A small island in the San Francisco Bay and historically home to an infamous federal prison.
Alcatraz Island is a small island in the middle of San Francisco Bay (roughly 1.5 miles from San Francisco's coastline). During its inhabited lifetime, it served as a lighthouse, a military post, a military prison, and a federal prison. Today, it is a historic site run open to tours leaving from San Francisco's Pier 33 (now with a hybrid ferry).
Featuring sheer-drop cliffs on 2/3 of the island's faces, near-freezing waters, and a fast current, Alcatraz Island always seemed desolate. As a prison, it earned the nickname The Rock for its inescapability.
One notable attempt may have been successful. On June 11, 1962 (a year before the prison closed), three prisoners enacted an elaborate escape plan. They escaped through an air vent to the roof, leaving dummies behind in their cells. From there, they attempted to row to the Marin Headlands in a boat made out of rain coats. Their bodies and their boat were never found.
Barring fictional stories, nobody has been confirmed to have escaped the Rock.
Several movies feature Alcatraz as a prominent setting, many even filming on the island.
Filmmakers take advantage of the legend of Alcatraz as well as its mystery to establish mood.
Many films also feature bizarre or elaborate underground tunnel systems -- the island is too small and too much of an island for these systems to exist.
Birdman of Alcatraz (1962)
This film is a fictionalized account of a prisoner named Robert Stroud. Burt Lancaster portrays him as a misunderstood man who raised birds from his prison cell.
The Enforcer (1976)
Dirty Harry chases terrorists back to Alcatraz Island and attacks them there with explosive results.
Escape from Alcatraz (1979)
This movie stars Clint Eastwood as a leader of a trio of prisoners who hatched an elaborate escape plan. It is based on a non-fiction book based on the real-life escape attempt. It is not known whether the real escape attempt was successful (like in the movie) because the prisoners' bodies were never found, and they were never recaptured.
The Rock (1996)
From the taglines and marketing material, The Rock starring Sean Connery and Nicholas Cage was different because people were trying to break into Alcatraz rather than out. This statement is misleading because the 1976 Dirty Harry film The Enforcer had a similar plot device used in its ending.
Ed Harris plays a Force Recon Marine. He and his company seize Alcatraz and threaten to launch nerve gas rockets at sites in the Bay Area. Sean Connery's character is the only person to have escaped The Rock, and Nicholas Cage and the FBI hire him as a tour guide to get a Navy SEALs team onto the island.
Missteps ensue, Sean Connery rolls through a dangerous furnace, Ed Harris launches nerve gas at Oakland, and an overzealous Navy Pilot bombs part of Alcatraz
Half Past Dead (2002)
Steven Seagal. Ja Rule. On Alcatraz in the near-future. Terrorists parachute onto the island looking for gold. Makes about as much sense as you would expect. Although, the run-off from the gold fields is still at the bottom of the San Francisco Bay. If you could dredge up enough of it, you could find some gold.,
X-Men: The Last Stand (2006)
In the third X-Men movie, Alcatraz houses a medical facility that removes mutant powers. Magneto attacks the island by moving the Golden Gate Bridge. Physics be damned. A battle occurs that destroys most of the island.
There is no archaeological evidence that shows human habitation of Alcatraz for long periods prior to 1775. In 1775, the Spanish began moving large numbers of troops and settlers into the San Francisco Bay Area (then known as Yerba Buena). They required accurate maps and charts of the area.
Juan Manuel de Ayalla in his charting cruise of the California coast labeled the island on his map as "La Isla de los Alcatrices." Alcatrices is the plural of Alcatraz.
Alcatraz means Pelican in Old Spanish. The name is not surprising considering the large flocks of Pelicans that lived on the island.
Mexican Governor Pio Pico in 1846 sought to build a lighthouse on the island. He contracted with an American for the job. However, the lighthouse was never built as the Mexican-American War broke out shortly after.
Notably, under the Spanish and Mexican governments, Alcatraz was traded as private property. Small garrisons frequently occupied the land but no permanent fortifications were made until the United States took control of the island.
United States Control
John C. Fremont, leader of the Bear Flag Revolt and Bear Flag Republic, purchased Alcatraz for the United States government in 1846. During the course of the Mexican-American War, the United States began fortifying the island as a dominant position in the San Francisco Bay.
Over the course of the late 19th Century, the federal government built up the fortifications on Alcatraz including finally building a lighthouse on the island. At times, the 85 gun battery of Alcatraz protected the inner Bay. The batteries never fired their guns in battle. Still, there was a report that drunken gun crews would attempt to hit nearby Fort Point (the report stated they missed).
During the Civil War, the island was turned to large scale prison usage. It was a military stockade for deserters and prisoners of war. The island was so far removed from the battles in the Eastern United States that it saw only moderate usage.
Alcatraz Island Correctional Facility
The United States Department of Justice established the prison on Alcatraz on October 12, 1933. The prison itself opened in August the following year.
Over the next three decades, prisoners made famous by radio broadcast and newsreel called the island home. Their time on the island was short lived as it was used as a temporary facility while other prisons, such as Leavenworth in Kansas, made final preparations.
Most famously, Al Capone served four and a half years on Alcatraz. More famously he somehow developed Syphilis on the island.
In May 1946, a prison riot and escape attempt known as "The Battle of Alcatraz" erupted. Prisoners took over a cell block and seized weapons from guards. Newsreel crews captured the action as prison guards organized strike teams to recapture the cell block. Plans included firing in through the windows, rappelling from the roof, and blasting through an exterior wall. In the end, two guards and three prisoners were killed.
After the Prison
In 1969, misguided, young Native Americans and Native American-wannabes took over the island and defaced many of the historical sites. The youths cited a treaty signed with the Sioux Nation in the late 19th Century. They claimed the treaty stated that any unused Federal Land would be turned over to Native Americans. The treaty did not state this.
The island is now a tourist destination and landmark.
The gardens planted by military and prison personnel and their families over the course of the island's operation still flourish today.