Alcatraz is an island in the San Francisco Bay, approximately one third of a mile long, 525 feet across at the widest, comprising 22.5 acres and has been the site of events that had an important impact on the Nation from before the Civil War through an American Indian occupation lasting from November 20, 1969 until June 11, 1971. Alcatraz Island may have been used by the native Ohlone Indian population as a way station for their canoe trips across the waters. The first European exploration of the site was by Juan Manuel de Ayala’s expedition which sailed the Spanish frigate San Carlosinto the San Francisco Bay in 1775. Making cartographic observations by small boat, his Lieutenant, Canizares, described an island “so arid and steep there was not even a boat harbor there: I named the island de los Alcatrazes because of their being so plentiful there.” Alcatrazes is archaic Spanish for cormorant, a seabird noted for its long neck, wedge shaped tail and a hooked bill. By 1826 the name Alcatraz was applied to the island–it was also applied to the island that later became Yerba Buena. Alcatraz is today most remembered for the Federal prison that stood there from 1934-1963, and is today one of the Golden Gate National Recreation Area’s most popular attractions.
At the end of the Mexican California era, an exception was made by the Mexican authorities to the usual rule of government control of coastal islands, and title to the island was granted to one Julian Workman, a naturalized Mexican, on condition that he establish a navigation light there. Upon assumption of control by the United States, John Charles Fremont purchased the still vacant island for the U.S. government in his “official capacity of governor of California.” In 1850, Alcatraz was set aside specifically for military purposes by order of President Millard Fillmore, based on the United States’ assumption of Mexican government property. The need for Fremont to have purchased the island was therefore disavowed, and the matter became a series of legal actions by Fremont and his heirs until the 1890s. The initial survey of Alcatraz was one of the first conducted in the Tenth Military District, while still under the command of Brig. Gen. Stephen W. Kearny. The map that resulted from this 1847 survey became the basis for the establishment of fortifications on the island over the next 20 years.
Photo courtesy of National Park Service Digital Image Archives,Golden Gate National Recreation Area
In 1848, gold was discovered in the Sierra foothills, and by 1849 the small Spanish-founded city of San Francisco was in the midst of one of the greatest mass migrations the Nation had known. Alcatraz increased in strategic importance and was included in Congress’s 1850 appropriation for the building of eight lighthouses on the Pacific Coast. Begun on December 15, 1852, the lighthouse became the first lasting impact of human construction on the island. In 1853 1st Lt. Zealous B. Tower immediately began work on the fortifications on Alcatraz designed to protect the San Francisco Bay region. Batteries of brick with granite copings and concrete foundations were constructed in the north and west sides of the island, while the south battery was largely built of blue sandstone. Completed by April 15, 1855, these became the United States’ first permanent harbor defense batteries of the West Coast. On the crest of the island, work soon began on the defensive barracks, soon nicknamed “the Citadel.” By the eve of the Civil War, the 86 cannons on Alcatraz included the only permanently mounted guns defending the most important harbor of the western Americas. During the Civil War, Alcatraz defended the bay against the threat of Confederate raiders. Alcatraz’s role as a nationally significant prison had its genesis among the Civil War when the fort’s guardhouse was built with a lower guardroom for drunks and deserters. Later, pro-Confederate Californians were held here during the Civil War, including Assemblyman-elect E.J.C. Kewen of Los Angeles. After serving many years as a military base, the Bureau of Prisons took over Alcatraz in 1934.
James Widmer may have been serving time in America’s most notorious prison, but that did not stop him from being proud of the contribution that Alcatraz inmates made to the war effort. Click herefor a larger version of this image.
Photo courtesy of Golden Gate National Recreation Area, Park Archives and Records Center, Mary M. Bowman Collection
The regime at Alcatraz was one of rigid discipline and tight security, with an extremely low convict to guard ratio of three to one. With construction of the Cellhouse (begun in 1909) and the Yard (1936), Alcatraz rapidly assumed its present form. Alcatraz held such nationally known criminals as Al Capone, “Machine Gun” Kelly, and Robert “Birdman” Stroud. During World War II, the Army again had a presence on the island as GIs manned antiaircraft guns on the prison roofs, waiting for Japanese planes that never came. The prisoners invested their small pay into War Bonds and did war related work in the various prison shops. The patriotic feeling that swept over the United States after December 7, 1941, also included the prison population. One inmate, James Widmer, illustrated the work the prisoners did on behalf of the U.S. war effort, including making clothing for the military forces.
Although 39 men were involved in 14 separate escape attempts from Alcatraz, there is no proof that anyone succeeded. Several attempts failed violently. “Doc” Barker met his end in a hail of gunfire at a small beach facing the Golden Gate that now bears his name, and in 1946 the “Battle of the Rock” gained nationwide attention in May of 1946 when desperate convicts seized control of the cellhouse and faced correction officers and U.S. Marines in a violent battle involving guns and concussion grenades that lasted for three days. By the end the prison uprising was subdued with three convicts and two guards dead.
Alcatraz closed as a Federal prison in 1963. As the very last convict to leave passed the reporters gathered there for the occasion, he offered the comment that, “Alcatraz never was no good for anybody!” The facility was abandoned and only the lightkeepers remained to tend the lighthouse. Between 1969 and 1971, Alcatraz Island was under occupation for 19 months. A small group of people who called themselves “Indians of All Tribes” went to the island on a chartered boat, declared that they were taking back their land, and unknowingly shaped history. Some of the visible signs of the period are interesting graffiti throughout the island’s structures. The invisible signs of the occupation are the establishment of D-Q University of Davis, California, California’s only two-year accredited tribal college, and an increased awareness of the American Indian’s social concerns. In 1972, Alcatraz Island became part of a newly established unit of the National Park System: the Golden Gate National Recreation Area. The restorations of many of the facilities and historic tours of the island have been some of the most important accomplishments of the National Park Service on Alcatraz Island.
Alcatraz, a National Historic Landmark, is administered by the National Park Service’s Golden Gate National Recreation Area and located in the middle of San Francisco Bay. A ferry to the island runs about every 30-40 minutes from San Francisco’s Pier 41, Fisherman’s Wharf. The island is open daily, except for Christmas and New Year’s Day, or due to extreme weather. Departures begin at 9:30am; the island closes at 4:30pm in fall, winter and spring, and 6:30pm in the summer. For further information, visit Alcatraz’s website. It is strongly recommended that you purchase tickets in advance, as they can sell out as early as a week in advance especially in the summer and around holiday weekends. Tickets are available by calling Blue & Gold Fleet at 415-705-5555, online at Blue & Gold Fleet’s webpage, or in person at their ticket booth at Pier 41. For groups of 15 or more call Group Reservations at 415-705-8214.