THE RUGGED HISTORY
Twenty-seven pale, quiet menwearing fresh prison blues, pea-coats, handcuffs, leg-irons and waist chainswere 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 time10:50 a.m. The dateThursday, 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 confinementthe 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
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.
City of San Francisco expresses interest in acquiring Alcatraz and calls for development proposals. Some 500 proposals received.
Bill establishing Golden Gate NRA, including Alcatraz as a unit, is signed into law by President Nixon.
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)
Brochures ◆ Site Bulletins ◆ Trading Cards
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)
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)
Handbooks ◆ Books
Last Updated: 01-May-2021