Alcatraz Island - Visitor's Guide
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*Alcatraz Island - National Park Services
San Francisco Bay - Access by Ferry
The Island of Alcatraz lies in the middle of the San Francisco Bay.
From the mid 1930's until the mid 1960's, Alcatraz was America's premier maximum-security prison, the final stop for the nation's most famous inmates such as Al Capone.
The island received its name in 1775 when Spanish explorer Juan Manuel de Ayala charted the San Francisco Bay, and named this rock La Isla de los Alcatraces, which translated to "Island of the Pelicans."
In 1854, the United States government erected a lighthouse on the island and in 1859, the Army established a fort on Alcatraz to defend San Francisco Bay.
Alcatraz Indian Occupation The Ohlone Indians were probably the first people known to have visited the island before Spanish explorers first entered the bay in 1775. They probably collected eggs and fish, or used it as a safe harbor in a storm. Oral tradition indicates that the island may have been a place of spirituality and healing.
Alcatraz Military Period: During the Civil War [1861-1865], the Army imprisoned deserters, insubordinate soldiers, and Confederate sympathizers on the island. In 1868, the Army established a permanent military prison on Alcatraz.
Because of high operating costs, the Army abandoned Alcatraz in 1934. It turned the facility over to the Federal Bureau of Prisons. The Bureau modernized it into a maximum security prison for high-risk civilian criminals.
Alcatraz Federal Prison: The US penitentiary on Alcatraz opened in 1934. The Federal Bureau of Prisons maintained the facility to incarcerate a small number of inmates who were so dangerous, so violent, and so escape-prone that they could not be managed safely in other prisons. By holding these difficult inmates in one place, the Bureau could keep them under tight control and run its other prisons more safely and effectively. Without the most disruptive inmates, the Bureau developed pioneering rehabilitation programs at its other facilities. Alcatraz inmates seldom numbered more than three hundred at any time.
The Bureau of Prisons closed Alcatraz in 1963. Operations were too expensive, as supplies, fuel, and fresh water had to be barged to the island. Buildings were crumbling and would soon be uninhabitable. The prison’s unusual location encouraged a circus atmosphere, with tour boats circling the island and wild myths about life at Alcatraz being publicized in books and movies. A modern prison in Illinois replaced Alcatraz.
Famous Inmates Among the prison’s most notorious residents were
- Al “Scarface” Capone, brutal kingpin of the Chicago underworld during the Roaring Twenties
- Kidnapper George “Machine Gun” Kelly
- Bank robber Floyd Hamilton, an accomplice of Bonnie and Clyde
- Arthur “Doc” Barker and Alvin “Creepy” Karpis, a member of the infamous Ma Barker Gang
- Roy Gardner, last of the “Old West” train robbers
- Bumpy” Johnson, the Godfather of Harlem; Morton Sobell, convicted in the Rosenberg espionage case
- Robert “Birdman” Stroud.
Stroud was later immortalized by actor Burt Lancaster in The Birdman of Alcatraz film as a kindly bird lover. But in reality, Stroud was a homicidal sociopath whom one longtime Alcatraz officer likened to “Jekyll and Hyde.”
Alcatraz Escapes The first escape, in 1878, was engineered by a pair of men who stole one of the post's boats and rowed themselves to shore. Other prisoners tried to get off using articles such as a butter vat, a bread-kneading trough, driftwood, logs, planks, a discarded ladder, and other bits of flotsam. Four prisoners secured their release by forging the commander's signature on some release papers which the Army duly processed. They were caught a few days after their "discharge". Two other men took advantage of the 1918 flu epidemic: they donned flu masks and officer uniforms for the boat ride to the Presidio. They, too, were caught several days after their release.
Most escapees took an easier route: they waited to be assigned to a shore detail and simply walked off.
The last recorded attempt by a military prisoner was that of Jack Allen. Allen greased his body and plunged into the bay in June, 1930. He, like Roe and Cole and many others was never seen again and became a myth of possibilities.
Over the 29 years (1934-1963) that the Federal prison operated, 36 men (including two who tried to escape twice) were involved in 14 separate escape attempts. Twenty-three were caught, six were shot and killed during their escape, and two drowned.
Alcatraz - San Francisco Bay Ferries
Alcatraz is part of the Golden Gate National Recreation Area. Blue & Gold Fleet is a concessionaire of the National Park Service.
Tour Length: 2.5 Hours.
Departures: every half-hour from 9:30 A.M. with the last departure at 4:15.
Tickets available online at http://www.blueandgoldfleet.com/, by phone (415) 705-5555, at Blue and Gold’s Pier 41 Fisherman’s Wharf Box Office, at the Blue & Gold Fleet’s TeleSails ticket counter at DFS Galleria near Union Square.
Make advance reservations.