Alcatraz operated as a military prison, later holding Confederate prisoners during the American Civil War and Hopi men in the 1870’s, who refused to send their children away from their communities to government-sponsored boarding schools. During this time the island’s defenses were further strengthened and the first lighthouse on the West Coast was constructed on it.
The fort remained a long-term detention facility for military prisoners into the early twentieth century and in 1912 the huge concrete main cell block was completed, which remains the dominant building on the Rock to this day. During the First World War the detention facilities were used to house conscientious objectors and pacifists. One of whom wrote a pamphlet entitled Uncle Sam’s Devil’s Island, about his experiences at Alcatraz. After the war it reverted to being a military prison.
Federal Prison Opens on Alcatraz
Alcatraz was acquired by the U.S. Department of Justice on October 12, 1933, and the island was designated a federal prison in August 1934. The reason for opening the Rock as a jail was largely because of one thing – Prohibition. The banning of alcohol in the U.S. in 1920 had led to an explosion of crime, chiefly because criminals had been able to make huge profits from providing it illegally. Those profits had in turn enabled organized crime, and the mafia, to become vastly more powerful and commit more crime.
On August 11, 1934, the first batch of 137 prisoners arrived at Alcatraz. It seemed an ideal location to incarcerate the baddest of the bad. The cold water, strong currents and distant mainland shore (1.5 miles away at its nearest point) all served to make Alcatraz impossible to escape from. Or certainly so it seemed.
That same month one of the Rock’s most celebrated prisoners arrived, Al ‘Scarface’ Capone, former head of the Chicago Outfit. Unfortunately, for him, he was in serious decline by the time he arrived at Alcatraz, already showing symptoms of syphilis and gonorrhea. He was also suffering the withdrawal symptoms of a cocaine addiction so serious he’d perforated his nasal septum.
Interestingly, part of the reason for his transfer to the island was to keep him safe from his fellow prisoners, although that was only partially successful, as he was stabbed while at Alcatraz in 1936 (the wound was only superficial). His letters home were barely coherent and he spent the last year of his sojourn on San Francisco Bay staying in the prison hospital, in a confused and disoriented state, before leaving in January 1939.
Another mafia figure who served part of his sentence on the island was Mickey Cohen. Cohen had been running the East Coast mob’s West Coast activities from the Sunset Strip in Los Angeles, but in an echo of how the FBI eventually got Capone thirty years before, he was convicted of tax evasion in 1961 and spent the first two years of his sentence at Alcatraz before being transferred when the prison closed.
Arguably the most famous inmate to be held on Alcatraz was Robert Stroud, known as the Birdman of Alcatraz, although he never actually kept birds on the island. Prior to being sent to Alcatraz he had written several books about birds, researched while he was in Leavenworth Penitentiary, which is how he got his new name. Entirely self-taught on the subject, his Digest on the Diseases of Birds is considered a seminal work in ornithology. He spent seventeen years on the Rock (1942-59) and maintained that the chief reason that he didn’t get parole is because he was an open homosexual.
The longest serving prisoner on Alcatraz, was Alvin Karpis, member of the Baker-Karpis Gang during the Depression era, spending 26 years on the island (1936-62). Known as Creepy on account of his sinister-looking smile, he was the only Public Enemy #1 captured alive by the FBI, in spite of having his fingerprints surgically removed in 1934. He worked mainly in the bakery during his time at Alcatraz, leaving shortly before the federal penitentiary closed for a prison in Washington State, where he met a young Charles Manson and taught him the guitar (this was before Manson committed his most famous crimes).
Karpis had joined Arthur ‘Doc’ Barker, member of the same gang, who’d arrived at Alcatraz in 1935, although Barker didn’t last long on the island, dying in 1939 after being shot during an escape attempt.
Escape from Alcatraz
The institution served an important purpose in taking the strain off the older and greatly overcrowded institutions… since it enabled us to move to the smaller, closely guarded institution the escape artists, the big-time racketeers, the inveterate connivers and those who needed protection from other groups.Bureau of Prisons report
Inmates were counted 13 times daily and the ratio of prisoners to guards was the lowest of any U.S. prison at the time. Watch towers covered the island and prisoners were locked into steel cells remotely from control rooms. Guards kept watch on inmates from gun galleries and there were remote controlled tear gas canisters at appropriate locations.
It was considered the most secure prison in the world, not least because even if prisoners did get off the island where were they going to go? It wasn’t considered possible to swim to shore, due to the brutally cold water, powerful tides and swift currents of San Francisco Bay, which would be certain to sweep even the strongest of swimmers out of the Golden Gate and into the vast Pacific. If they weren’t eaten by sharks first. And there weren’t any Olympic-level swimmers amongst the prison population.
Maybe not, but what was there was a large population of incredibly motivated, determined, and often intelligent, men. On June 11, 1962, three of them, Frank Morris and brothers John and Clarence Anglin made a carefully planned and daring escape off the island. They left papier-mâché dummies made with human hair stolen from the prison barbershop in their beds and were able to access a utility corridor behind their cells by removing an air vent over time. From there they managed to get out of the prison and down to the shore, where they had ingeniously made a raft from stitching together more than fifty raincoats over many months. They inflated it with an accordion that they’d adapted into a pump.
What happened after that is unclear, but they were never recaptured nor were their bodies ever recovered. At first the FBI insisted that they must have drowned in the bay, however six months later another prisoner escaped, John Paul Scott, and managed to make it to the shore at Fort Point under the Golden Gate Bridge, where he was found, almost dead from hypothermia and exhaustion. Nevertheless, his attempt was made in the middle of winter, when the water is much colder, and he hadn’t made meticulous preparations such as the earlier escapees had, including building a raft and researching currents and hazards in the bay. There were three of them to help each other out and, finally, Angel Island is much closer to Alcatraz than Fort Point.
In the 2010’s a new investigation revealed that a raft in fact had been found on Angel Island and a 1955 blue Chevrolet had been stolen on the night of the escape by three men, who fitted the description of Morris and the Anglins. The case remains open and it certainly seems likely to me that they may have indeed escaped, although they are almost certainly the only prisoners to achieve that feat.
The federal penitentiary closed in March 1963. The chief reasons being its increasingly bad reputation for violence (although in fact it wasn’t any worse than many other jails in the U.S.), the fact that it clearly wasn’t considered escape proof anymore and that it cost the government more than three times as much to run Alcatraz as it did any other prison in the U.S. ($10 per inmate each day as opposed to $3).
First American Occupation
The first occupation by First Americans of Alcatraz was in 1964, when Lakota Sioux activist Belva Cottier proposed staking a claim to the island based on provisions in the 1868 Treaty of Fort Laramie (which essentially provided First Americans with the right to take back unused Federal lands).
On March 4, 1964, Cottier and thirty-five others landed on the Rock and duly staked out properties and filed legal claim forms. They were ready to stay on Alcatraz for up to 30 days, but in the end left after just four hours when threatened with being charged with trespass by the acting warden Richard Willard.
Nevertheless five years later, on November 20, a different group of 14 First Americans, representing United Indians of All Tribes, staged an occupation of the island to protest federal policies related to American Indians. They claimed Alcatraz under the Right of Discovery, which if you think about it is the “principle” by which their own ancestral lands had been taken: the doctrine of “what’s mine is mine and what’s your is mine”.
The Red Power movement demanded reparations for the numerous treaties which were broken by the U.S government, and for the lands that were taken from their people. The demonstration lasted for nearly two years, with 400 people staying on the island at one point and a school, daycare and health clinic, ending on June 11, 1971.
The occupation did have a direct and significant impact, as President Richard Nixon rescinded the Indian termination policy, which was designed to end federal recognition of tribes and their special relationship with the government. He also established a new policy of self-determination and passed the Education Assistance Act.
Alcatraz in the Movies and on Television
Needless to say from quite early on in it’s existence Hollywood, a few hours south of San Francisco, took notice of this impossible to escape from federal prison, full of desperate men widely regarded as the worst of the worst. That fascination only grew with each failed escape attempt. On top of that its reputation for brutality, and the occasional uplifting story that emerged from the facility, also served to make Alcatraz the perfect location in which to set a movie or TV series.
The first significant film to feature Alcatraz was The Birdman of Alcatraz with Burt Lancaster portraying Robert Stroud. Lancaster was nominated for an Oscar for the role (he lost to Gregory Peck in To Kill a Mockingbird). However the movie was filmed on the Columbia Studios backlot in Hollywood and not on the island, which was still a prison at the time (although it closed shortly after).
The first movie to actually film on the Rock was Point Blank, in 1966. A San Francisco Film Noir thriller with Lee Marvin, the movie opens on Alcatraz, where Marvin’s co-criminals shoot him and leave him for dead. A big mistake, needless to say. It’s a classic.
The next great Alcatraz film is Escape from Alcatraz, with Clint Eastwood starring as Frank Morris and the late great Fred Ward as John Anglin, portraying the escape made by them fifteen years before. In true Hollywood style Paramount Pictures largely rehabilitated the prison and laid fifteen miles of cables out to the island to bring in the necessary power from San Francisco to shoot the film. It was hugely successful.
Arguably the most entertaining movie set on the Rock is The Rock. Starring Sean Connery as, well, an aging Bond, and Nicholas Cage as his inexperienced partner, the two of them have to break INTO the prison in order to save
the world San Francisco. Get it? It’s hugely fun film and has a whole bunch of great actors, such as Ed Harris, filling out the ranks.
In terms of Television the most popular series set on the island is Alcatraz. The J J Abrams show follows a team of investigators who are trying to find out why the prison inmates and guards all mysteriously disappeared in 1963, only to reappear in present-day San Francisco. Unfortunately for its creators the series followed the example of its plot and disappeared into the ether after a single season on Fox.
The Rock Today
Another thing that Nixon did after the Rock was returned to government hands was to find $120 million for the National Park Service to purchase Alcatraz (and Fort Mason) from the U.S. Army, in order to establish the Golden Gate National Recreation Area in 1972. The following year it opened to the public and now the island is arguably our most visited attraction.
During the occupation there were several fires, damaging or destroying the lighthouse keeper’s home, the warden’s home, the Officers’ Club and several other structures, but it’s still a wonderful day out. If the weather is clear then the boat trip over is unrivaled for its views, if it’s foggy then it’s incredibly atmospheric. The NPS have created a wonderful museum out of the island, and with its fascinating, and often tragic, history visiting it is a must-do experience in San Francisco.
How to Visit the Island of Alcatraz
Alcatraz is open daily, apart from Christmas Day and New Year’s Day. Alcatraz Cruises operate the only ferry service to the island from Pier 33, on the Embarcadero. The service generally operates at 30-60 minute intervals and the ferry ride itself takes about 15 minutes.
There are three options for visiting Alcatraz:
ALCATRAZ DAY TOUR
A park ranger is assigned to each group as it arrives for a brief orientation on the island, but a 45-minute Audio Tour is included in the purchase of a ferry ticket and that gives directions to key locations, such as Al Capone’s cell.
Visitors can also roam the island and explore its many old structures. There’s even a short Agave Trail (see if you can spot a pigeon guillemot or a snowy egret). A full exploration of the prison and island could easily take 2-3 hours.
ALCATRAZ NIGHT TOUR
For the Night Tour the ferry makes a trip around the Island before arriving at the dock. It includes special activities and presentations, focused on ghosts and the supernatural. The total duration is just under 3 hours and It’s popular.
ALCATRAZ BEHIND THE SCENES TOUR
This tour visits special places, like the dungeon cells, a Civil War era tunnel, the prison chapel and the prison hospital and is led by a park ranger. The total duration is 4-5 hours.
How to Get Tickets for Alcatraz
There are also three ways to get tickets for a tour of the island:
- Online: at Alcatraz Cruises.
- In person: at Pier 33, on the Embarcadero.
- With a tour package. some tour operators offer Alcatraz tickets as part of a package with their tours.
Tickets go on sale 90 days before the tour date. Since they’re in high demand during peak season tickets can sell out weeks (or even months) in advance. So book as soon as you can to avoid disappointment!
Final Thoughts on Visiting the Island
For the best Alcatraz experience here are some tips on making the most out of your visit:
- Alcatraz tickets are issued to a person and are non-transferable.
- Layer up. We get 4 seasons in a day and it can get cold in the bay, even in summer.
- Bring passport or photo ID.
- Arrive 15 minutes prior to scheduled departure time.
- Eat before going, food and drinks are not allowed on the island.
- Explore the grounds and views of Alcatraz first, then do the audio tour (most visitors head straight for the cell block, so it’s more crowded immediately after the ferry has arrived).
With a little planning, a tour of Alcatraz can definitely be one of the highlights of your visit to San Francisco.
If you have any feedback on Alcatraz: the Rock please email us or reach out on social media, we’d love to hear from you.
– By Damien Blackshaw (Twitter)