Alcatraz Island: The Rock
What does the word, Alcatraz, conjure up for you? For most people, it's Alcatraz penitentiary that leaps to mind. If that's your only association for Alcatraz, you're in for a surprise!
Did you know that Alcatraz hosts the oldest operating lighthouse on the West Coast?
Or that it was occupied by Native Americans in the 1970s?
Or that there are important seabird colonies?
Beautiful gardens planted by U.S. Army families 100 years ago?
The Rock has been a military fortification, and a military prison, in addition to being the site of the famous federal prison for 30 years, and now - it's part of the Golden Gate National Recreation Area and is a favorite San Francisco tourist attraction.
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Home to Al Capone, Machine Gun Kelly, and the Bird Man of Alcatraz
Designed to hold the nation's most deadly, hardened, and difficult criminals, the prison has long captured our imaginations.
Since the opening of the federal prison in 1934, more than 30 movies have been made about Alcatraz prison.
The first one, Alcatraz Island,
was filmed in 1937 - only 3 years after the prison opened to accept its
first prisoners! But the most famous were probably the 1962 Birdman of Alcatraz with Burt Lancaster and the 1979 Clint Eastwood movie, Escape from Alcatraz.
Infamous Alcatraz Penitentiary Inmates
One of the reasons for our fascination with the prison probably has to do with our tendency to romanticize our bad guys. Who were these men who captured America's mythogenesis?
Here's a partial list:
But there's more to Alcatraz Island than the federal penitentiary that only operated for 30 years - a very short part of the island's total history.
A Brief History of Alcatraz Island
The island was charted in 1775 by Juan Manuel de Ayala.
He named the island La Isla de los Alcatraces - which meant Island of the Pelicans - because of the thousands of brown pelicans that nested there.
In 1854, the first lighthouse on the West Coast was completed and its whale oil lamp was fired up.
Five years later, Capt J. Stewart was given command of Alcatraz Island, where he created a military fortification to protect San Francisco Bay.
By 1863, the island was being used as a prison for Confederate sympathizers and, later yet, as a military prison.
This was the island's main purpose until 1934 when it was given over for a U.S. penitentiary. Alcatraz served as a federal prison from 1934 to 1963 when it was closed.
In 1969 Alcatraz came to the attention of the populaces of the United States and the world once again when it was occupied for 18 months by thousands of Native Americans who wanted to claim Alcatraz as Indian territory.
Although ultimately unsuccessful in their claim to the island, the movement is credited with getting the federal government to recognize the Native Americans' right to self-determination.
The Golden Gate National Recreation Area was created in 1972 - it includes the island of Alcatraz. The GGNRA and the National Park Service are responsible for the island now, and it's one of the most visited of San Francisco attractions.
Today You Can Tour Alcatraz Island
Alcatraz tours will take you behind the scenes to witness the remnants of several of the historical phases of Alcatraz Island, but you may not know that you're not limited to the tours in order to enjoy Alcatraz Island - you're allowed to stay all day from the first boat over to the last boat returning, if you wish - to explore the island at your leisure. But for the tours...
Take an audio tour of Alcatraz Cellhouse and/or join National Park staff for a guided walking tour of the island to learn about famous inmates, escapes, Hollywood and The Rock, Alcatraz history, and Fortress Alcatraz.
For an unusual experience, and a different mood, take a night tour of Alcatraz and add the beauty of the sun setting behind the Golden Gate Bridge. These tours offer special programs and activities not offered during the day.
Explore the historic Gardens of Alcatraz with a garden docent and discover the beauty brought to the island that was nurtured by the people who had to live on the barren rock that was Alcatraz.
Enjoy the natural side of Alcatraz - besides the gardens, you'll find tide pools teeming with sea life; and colonies of seabirds mating, nesting, and parenting their broods.
Historical artifacts include Alcatraz prison, Civil War era buildings, military fortification relics, the oldest lighthouse on the West Coast, and reminders of the Native American occupation of Alcatraz.
Insider Secrets and a few tips to keep in mind:
As the promotional literature says, "Visit San Francisco's inescapable Attraction - Alcatraz," - we would add: Island of Intrigue!
For more of San Francisco's famous attractions, follow the links in the right-hand column.
To discover more about San Francisco than its tourist attractions and more Insider Secrets, visit these pages:
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