This article's factual accuracy is disputed. (February 2019)
Alcatraz Island (//, Latin-American Spanish pronunciation: [alkaˈtɾas], European Spanish pronunciation: [alkaˈtɾaθ] from Arabic: الْغَطَّاس, romanized: al-ḡaṭṭās, lit. 'gannet ("the diver")') is located in San Francisco Bay, 1.25 miles (2.01 km) offshore from San Francisco, California, United States. The small island was developed with facilities for a lighthouse, a military fortification, a military prison, and a federal prison, the latter operated from August 11, 1934, until March 21, 1963. The strong currents around the island and cold water temperatures made escape all but impossible. Since the late 20th century, it has become a major tourist attraction.
|Location||San Francisco Bay, California, U.S.|
|Nearest city||San Francisco, California|
|Area||22 acres (8.9 ha)|
|Governing body||National Park Service|
|Area||47 acres (19 ha)|
|Architect||U.S. Army, Bureau of Prisons; U.S. Army|
|Architectural style||Mission/Spanish Revival|
|NRHP reference No.||76000209|
|Added to NRHP||June 23, 1976|
|Designated NHLD||January 17, 1986|
Beginning in November 1969, the island was occupied for more than 19 months by a group of Native Americans, initially primarily from San Francisco, who were later joined by AIM and other urban Indians from other parts of the country, who were part of a wave of Native American activists organizing public protests across the US through the 1970s. In 1972, Alcatraz was transferred to the Department of Interior to become part of Golden Gate National Recreation Area. It was designated as a National Historic Landmark in 1986.
Today, the island's facilities are managed by the National Park Service as part of Golden Gate National Recreation Area. Visitors can reach the island in fewer than 15 minutes by ferry ride from Pier 33, located between the San Francisco Ferry Building and Fisherman's Wharf, San Francisco. Hornblower Cruises, operating under the name Alcatraz Cruises, is the official ferry provider to and from the island.
Alcatraz Island is the site of the abandoned federal prison, the oldest operating lighthouse on the West Coast of the United States, early military fortifications, and natural features such as rock pools and a seabird colony (mostly western gulls, cormorants, and egrets). According to a 1971 documentary on the history of Alcatraz, the island measures 1,675 feet (511 m) by 590 feet (180 m) and is 135 feet (41 m) at highest point during mean tide. The total area of the island is reported to be 22 acres (8.9 ha).
Landmarks on the island include the Main Cellhouse, Dining Hall, Lighthouse, the ruins of the Warden's House and Social Hall, Parade Grounds, Building 64, Water Tower, New Industries Building, Model Industries Building, and the Recreation Yard.
The first European to document the islands of San Francisco Bay was Spanish naval officer and explorer Juan Manuel de Ayala during Spanish rule of California; he charted San Francisco Bay in 1775. He named today's Yerba Buena Island as "La Isla de los Alcatraces", which translates as "The Island of the Gannets" but is commonly believed to translate as "The Island of the Pelicans" (the modern Spanish word for 'pelican' is pelícano), from the archaic Spanish alcatraz ("pelican"). There are no gannets native to the Pacific coast, making the older Spanish usage more likely.
Yerba Buena Island was labeled on Ayala's 1775 chart of San Francisco Bay as "Isla de Alcatraces". The name was later applied to the rock now known as Alcatraz Island by Captain Frederick W. Beechey, an English naval officer and explorer.
Over the years, the Spanish version "Alcatraz" became popular and is now widely used. In August 1827, for instance, French Captain Auguste Bernard Duhaut-Cilly wrote "... running past Alcatraze's (Pelicans) Island ... 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." The California brown pelican (Pelecanus occidentalis californicus) is not known to nest on the island today. The Spanish built several small buildings on the island and other minor structures.
The earliest recorded private owner of the island of Alcatraz is Julian Workman, to whom it was given by Mexican governor Pio Pico in June 1846, with the understanding that Workman would build a lighthouse on it. Julian Workman is the baptismal name of William Workman, co-owner of Rancho La Puente and a personal friend of Pio Pico. Later in 1846, acting in his capacity as Military Governor of California, John C. Frémont bought the island for $5,000 in the name of the United States government from Francis Temple.
In 1850, President Millard Fillmore ordered that Alcatraz Island be set aside specifically as a United States military reservation, for military purposes based upon the U.S. acquisition of California from Mexico following the Mexican–American War. Frémont had expected a large compensation for his initiative in purchasing and securing Alcatraz Island for the U.S. government, but the U.S. government later invalidated the sale and paid Frémont nothing. Frémont and his heirs sued for compensation during protracted but unsuccessful legal battles that extended into the 1890s.
Following the acquisition of California by the United States as a result of the Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo (1848), which ended the Mexican–American War, and the onset of the California Gold Rush the following year, the U.S. Army began studying the suitability of Alcatraz Island for the positioning of coastal batteries to protect the approaches to San Francisco Bay. In 1853, under the direction of Zealous B. Tower, the United States Army Corps of Engineers began fortifying the island, work which continued until 1858, when the initial version of Fort Alcatraz was complete. The island's first garrison, numbering about 200 soldiers, arrived at the end of that year.
When the American Civil War broke out in 1861, the island mounted 85 cannons (increased to 105 cannons by 1866) in casemates around its perimeter, though the small size of the garrison meant only a fraction of the guns could be used at one time. At this time it also served as the San Francisco Arsenal for storage of firearms to prevent them falling into the hands of Confederate sympathizers. Alcatraz, built as a "heavily fortified military site on the West Coast", was to form a "triangle of defense" with Fort Point and Lime Point, but the contemplated work on Lime Point was never built. The first operational lighthouse on the West Coast of the United States was also built on Alcatraz. During the war, Fort Alcatraz was used to imprison Confederate sympathizers and privateers on the west coast, but its guns were never fired at an enemy.
Studies of the island and its fortifications have included archeological surveys relying on contemporary technology. In 2019 “Binghamton University archaeologist Timothy de Smet and colleagues located historical remains beneath the former recreation yard of the Alcatraz Federal Penitentiary.” Using ground-penetrating radar (GPR) data and georectifications, Smet and colleagues discovered structures, including “a “bombproof” earthwork traverse along with its underlying vaulted brick masonry tunnel and ventilation ducts,” in surprisingly good condition. Archaeologists also found the remains of ammunition magazines, and tunnels below the penitentiary that was built later.
Because of the isolation created by the cold, strong, tremendous currents of the waters of San Francisco Bay, Alcatraz was used to house soldiers convicted of crimes as early as 1859. By 1861, the fort was the military prison for the Department of the Pacific. It housed Civil War prisoners of war (POWs) as early as that year.
Starting in 1863, the military also held private citizens accused of treason, after the writ of habeas corpus in the United States was suspended. Hundreds of troops were trained on the island, with more than 350 military personnel in place by April 1861. As enlistees were assigned to units, new green troops reported for training. In early 1865, the number of men reached 433, the peak of the war.
During the Civil War-era, rapid changes in artillery and fortification were generated. Alcatraz's defenses were obsolete by the postwar years. Modernization efforts, including an ambitious plan to level the entire island and construct shell-proof underground magazines and tunnels, were undertaken between 1870 and 1876 but never completed (the so-called "parade ground" on the southern tip of the island represents the extent of the flattening effort). Instead, the army switched the focus of its plans for Alcatraz from coastal defense to detention, a task for which it was well suited because of its isolation.
In 1867, a brick jailhouse was built (previously inmates had been kept in the basement of the guardhouse), and in 1868, Alcatraz was officially designated as a long-term detention facility for military prisoners. The facility was later discontinued for POWs in 1846. Among those incarcerated at Alcatraz were Confederates caught on the West Coast and some Hopi Native American men in the 1870s, who refused orders to send their children away from their families to Indian boarding schools.
In 1898, due to the Spanish–American War, the prison population rose from 26 to over 450. From 1905 to 1907 it was commanded by U.S. Army General George W. McIver. After the 1906 San Francisco earthquake, civilian prisoners were transferred to Alcatraz for safe confinement. On March 21, 1907, Alcatraz was officially designated as the Western U.S. Military Prison, later Pacific Branch, U.S. Disciplinary Barracks, 1915.
In 1909 construction began on the huge concrete main cell block, designed by Major Reuben Turner, which remains the island's dominant feature. It was completed in 1912. To accommodate the new cell block, the Citadel, a three-story barracks, was demolished down to the first floor, which was below ground level. The building had been constructed in an excavated pit, creating a defensive dry moat. The first floor was incorporated as a basement to the new cell block, giving rise to the popular legend of "dungeons" below the main cell block. The US Disciplinary Barracks was deactivated in October 1933 and transferred to the Bureau of Prisons.
Alcatraz Federal PenitentiaryEdit
The United States Disciplinary Barracks on Alcatraz were acquired by the United States Department of Justice on October 12, 1933, and the island was designated as a federal prison in August 1934. Alcatraz was designed to hold prisoners who continuously caused trouble at other federal prisons. At 9:40 am on August 11, 1934, the first batch of 137 prisoners arrived at Alcatraz, arriving by railroad from the United States Penitentiary in Leavenworth, Kansas to Santa Venetia, California. They were escorted to Alcatraz, while handcuffed in high security coaches and guarded by 60 special FBI agents, U.S. Marshals and railway security officials.
Most of the prisoners were notorious bank robbers and murderers. The prison initially had a staff of 155, including the first warden James A. Johnston and associate warden J. E. Shuttleworth, both considered to be "iron men". The staff were highly trained in security, but not rehabilitation.
During the 29 years it was in use, the prison held some of the most notorious criminals in American history, who included gangsters such as Al Capone, Robert Franklin Stroud (the "Birdman of Alcatraz"), George "Machine Gun" Kelly, Bumpy Johnson, political terrorists Rafael Cancel Miranda (a member of the Puerto Rican Nationalist Party who attacked the United States Capitol building in 1954), and others: Mickey Cohen, Arthur R. "Doc" Barker, and Alvin "Creepy" Karpis (who served more time at Alcatraz than any other inmate). It also provided housing for the Bureau of Prisons staff and their families.
During its 29 years of operation, the penitentiary claimed that no prisoner successfully escaped. A total of 36 prisoners made 14 escape attempts, two men trying twice; 23 were caught alive, six were shot and killed during their escape, two drowned, and five are listed as "missing and presumed drowned". The most violent incident occurred on May 2, 1946, when a failed escape attempt by six prisoners led to the Battle of Alcatraz. Perhaps the most famous is the intricate escape carried out on June 11, 1962, by Frank Morris, John Anglin, and Clarence Anglin; the three men are believed to have drowned in their attempt. Contrary to popular belief, it was possible to escape and swim all of the way to shore.
Although most men were caught or drowned before reaching shore, in 1962 prisoner John Paul Scott escaped, and made it to the shore. However, upon reaching the shore he was so weary that he was found unconscious by police and in hypothermic shock. The annual Escape from Alcatraz Triathlon includes a required swim from the island through the 1.5 miles to shore.
Closing of the prisonEdit
There are several reasons that Alcatraz closed as a penitentiary in 1963. The penitentiary cost much more to operate than other prisons (nearly $10 per prisoner per day, as opposed to $3 per prisoner per day at Atlanta). Half a century of salt water saturation had severely eroded the buildings and three people had escaped in 1962. After its closure, George Moscone received public proposals to repurpose Alcatraz Island.
Native American occupationEdit
Alcatraz Island was occupied by Native American activists for the first time on March 8, 1964. The protest, proposed by Lakota Sioux activist Belva Cottier and joined by about 35 others, was reported by, among others, the San Francisco Chronicle and the San Francisco Examiner.
Beginning on November 20, 1969, a group of Native Americans called United Indians of All Tribes, mostly college students from San Francisco, occupied the island to protest federal policies related to American Indians. Some of them were children of Native Americans who had relocated in the city as part of the Bureau of Indian Affairs' (BIA) Indian termination policy, which was a series of laws and policies aimed at the assimilation of Native Americans into mainstream US society. It encouraged Native Americans to move away from the Indian reservations and into cities to take advantage of health, educational and employment opportunities. A number of employees of the Bureau of Indian Affairs also occupied Alcatraz at that time, including Doris Purdy, an amateur photographer, who later produced footage of her stay on the island.
The occupiers, who stayed on the island for nearly two years, demanded that the island's facilities be adapted and new structures built for an Indian education center, ecology center, and cultural center. The American Indians claimed the island by provisions of the Treaty of Fort Laramie (1868) between the US and the Sioux; they said the treaty promised to return all retired, abandoned, or out-of-use federal lands to the native peoples from whom they were acquired. Indians of All Tribes claimed Alcatraz Island by the "Right of Discovery"; as historian Troy R. Johnson states in The Occupation of Alcatraz Island, generations of indigenous peoples knew about Alcatraz at least 10,000 years before any European knew about any part of North America. Begun by urban Indians of San Francisco, the occupation attracted other Native Americans from across the country, including American Indian Movement (AIM) urban activists from Minneapolis.
The Native Americans demanded reparation for the many treaties broken by the US government and for the lands that were taken from so many tribes.
During the nineteen months and nine days of occupation by the American Indians, several buildings at Alcatraz were damaged or destroyed by fire, including the lighthouse keeper's home, the warden's home, the Officers' Club, the recreation hall, and the Coast Guard quarters. The origin of the fires is disputed. The US government demolished a number of other buildings (mostly apartments) after the occupation had ended. Graffiti from the period of Native American occupation is still visible at many locations on the island.
During the occupation, President Richard Nixon rescinded the Indian termination policy, designed by earlier administrations to end federal recognition of many tribes and their special relationship with the US government. He established a new policy of self-determination, in part as a result of the publicity and awareness created by the occupation. The occupation ended on June 11, 1971.
Part of the Golden Gate National Recreation Area since 1972, the entire Alcatraz Island was listed on the National Register of Historic Places in 1976. In 1986 it was designated as a National Historic Landmark, the highest recognition.
In 1993, the National Park Service published a plan entitled Alcatraz Development Concept and Environmental Assessment. This plan, approved in 1980, doubled the area of Alcatraz accessible to the public, in order to enable visitors to enjoy its scenery and bird, marine, and animal life.
Nowadays, American Indigenous groups, such as the International Indian Treaty Council, hold ceremonies on the island, most notably, their "Sunrise Gatherings" every Columbus Day and Thanksgiving Day.
Around 2007, the Global Peace Foundation proposed to raze the prison and build a peace center in its place. Supporters collected 10,350 signatures - sufficient to have it placed as a proposition on the presidential primary ballots in San Francisco for February 5, 2008. The proposed plan was estimated at US$1 billion. For the plan to pass, Congress would have to have taken Alcatraz out of the National Park Service. Critics of the plan said that Alcatraz is too rich in history to be destroyed. On February 6, 2008, the Alcatraz Island Global Peace Center Proposition C failed to pass, with 72% of voters rejecting the proposition.
The coastal environment of the San Francisco Bay Area has caused deterioration and corrosion of building materials throughout Alcatraz. Beginning in 2011, the National Park Service began major renovations on the island, including the installation of solar panels on the cell house roof, slope stabilization near the Warden's House, and the stabilization and rehabilitation of the outer cell house walls.
Now one of San Francisco's major tourist attractions, Alcatraz drew some 1.7 million visitors annually according to a 2018 report. Visitors arrive by ferry, operated under contract by Alcatraz Cruises LLC at Pier 33. The 2018 report indicated that "former prison buildings are being conserved and seismically upgraded and additional areas of the Island are opened to the public as safety hazards are removed". During the COVID-19 pandemic, the buildings and the island remained closed to the public for more than a year (and ferry services were suspended), reopening in March 2021.
Alcatraz has been home to several art installations. In 2014, Chinese artist/dissident Ai Weiwei staged an exhibition which explored "questions about human rights and freedom of expression" called @Large. This exhibition included Lego portraits of famous political prisoners. The creation of the exhibition was featured in a 2019 documentary film, Yours Truly. In 2016, Nelson Saiers used math and prison slang as central elements in a six-month installation that called attention to the imposition of long prison sentences.
Fauna and floraEdit
- Cisterns. A bluff that, because of its moist crevices, is believed to be an important site for California slender salamanders.
- Cliff tops at the island's north end. Containing a onetime manufacturing building and a plaza, the area is listed as important to nesting and roosting birds.
- The powerhouse area. A steep embankment where native grassland and creeping wild rye support a habitat for deer mice.
- Tide pools. One of the only complexes in the San Francisco Bay, the island's tide pools were created by quarrying activities, and contain a variety of typical invertebrate species.
- Western cliffs and cliff tops. Rising to heights of nearly 100 feet (30 m), they provide nesting and roosting sites for seabirds including pigeon guillemots, cormorants, Heermann's gulls, and western gulls. Harbor seals can occasionally be seen on a small beach at the base.
- The parade grounds. Carved from the hillside during the late 19th century and covered with rubble since the government demolished guard housing in 1971, the area has become a habitat and breeding ground for black-crowned night herons, western gulls, slender salamanders, and deer mice.
- The Agave Path, a trail named for its dense growth of agave. Located atop a shoreline bulkhead on the south side, it provides a nesting habitat for night herons.
- Alcatraz prison and its surroundings.
Gardens planted by families of the original Army post, and later by families of the prison guards, fell into neglect after the prison closure in 1963. After 40 years, they are being restored by a paid staff member and many volunteers, thanks to funding by the Garden Conservancy and the Golden Gate National Parks Conservancy. The untended gardens had become severely overgrown and had developed into a nesting habitat and sanctuary for numerous birds. Now, areas of bird habitat are being preserved and protected, while many of the gardens are being restored to their original state.
In clearing out the overgrowth, workers found that many of the original plants were growing where they had been planted – some more than 100 years ago. Numerous heirloom rose hybrids, including a Welsh rose (Bardou Job) that had been believed to be extinct, have been discovered and propagated. Many species of roses, succulents, and geraniums are growing among apple and fig trees, banks of sweet peas, manicured gardens of cutting flowers, and wildly overgrown sections of native grasses with blackberry and honeysuckle.
In popular cultureEdit
Alcatraz Island appears often in media and popular culture, including films dating from 1962: The Book of Eli (2010), X-Men: The Last Stand (2006), Catch Me If You Can (2002), The Rock (1996), Murder in the First (1995), Escape from Alcatraz (1979), The Enforcer (1976), Point Blank (1967) , Birdman of Alcatraz (1962) and J. J. Abrams' 2012 television series Alcatraz.
It also was featured in the Yu-Gi-Oh! Duel Monsters anime, in the book Al Capone Does My Shirts, in the video game Tony Hawk's Pro Skater 4 as a playable level. It is also showcased as a playable racetrack in the 1997 arcade racing video game San Francisco Rush the Rock - Alcatraz Edition. Alcatraz has also been portrayed often as a safe haven or base of operations in many post-apocalyptic movies, such as The Book of Eli.
Alcatraz was featured in the video game Call of Duty: Black Ops II in a downloadable zombie survival map called "Mob of the Dead" in which players could explore the Main Cellhouse, the Boat Dock, and a fictional area called the Catacombs which runs through the island. A segment of Alcatraz' Cellhouse makes a cameo appearance in Call of Duty: Black Ops III in the downloadable zombies survival map "Revelations". The map was then remastered in Call of Duty: Black Ops 4's zombie mode as "Blood of the Dead" in which the playable area of the map was expanded to include the Model Industries Building, New Industries Building, and the Warden's House.
Alcatraz is featured in the episode "Bird Mummy of Alcatraz" in the children's program, Mummies Alive! and was also featured in a mission in the video game Watch Dogs 2. Alcatraz is also featured as a downloadable map in the video game The Escapists.
Escape from Alcatraz and The Rock are two films that show how inescapable the island is. Escape from Alcatraz is based on the true story of a few inmates trying to flee the island. The Rock on the other hand, just depicts life in Alcatraz.
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Alcatraz is less known in its former military role as a 19th-century coastal fortification protecting the interests of a rapidly westward-expanding nation during the turbulent era of Manifest Destiny, the 1849 Gold Rush and the Civil War. The fortification, with its underground ammunition magazines and tunnels, is important from a military history perspective, marking the transition to earthen structures from the traditional brick and masonry constructions that characterized earlier 19th-century coastal defences.
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the army continued to work on Alcatraz throughout 1860 and 1861, expanding and improving the island’s existing fortifications. The military also used the island as a training ground for soldiers. New troops continually arrived on the island, underwent training, and departed for other assignments. With many new enlistees, the military personnel on Alcatraz increased to over 350 by the end of April 1861. The army slowly increased the number of men assigned to Alcatraz throughout the Civil War, reaching a high point of 433 men in early 1865. The army shipped most of these soldiers out to the Southwestern frontier; however, some were sent to battlefields in the East.
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much damage occurred (graffiti, vandalism, and a fire that destroyed the lighthouse keeper's home, the Warden's home, and the Officers' Club)
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- Official website
- AlcatrazHistory.com: Alcatraz History website – homepage
- American Devils Island Holds Toughest Prisoners – Popular Science (February 1935).
- Federal Bureau of Prisons.gov: "A Brief History of Alcatraz"
- California State Military Museum.org: The Post at Alcatraz Island
- 2012 KDRTradio.org: Interview with former Alcatraz convict Robert Luke
- Report on the 1962 Alcatraz escape incident – (from the FBI FOIA electronic reading room).
- Mapicurious.com: Map of Alcatraz – with marker pictures.
- Alcatraz: A Prison as Disneyland. Chris Hedges (December 2014).
- Alcatraz Island, Part of Golden Gate National Recreation Area, National Park Service at Google Cultural Institute