Alcatraz, or “The Rock,” welcomes over 1.5 million visitors annually. Interest in this former military fort (turned maximum security prison to some of the most sinister criminals) doesn’t seem to be slowing down. Located just under two miles off the coast of San Francisco, Alcatraz Island encompasses 22 square miles in the middle of San Francisco Bay. The National Park Service opened this site in the fall of 1973, and it has grown into one of America’s most popular attractions, as many seek to learn of the island’s fascinating and layered history. Alcatraz City Cruises, the only authorized concessioner with access to the island, invites you to experience the many moods of Alcatraz that make this a true San Francisco icon and must-visit location. Let’s dive into why Alcatraz was built and why this intriguing island is the subject of many films and stories.  

Evolution of Alcatraz: Fascinating History of the Island 

Underground at AlcatrazSuppose you live in San Francisco or have visited the Bay area. In that case, you’ve probably heard stories about Alcatraz, located in the chilly waters of theSan Francisco Bay in California. This famous prison operated from 1934 to 1963, home to some of the most notorious and dangerous felons the world has ever known. At one point, Robert Stroud, “the Bird Man,” and gangster Al Capone, called this maximum-security prison home along with many other devious inmates. Its rugged shores offer spectacular views of the city and the Bay. So how did this prime real estate become a prison? There are many plot twists and turns surrounding the story of Alcatraz, it’s no wonder that people are drawn to the island.  

Native History of Alcatraz Island 

Before housing notorious criminals, Ohlone indigenous people occupied much of the Bay Area, and Alcatraz was an important transport hub and food gathering site. Evidence also suggests that the island was used as a ceremonial site to isolate members who violated tribal laws, perhaps foreshadowing what would become. 

Military Fortress 

Juan Manuel de Ayala, a Spanish naval officer entered the San Francisco Bay area in 1775 and named the island La Isla de las Alcatraces because it was covered in large pelicans which he believed were gannets (alcatrace in Spanish). The following year missionaries arrived and set up a presidio (or military outpost) on the bays’ edge. The island was transformed into an outpost to protect the bay from invasion with its location facing the open sea. The United States seized the island in the Mexican-American War, and after construction, Alcatraz became the most powerful military fortress and home to the West Coast’s first lighthouse. Once again, Alcatraz was used to hold prisoners by the United States military because of the ice-cold waters and strong currents surrounding it, making escape impossible. As the island’s prison population grew, it was named an official military prison. A holding complex was constructed containing 600 prison cells along with a mess hall and hospital which remain today. 

An Inescapable Prison: Alcatraz Island 

alcatraz interiorThe United States Department of Justice took control of Alcatraz Island in 1933 and transformed it into the nation’s top maximum-security prison for the most hardened and dangerous criminals. Each prisoner had their own cell, and there was one guard for every three inmates making it virtually impossible to escape. With prohibition, the United States experienced a huge crime wave unlike any in the nation’s history sparking organized crime. Contrary to popular belief, the convicts housed in Alcatraz were not those who had committed the most violent crimes – but they were the ones who were considered the most disobedient inmates in the federal penal system. Their stints in Alcatraz were intended to get them to follow the rules so that they could return to other federal facilities. The most notorious resident of Alcatraz was Al “Scarface” Capone, who served four years on the island. Another famous gangster was George “Machine Gun” Kelley, who served 17 years at Alcatraz on charges of kidnapping. The longest resident of the island was listed as “Public Enemy Number One” by the FBI, Alvin “Creepy Karpis” Karpowicz who served 25 years at Alcatraz. After stabbing and killing a prison guard, self-taught ornithologist, Robert “The Birdman” Stroud, was transferred to the island. He was diagnosed as both a genius and a psychopath and wrote several books while imprisoned. He even discovered a cure for a common avian hemorrhaging disease. 

The Battle of Alcatraz 

A group of prisoners, led by bank robber Bernard Coy broke into the prison gun gallery in 1942, arming themselves and setting other prisoners free. They took several guards hostage and demanded a boat to get them off the island which resulted in a shoot-out. The military was called to help the police and guards and grenades were used to set the cell block that Coy and his gang took over on fire. Three of the ringleaders died and the prisoners gave up their struggle. Two guards lost their lives and 14 more were injured. The siege lasted 48 hours and has been dubbed, “The Battle of Alcatraz,” and has been the subject of several television shows, as well as several movies. 

Alcatraz Myths: Facts from Fiction about the Island’s Purpose 

Although 36 inmates had tried, there are no known prisoners who escaped from Alcatraz. It may surprise you to learn that the prison’s one-man-per-cell policy appealed to inmates because it made them less vulnerable to attacks from other inmates, which caused many to want to escape to Alcatraz. After 29 years of operation, in 1963, Alcatraz closed its doors as a prison due to the excessive costs of operating, not because prison escape attempts were made. In 1969, a group of nearly 100 Native American activists took over the island citing a treaty from 1868 that granted unoccupied federal land to Native Americans. The protestors demanded the deed to Alcatraz to establish a university and cultural center. Federal Marshals removed the last of the protestors in 1971. This occupation gave birth to a political movement that continues today. In 1972, it became part of the National Park Service and is among one of the most popular of San Francisco’s attractions. 

alcatrazExplore Alcatraz Island with Alcatraz City Cruises 

If you are interested in seeing the famous former penitentiary for yourself, put San Francisco on your bucket list of places to travel this year. The only way to actually visit the island and not just cruise past it is by booking with Alcatraz City Cruises, the official government concessioner. Alcatraz City Cruises is honored to be recognized as “Best Boat Tours” by Newsweek Magazine’s expert panelists and contributors and voted on by readers as the best of the best.

Enjoy access to Alcatraz Island on an Alcatraz Day Tour, including the historic Alcatraz Cellhouse with the self-guided Cellhouse Audio Tour, and explore the world-renowned Cellhouse without the usual crowds! Step back in time and experience the legendary island that has been a Civil War fort, a military prison, and one of the most notorious Federal penitentiaries in US history. You will not be disappointed. 

Looking for something intimate? Join a group of 30 or less on a guided adventure with a Behind the Scenes Tour with an expert historical educator to explore off-limits areas and hear little-known stories about the island’s fascinating past and its relevance today. After the tour, explore the island on your own. Take in breathtaking evening views with this extremely popular tour. Capture unusual photos and discover off-the-beaten-track areas of Alcatraz that are closed to regular visitors. 

Experience the moodiness of Alcatraz Island with an Alcatraz Night Tour and enjoy the beauty of a sunset silhouetting the Golden Gate Bridge, hear compelling stories about the island’s history and residents, and experience a cell door demonstration that will intrigue you. Expert historian talks are offered on a variety of topics and change nightly. This unique program is limited to a few hundred visitors per evening and includes special programs, tours, and activities not offered during the day. Check out the visiting and permanent exhibits during your visit. Alcatraz Island and Alcatraz City Cruises eagerly await your visit. 

For answers to the most frequently asked questions, click here. 

Original post date: June 24, 2024

Featured in this post

Keep Exploring

San Francisco, California

Alcatraz City Cruises

Explore More