Alcatraz: Making San Francisco History for Generations

March 19, 2007


San Francisco: Most people associate Alcatraz with its legacy as a world-famous former Federal penitentiary, but the Island’s history before and after its prison era is equally as memorable. From its inception as a military fortress during the Civil War era, to the revolutionary 18-month occupation by the Indians of All Tribes during the 1960s, to its standing today as one of the country’s most popular National Park sites, the history of Alcatraz is fascinating to discover.

Some 20,000 years ago, the Island’s earliest inhabitants were native peoples who historians believe used Alcatraz for camping and gathering foods. By the time the first Spanish explorers arrived in 1769, more than 10,000 indigenous people lived around San Francisco Bay. By the mid 1800s, the U.S. Army had taken notice of The Rock for its strategic value as a military fortress. In 1853, Army Engineers started constructing a military citadel on the Island, including the west coast’s first (and continually operating) lighthouse. After several years of construction, Alcatraz was established as America’s west coast symbol of military might.

Over the next several decades, Alcatraz served the U.S. Army well, both as a strategic location protecting the hugely valuable California gold fields, and as a prison site for military offenders during the Civil War and Spanish American War. In 1907, Alcatraz became Pacific Branch, U.S. Military Prison, and two years later the Army began construction of what was to become the largest steel reinforced concrete structure in the world; the new cellhouse opened in 1912.

In 1934 due to rising operating costs, the military transferred ownership to the Department of Justice. From there on, American history would play a key role in shaping the newly named U.S. Penitentiary, Alcatraz as the Great Depression ushered in a new era of organized crime.

Alcatraz was seen as the ideal solution to house America’s “worst of the worst.” It would serve a dual purpose of incarcerating the country’s most incorrigible inmates, while serving as a visible warning to America’s increasingly violent criminal population. The government embarked on an aggressive plan to make Alcatraz the most feared and escape proof prison in the country. By August 1934, The Rock began receiving inmates from other Federal penitentiaries around the country. Alcatraz soon housed America’s most notorious gangsters: Al “Scarface” Capone, George “Machine Gun” Kelly, and Robert Stroud, “The Bird Man of Alcatraz” all did hard time on The Rock.

Inmate life on Alcatraz was unlike any other in the country rigid, unrelentingly routine, and generally miserable. Each prisoner was assigned their own cell and given four basic necessities food, clothing, shelter, and medical attention. All other activities were considered privileges that had to be earned. Over the years, there were more than a dozen escape attempts, the most famous in 1962 by Frank Lee Morris, and Clarence and John Anglin. Immortalized in the Clint Eastwood film, Escape from Alcatraz, the inmates were never heard from again. Prison officials declared the break out a failure. Historians are not so sure.

Alcatraz’s fate as a Federal prison was sealed by one of the aspects that made it so unique. Over the years, the water and salt of San Francisco Bay contributed to the extensive corrosion of the facilities infrastructure. Combined with the scrutiny Alcatraz faced following repeated escape attempts and the exorbitant cost of running the facility, Attorney General Robert Kennedy ordered the prison closed. On March 21, 1963, after 29 years of operation, the last inmates left the Island.

Over the next several years, Alcatraz remained closed with only a caretaker living there. Various groups suggested new uses for the famous island. In 1969, all talk ground to a halt when a group of American Indians landed on Alcatraz and claimed it as their own, hoping to start an educational and cultural center. The occupation drew media headlines around the world, but the inhabitants soon experienced the hardships of living on The Rock. On June 11, 1971, federal marshalls descended on the island and removed the remaining occupiers.

In 1972, Congress created the Golden Gate National Recreation Area, and Alcatraz Island was included as part of this new National Park Service unit. The Island was opened to the public in the fall of 1973, and over the last thirty years has become one of the most popular visitor destinations in the world, attracting more than 1.4 million people each year.

In 1981, The Golden Gate National Parks Conservancy was created as a non-profit partner to support and assist the Golden Gate National Parks in research, interpretation and conservation. Over the last two years, the Conservancy has contributed over $3.5 million in private funds to improve, restore and preserve the historical, cultural and ecological resources that comprise Alcatraz Island, ensuring this iconic international landmark is preserved for future generations.

For more information on the history of Alcatraz, please visit the Golden Gate National Parks Conservancy website. To purchase Alcatraz tickets and tours, please contact Alcatraz Cruises at