The history of Alcatraz Island



La Isla de los Alcatraces

The first Spanish explorer to share his journey to Alcatraz was Juan Manuel de Ayala in 1775, who charted San Francisco Bay and named one of the three islands he identified as the “La Isla de los Alcatraces,” which translates as “The Island of the Pelicans”, from the archaic Spanish alcatraz (in English: “pelican”). Over time the English version “Alcatraz” has become widely used in modern times. 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 local species of the California brown pelican (Pelecanus occidentalis californicus) does not call the island home anymore. Around this time Spanish explorers constructed several small buildings on the island and other minor structures.



Military garrison

The first official owner of the island was Julian Workman. Julian was given the island by Mexican governor Pio Pico in June 1846. In exchange Workman agreed to build a lighthouse on it. Julian Workman is the baptismal name of William Workman, co-owner of Rancho La Puente and personal friend of Pio Pico. In 1846, while acting as Military Governor of California, John C. Fremont, champion of Manifest Destiny and leader of the Bear Flag Republic, bought the island for $5,000 in the name of the United States government from Francis Temple. In 1850, current 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. Fremont 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 Fremont nothing. Following the denial of compensation, Fremont and his heirs later sued for compensation during a series of unsuccessful legal battles that went into the 1890s.

Soon after adopting California into 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 defend the 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, eventuating in Fortress Alcatraz. The island’s first garrison at Camp Alcatraz, numbering about 200 soldiers and 11 cannons.



American Civil War

The American Civil War erupted 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. The island 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”, formed a “triangle of defense” along with Fort Point and Lime Point, and ensured defense of the San Francisco Bay. Alcatraz was also the site of the first operational lighthouse on the West Coast of the United States. Alcatraz never fired its guns offensively, though during the war it was used to imprison Confederate sympathizers and privateers on the west coast.


Military prison

Alcatraz is isolated from the outside by the frigid, harsh, dangerous, currents of the waters of San Francisco Bay, the island was used to house prisoners of the Civil War as early as 1861.


After the war in 1866, the United States army concluded that the fortifications and guns were being rapidly rendered obsolete by the current advances in military technology at the time. Attempts to modernize Alcatraz, 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 materialized (the so-called “parade ground” on the southern tip of the island represents the extent of the flattening effort). The army then switched the focus of its plans for the island from coastal defense to detention, a task for which it was well suited because of its isolation. In 1867, the first jailhouse built from brick was constructed (previously inmates had been kept in the basement of the guardhouse), and in 1868, Alcatraz was officially designated a long-term detention facility for military prisoners. in 1946 the use of the facility was discontinued for war prisoners. Among those locked up at Alcatraz were Confederates soldiers caught on the West Coast, and some Hopi Native American men in the 1870s.


The Spanish–American War in 1898 increased the prison population from 26 to over 450. Following the 1906 San Francisco earthquake, civilian prisoners were transferred to Alcatraz for safe keeping. Alcatraz was officially designated as the Western U.S. Military Prison on March 21, 1907, later Pacific Branch, U.S. Disciplinary Barracks, 1915. In 1909 construction began on the main cell block, designed by Major Reuben Turner, which remains the island’s dominant feature. To accommodate the giant new cell block, the Citadel, a three-story barracks, was demolished down to the first floor, which was actually below ground level. The facility had been built in an excavated pit (creating a dry “moat”) to enhance its potential for defense. The first floor of the building was then built as a basement to the new cell block, giving rise to the popular legend of “dungeons” below the main cell block. Alcatraz was deactivated as a military prison in October 1933 and transferred to the Bureau of Prisons.


Prisoners held during World War I included conscientious objectors, such as Philip Grosser, who wrote a pamphlet entitled “Uncle Sam’s Devil’s Island” about his experiences.


Alcatraz Federal Penitentiary

On October 12, 1933 The United States Disciplinary Barracks on Alcatraz was acquired by the United States Department of Justice, and Alcatraz became a Federal Prison in August 1934. The island was engineered to hold prisoners who continuously caused trouble at other federal prisons. The inmates housed at Alcatraz were considered to be some of the worst criminals in the world at the time. August 11, 1934, the first group of 137 prisoners arrived at Alcatraz, arriving by railroad from the United States Penitentiary in Leavenworth, Kansas at Santa Venetia, California, before being escorted to Alcatraz, handcuffed in high security coaches and guarded by some 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 staffs training was centered around security, not necessarily rehabilitation.

Spanning 29 years, the island held some of the most notorious criminals in American history, such as Al Capone, Robert Franklin Stroud (the Birdman of Alcatraz), George “Machine Gun” Kelly, Bumpy Johnson, Rafael Cancel Miranda (a member of the Puerto Rican Nationalist Party who attacked the United States Capitol building in 1954), Mickey Cohen, Arthur R. “Doc” Barker, James “Whitey” Bulger, and Alvin “Creepy” Karpis (who served more time at Alcatraz than any other inmate). The prison staff and thier families were also housed on the island.

The penitentiary claimed that no prisoner successfully escaped in the 29 years of operation. 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 occurred on May 2, 1946, when a failed escape attempt by six prisoners led to the Battle of Alcatraz. On June 11, 1962, Frank Morris, John Anglin, and Clarence Anglin carried out one of the most intricate escapes in America history. Their bodies were never recovered which leads to many theories and debate to this day on wether or not the prisoners could have survived the escape.



Post-prison years

Alcatraz as a prison costs much more to operate than other prisons (nearly $10 per prisoner per day, as opposed to $3 per prisoner per day at Atlanta), and half a century of salt water saturation had severely deteriorated the structures of the island, then Attorney General Robert F. Kennedy ordered the penitentiary closed on March 21, 1963. In addition, citizens were increasingly protesting the environmental effects of sewage released into San Francisco Bay from the approximately 250 inmates and 60 Bureau of Prisons families on the island. That year, the United States Penitentiary in Marion, Illinois, on land, opened as the replacement facility for Alcatraz.

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