A Little History of Alcatraz
Alcatraz Island is approximately one and a half miles off the coast of San Francisco, California. In the 1850s the rugged island was used for military purposes and became home to the very first lighthouse on the West Coast. The first prison was established on the island in the late 1850s. Originally, the U.S. Army held military prisoners during the American Civil War and Spanish American War. In the early 1900s, there was enough manpower to construct a new prison. The 600-cell prison, which is known today as Alcatraz, was finished in 1912 and still stands today. The U.S. Army gave the U.S. Justice Department the rights to Alcatraz in 1933. Alcatraz became a maximum-security prison on July 1, 1934, and housed some of the most notorious inmates like Al Capone, George “Machine Gun” Kelly, and Alvin “Creepy Karpis” Karpowicz. Today, visitors can step foot on Alcatraz and learn about the history of one of the most famous prisons in the United States.
Many believe that the decision to close the prison was due to the disappearance of the three prisoners that escaped the island. Morris and the Anglin brothers planned a detailed escape and did make it off the island, but their bodies were never discovered. They created paper mache heads with real human hair to fool the night guard when doing a room check and made makeshift life preservers by carefully stitching together more than fifty raincoats. Later magazines were found in their cells revealing that this was where the idea was born. During the escape, the men wriggled through a chiseled shaft onto the roof and down a pipe. They climbed two barbed wire fences and placed the boats into the waters. They were never found and presumed dead. This trio was the most famous escape attempt and from this escape, the movie, Escape From Alcatraz debuted in 1978. Interestingly, two inmates escaped before these three and were captured. Seven inmates were shot and killed trying to escape. Two drowned and five are presumed drowned.
After Alcatraz prison closed its doors, there were a lot of proposals for what to do with the space. Some thought to make it a memorial site for the United Nations, while others thought to create a West Coast Statue of Liberty. Instead, the island was abandoned until 1969 when Native Americans claimed the land. The hope was to establish a university and museum, however, in 1971, President Richard Nixon did not allow that to happen. A year later, the island became a part of the Golden Gate National Recreation Area and was opened to the public. Today, visitors can tour the island and the prison buildings.
The only way to get on the island of Alcatraz and visit the prison building is by taking an Alcatraz City Cruises ferry, which visitors can catch at Pier 33 at Alcatraz Landing in San Francisco. It is recommended to buy tickets well in advance as tickets can and do sell out. The ferry to the island takes about 15 minutes from start to finish. Visitors are going to want to make sure they have two to three hours to visit the entire island to get the full experience.
The prison was a three-story cell house with four blocks of cells. The prison included a library, visitation rooms, a barbershop, and the warden’s office.
The Warden’s House, also called the Hoe House, was next to the Alcatraz Lighthouse. It was once a three-story mansion with fifteen rooms. The house that once held lavish cocktail parties is now in ruins being destroyed during the American Indian Movement Occupation in 1970. Visitors can still see the outline of the house today. It may surprise you to learn that many workers and children lived on the island.
Visitors can experience a different perspective of Alcatraz Island on the Alcatraz Night Tour. This tour departs for Alcatraz around sunset and takes a different route around the island compared to the Day Tour. Guests will still be able to experience the audio tour and step inside the cell house, but they will also get a live narration about the island on the way to Alcatraz and receive special demonstrations or talks that change nightly.
The Alcatraz Behind the Scenes Tour is an exclusive tour of no more than 30 visitors. Guests will go behind the scenes to underground jail cells, tunnels, and special grounds that are not normally accessible to the public. Visitors on this tour will also receive all the perks of the Alcatraz Day Tour. Those on this tour will have the option to leave the island during the last day tour or stick around for the night tour. Each year over one million people visit Alcatraz. The island’s layered history offers visitors an opportunity to explore this U.S. Army and military prison period through the federal penitentiary era and the American Indian occupation. Although the prison has been closed since 1963 due to operational costs, it remains a place of intrigue and mystery that continues to draw visitors year after year.
Get an inside peek at this former maximum-security prison which served as home to some of the most dangerous civilian prisoners in history.
Original post date: June 23, 2022