Discovering the Adventure
Alcatraz Island

Alcatraz Island: The Rock

What do the words, Alcatraz Island, conjure up for you? For most people, it's Alcatraz penitentiary that leaps to mind. If that's your only association for Alcatraz, you're in for a surprise!

Did you know that Alcatraz hosts the oldest operating lighthouse on the West Coast? Or that it was occupied by Native Americans in the 1970s? Or that there are important seabird colonies? Beautiful gardens planted by U.S. Army families 100 years ago?

The Rock has been a military fortification, and a military prison, in addition to being the site of the famous federal prison for 30 years, and now - it's part of the Golden Gate National Recreation Area and is a favorite San Francisco tourist attraction.

Alcatraz Island
Al Capone, Machine Gun Kelly, & the Bird Man

Alcatraz Cell Block CC Albert YauAlcatraz Cell Block CC Albert Yau

Designed to hold the nation's most deadly, hardened, and difficult criminals, the prison has long captured our imaginations.

James A. Johnston was selected as the first warden of Alcatraz prison. He'd been nicknamed the Golden Rule Warden during his tenure at San Quentin because of his humanitarian ways.

But he was also a strict disciplinarian with his rigid rules of conduct, and the swift and harsh punishments that were meted out to inmates who broke those rules.

Alcatraz fascinates us with its tales of infamous prisoners, escape attempts, and ghostly experiences. Since the opening of the federal prison in 1934, more than 30 movies have been made about Alcatraz prison.

The first one, Alcatraz Island, was filmed in 1937 - only 3 years after the prison opened to accept its first prisoners! But the most famous were probably the 1962 Birdman of Alcatraz with Burt Lancaster and the 1979 Clint Eastwood movie, Escape from Alcatraz.

Infamous Alcatraz Penitentiary Inmates

One of the reasons for our fascination with the prison probably has to do with our tendency to romanticize our bad guys. Who were these men who captured America's collective imagination?

Here's a partial list:

  • Al Capone, aka Scarface - Although he was one of the most notorious gangsters in the United States and was labeled "Public Enemy No. 1", Federal agents couldn't get enough evidence to convict him.So, instead of being incarcerated for murder, extortion, and the like, he was finally sent to prison for tax evasion.
  • Machine Gun Kelly - Another infamous gangster, his activities involved bootlegging and armed robbery. It was rumored though that his wife, Kathryn, was actually responsible for his fearsome reputation.His final conviction was for kidnapping wealthy Charles Urschel and his friend, Walter Jarrett.
  • Robert Stroud, the Birdman of Alcatraz - Sentenced to life in prison for the killing of a prison guard, Stroud spent 17 years at Alcatraz. In spite of the title of the movie made about him and his birds, he never had birds there!His bird breeding and research was actually done at Leavenworth Federal Penitentiary prior to his transfer to Alcatraz.

But there's more to Alcatraz Island than the federal penitentiary that only operated for 30 years - a very short part of the island's total history.

A Brief History of Alcatraz Island

Native Americans During Alcatraz Occupation 1969-1971Native Americans During Alcatraz Occupation 1969-1971

The island was charted in 1775 by Juan Manuel de Ayala.

He named the island La Isla de los Alcatraces - which meant Island of the Pelicans - because of the thousands of brown pelicans that nested there.

In 1854, the first lighthouse on the West Coast was completed and its whale oil lamp was fired up.

Five years later, Capt J. Stewart was given command of Alcatraz Island, where he created a military fortification to protect San Francisco Bay.

By 1863, the island was being used as a prison for Confederate sympathizers and, later yet, as a military prison.

This was the island's main purpose until 1934 when it was given over for a U.S. penitentiary. Alcatraz served as a federal prison from 1934 to 1963 when it was closed.

In 1969 Alcatraz came to the attention of the populaces of the United States and the world once again when it was occupied for 18 months by thousands of Native Americans who wanted to claim Alcatraz as Indian territory.

Although ultimately unsuccessful in their claim to the island, the movement is credited with getting the federal government to recognize the Native Americans' right to self-determination.

The Golden Gate National Recreation Area was created in 1972 - it includes the island of Alcatraz. The GGNRA and the National Park Service are responsible for the island now, and it's one of the most visited of San Francisco attractions.

Today You Can Tour Alcatraz Island

Alcatraz tours will take you behind the scenes to witness the remnants of several of the historical phases of Alcatraz Island, but you may not know that you're not limited to the tours in order to enjoy Alcatraz Island - you're allowed to stay all day from the first boat over to the last boat returning, if you wish - to explore the island at your leisure. But for the tours...

Take an audio tour of Alcatraz Cellhouse and/or join National Park staff for a guided walking tour of the island to learn about famous inmates, escapes, Hollywood and The Rock, Alcatraz history, and Fortress Alcatraz.

For an unusual experience, and a different mood, take a night tour of Alcatraz and add the beauty of the sun setting behind the Golden Gate Bridge. These tours offer special programs and activities not offered during the day.

Explore the historic Gardens of Alcatraz with a garden docent and discover the beauty brought to the island that was nurtured by the people who had to live on the barren rock that was Alcatraz.

Enjoy the natural side of Alcatraz - besides the gardens, you'll find tide pools teeming with sea life; and colonies of seabirds mating, nesting, and parenting their broods.

Historical artifacts include Alcatraz prison, Civil War era buildings, military fortification relics, the oldest lighthouse on the West Coast, and reminders of the Native American occupation of Alcatraz.

Insider Secrets and a few tips to keep in mind:

  • Make your plans and get your tickets in advance (up to 90 days ahead) - you'll save yourself from disappointment as the tours are most often booked way ahead of time
  • There's one way on and one way off the island - via the private ferry company, Alcatraz Cruises LLC (Hornblower). But once you're on the island you can stay as long as you like
  • Early Bird - the first trip of the day is usually the least crowded one, especially important to know during summer months and near holidays
  • Alcatraz weather is unpredictable, even more so than San Francisco weather in general - bring layers of clothing in case the temperature changes quickly
  • There is no food service on Alcatraz - you may bring food and drink, but eating, drinking, and smoking is only allowed at the dock level

As the promotional literature says, "Visit San Francisco's inescapable Attraction - Alcatraz," - we would add: Island of Intrigue!

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