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Alcatraz, San Francisco
The history of Alcatraz Island dates back several hundred years. The first one to document the small island was the Spanish naval officer Juan Manuel de Ayala, in 1775. He named the island “Isla de los Alcatraces”, meaning “Island of Gannets”, due to the many seabirds living on the rocks.
A strategically located site
Due to the island strategically important position, it later became the site of a military fort in the 1850ies. It not only defended the bay against hostile attacks, but also guided friendly ships with its lighthouse.
However, the island was not only strategically located from a pure military perspective. As it was surrounded by freezing waters and hazardous currents, Alcatraz was quickly discovered to be the ideal location for holding captives.
The island severed as a small prison for the first time during the Civil War. Later towards the end of the 19th century during the Spanish-American war, the number of prisoners increased dramatically.
In the early 20th century, the fort was officially converted into a prison. The prison quickly became known for its harsh condition and ironhanded discipline. The prisoners were divided into three classes, depending on the crimes they had committed.
Each class has different levels of privileges, but they all had one thing in common. Anyone violating the rules would face strict disciplinary measures. This could include working on hard labor details, wearing a heavy ankle chain and enduring solitary lock-downs with a small bread and water diet.
Despite its harsh conditions, Alcatraz mainly functioned as a minimum-security prison. The majority of the prisoners were given rather generous privileges. Some were given special assignments, such as cleaning, cooking and doing chores. The majority were allowed to do some kind of recreational activity
A new need
However, due to increasing operational costs, the US Army sold the prison to the Department of Justice in the early 1930ies. During the same period, the Great Depression became the start of a new era of organized crime. The gangsters had come to town. This created a need for a new high security prison, where breakouts and escapes would be impossible.
The Alcatraz we know
The federal agencies recognized Alcatraz potential as a maximum security prison and it soon became the storehouse for the country’s most dangerous criminals. Alcatraz became a perfect solution, as it not only imprisoned public enemies. It also stood as a visible icon in the San Francisco Bay, sending a warning to the criminals with a message hard to miss.
In 1934, work began to upgrade the prison to meet its new requirements. New modernized tool-proof bars and iron windows were installed and utility tunnels closed of access. They also installed special teargas canisters in the ceiling of the Dining Hall which could be remotely triggered from several observation points. Guard towers were strategically constructed around the perimeter and electromagnetic metal detectors were added in multiply sections.
They made sure than none of the 600 prisoner cells were adjacent to any perimeter wall, so even if a prisoner managed to escape a cell, they would still be locked inside the cell house. Even if someone – against all odds – managed to escape the prison, they would still be stuck on an island surrounded by chilling water with deadly currents.
Closure of Alcatraz
The prison was closed in year 1963. The reason was not only the high operative costs, but a half century of salt water had severely eroded the buildings. By this time, Alcatraz had housed some of the most famous inmates in the world, including Al Capone and Bill “Machine Gun” Kelly.
Why visit Alcatraz ?
Alcatraz Island, or simply “Alcatraz”, is one of the world’s most infamous prison sites were the United States most notorious criminals were kept. The place as also known as “The Rock”, as it measures a mere 22 acre and isn’t much more than a large rock. The name also comes from the fact that originally there wasn't even any soil on the island; it was all transported to the island in the early 20th century.
A site of mystery
Alcatraz is perhaps most known for it being an impossible prison to escape from. However, over the years, 14 escape attempts have been carried out, but the official records claim no one have made it.
The vast majority of the escapees were either caught or shot and killed. The most violent escape is known as The Battle of Alcatraz. During this escape, a group of intakes acquired fire arms in which gunfights between intakes and guards took place. This resulted in
The great escape
However, three men successfully carried out an escape in one of the most intricate escapes ever devised. Over a long period of time, they carved their way through their concrete cell with spoons and other stolen tools. They continued through several ventilation shafts while leaving papier-mâché dummies in their cells to fool the guards. They managed to escape the prison and took on the San Francisco bay with a small inflatable raft made of stolen raincoats.
Articles belonging to the prisoners, including plywood paddles and parts of the raincoat raft, were later located on nearby Angel Island. The official report on the escape says the prisoners drowned in the cold waters of the bay while trying to reach the mainland.
The cell they escaped from and the way they carried out their plot has been recreated in Alcatraz today, making it possible for visitors to get a good insight into the great escape.
A center of attention
Even after its closure, the island has been the center of attention on several occasions. One of these times is when the island got occupied by an American Indian protestant movement. They stayed on the island for more than 19 months, demanding that their native land would be given back to them. When they left the island, several buildings had been damaged by fires. Traces of the occupation can still be seen today.
A popular site
Today, Alcatraz Island is one of the most popular tourist attractions in San Francisco. Thousands of visitors each day take the tour fleet out to Alcatraz to experience the fascinating island.
The island is classified as a historic site and is operated by the National Park Service as part of the Golden Gate National Recreation Area. Alcatraz Island is open to tours, but it is important to book the tours in advance as the tours often are fully booked.
Alcatraz is located in western United States, in San Francisco, California. The island is situated in the San Francisco bay, close to the Golden Gate. Visitors can reach the island by ferry ride from Pier 33, near Fisherman’s Wharf in San Francisco. For the exact location of Alcatraz, check out the location map to the right!
Silo on the island. © WSG.
View from a window. © WSG.
Barbed fences - a common sight. © WSG.
Interactive location map. For a larger and more detailed map, check out our US map.
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