Alcatraz Island
California
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THE RUGGED HISTORY

Twenty-seven pale, quiet men—wearing fresh prison blues, pea-coats, handcuffs, leg-irons and waist chains—were released from their cells and herded into buses which slowly descended the narrow switchback road to the wooden wharf on the steep east side of the Island. The prisoners were transferred to the Warden Blackwell and the boat headed for the Alcatraz dock at Fort Mason a mile away on the San Francisco waterfront. The time—10:50 a.m. The date—Thursday, March 21, 1963.

There were no ceremonies, there were no speeches, there were no tears. The comments of the hard-case inmates leaving for disbursement to other Federal prisons were something less than nostalgic. "The place is hell," said a bank robber as he boarded the prison boat. And the last of the prisoners to step off The Rock delivered the final, bitter epitaph, "Alcatraz was never no good to nobody."

Thus ended nearly 100 years of Alcatraz notoriety as a place of military and civil confinement—the grimmest symbol in North America of the hand of justice.

The fog-shrouded institution, often pictured as the "Devil's Island" of the Western Hemisphere, had a capacity of 400 prisoners, normally two-thirds filled. It housed such incorrigibles as Al Capone, Machine Gun Kelly, mail robbers Albert Bates, Gene Colson and Limpy Clever, and the last of the great train robbers, Roy Gardner.

Alcatraz Island was first sighted and claimed by the Spanish nearly 200 years ago. Its Spanish name, "La Isla de los Alcatraces" (the Island of the Pelicans), was originally intended for another island in San Francisco Bay, but by a later mapmaker's error, the name was shifted to this island.

Initially, it was used for the first lighthouse on the Pacific Coast and as a fortification. Subsequently, it became a military prison and was used to hold Civil War and Indian prisoners, pacifists and World War I prisoners.

In 1938, jurisdiction over the island was transferred to the Department of Justice which changed it to a maximum security civil penitentiary for the hardcore gangsters and other criminals of the time. In this use, its notoriety as "The Rock" outpaced its tenure, which lasted less than 30 years.

BRIEF CHRONOLOGY OF ALCATRAZ ISLAND

1769
First sighting of San Francisco Bay by the Spanish Navy.

1775
First Spanish entrance into San Francisco Bay. Alcatraz Island sighted and named "Isla de los Alcatraces" (Island of the Pelicans) by Don Juan Manuel de Ayala, Lieutenant of the Royal Spanish Navy. Apparently, the Spanish title claim stemmed from this exploration.

1775-1840
During this period there are no local records of any occupation or use by the Spanish.

1846
Julian Workman petitions to Pio Pico, last Mexican Governor of California, for a grant of title to Alcatraz Island (apparently to settle a debt).

Governor Pico grants Alcatraz to Workman upon the condition that Workman erect a lighthouse on the island.

Bear Flag Revolt ends Mexican rule of California. A series of conflicting claims and litigations over title to Alcatraz ensues.

1848
Alcatraz Island ceded to U.S. Government by Republic of Mexico.

1850
Alcatraz Island reserved for "public purpose" by executive order of President Millard Fillmore. While the specific public purpose is not declared in the reservation order, subsequent documents and events indicate the original purpose of reservation was military.

1853-1858
Military fort and lighthouse construction by Army engineers. The fortifications and lighthouse were the first to be constructed on the West Coast.

1854
Alcatraz lighthouse begins operation.

1858
Completion of initial fortifications.

1866
Additional fortifications built.

1868
War Department designates Alcatraz as a place of confinement for military prisoners with long sentences. Apparently the use of Alcatraz as a place of confinement dates unofficially to 1859. It was used to hold Civil War prisoners, and, between 1870 to 1890, to detain Indian prisoners. During and after World War I, prisoners of war were confined there.

1906
San Francisco Earthquake apparently produces a large fissure in the rock, but no structural damage to any buildings.

1906-1909
Construction of present main prison building and many of present supporting facilities.

1907
Alcatraz Island ceases to be known as Fort Alcatraz; is designated the Pacific Branch of the United States Military Prison.

1915
Facilities renamed; U.S. Disciplinary Barracks, Alcatraz Island.

1934
Alcatraz Island officially designated a Federal Civil Penitentiary following War Department's determination that it was no longer needed for defense purposes. While under military jurisdiction, no shots were fired in combat.

1938
Title to Alcatraz Island passes to Department of Justice.

1962
U.S. Attorney General Robert F. Kennedy announces Alcatraz to be phased out of Federal Penitentiary System.

1963
Last prisoners are removed from Alcatraz. Alcatraz Island is reported to the General Services Administration as excess property.

1964
Formation of President's Commission on the Disposition of Alcatraz Island. Commission recommends to Congress that Alcatraz Island be used to commemorate the founding of the United Nations in San Francisco. No action taken on this proposal.

1968
Federal and California State agencies indicate to GSA that they do not wish to acquire the island.

City of San Francisco expresses interest in acquiring Alcatraz and calls for development proposals. Some 500 proposals received.

1969
Interior Secretary Hickel asks GSA to delay decision on disposition of Alcatraz until Department can consider potential as "Parks to People" project. Mayor and Board of Supervisors support new Federal study, as does Coalition to Conserve Alcatraz.

1969-1971
Indian occupation of Alcatraz.

1972
Legislation to establish Golden Gate National Recreation Area as part of President's Environmental Program introduced in Congress.

Bill establishing Golden Gate NRA, including Alcatraz as a unit, is signed into law by President Nixon.

1973
October—Alcatraz open to the public.

park map
(click for larger map)

THE ISLAND TODAY AND TOMORROW

For the first time since the 12-plus acre island was ceded to the United States, daily public tours are available. The guided tour is approximately 2½ hours from dock to dock. The tour includes early fortification and military history, a walk up the main switchback road into the main cell block and solitary cells, the recreation yard and then back to the boat along a verdant path with excellent views of the surrounding bay.

With just a minimum of cleanup and restoration over the route, tours will be conducted for approximately the next 5 years. By evaluating public reaction during this time, the National Park Service will be in a better position to create a long-range plan for this island, which offers one of the most magnificent views of the city, the Golden Gate and its headlands.

Source: NPS Brochure (1976)


Establishment

Part of Golden Gate National Recreation Area — Oct. 27, 1972


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Brochures ◆ Site Bulletins ◆ Trading Cards expand section

Documents

Abbreviated Historic Structure Report: Alcatraz Barracks Building 64, Golden Gate National Recreation Area (September 2003)

Abbreviated Historic Structure Report: Alcatraz New Industries Building (Lerner+Associates Architects, October 31, 2010)

Abbreviated Historic Structure Report: Alcatraz Post Exchange (Lerner+Associates Architects, October 31, 2010)

Abbreviated Historic Structure Report: Alcatraz Quartermaster Warehouse Building (Lerner+Associates Architects, October 31, 2010)

Brief Chronology of Alcatraz Island (undated)

Cultural Landscapes Inventory, Alcatraz Island (c2010)

Geologic Hazard Evaluation, Alcatraz Island, Golden Gate National Recreation Area for the National Park Service (Dames & Moore, 1982)

Historic Furnishing Report: Alcatraz Island Main Prison Building (Mary Grassick, 2005)

Historic Structures Report: Alcatraz Guardhouse Complex, Part 1 (Lerner+Associates Architects, January 2002)

Junior Ranger Activity Book, Alcatraz Island (Date Unknown)

National Register of Historic Places Nomination Form

Alcatraz Island; La Isla de Los Alcatraces; Fort Alcatraz (Stephen A. Haller, April 15, 1985)

The Alcatraz Escape Plot (undated)

The Rock: A History of Alcatraz Island, 1847-1972 — Historic Resource Study (Erwin N. Thompson, May 1979)

Wildlife Habitat Analysis for Alcatraz Island, Golden Gate National Recreation Area, California (Judd A. Howell and Tania Pollak, undated)



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Last Updated: 01-May-2021