Alcatraz Facts: History of Alcatraz Island

Alcatraz Island

The Rock” - Alcatraz Island near San Francisco - has had a special place in the American imagination since the golden age of gangsters. We've compiled the top historical facts about the island and its amazing history. Men too tough for any other prison met their match on the windy, desolate, and inescapable Alcatraz. While the ghosts of the penitentiary continue to haunt the island, Alcatraz is more than just an abandoned prison.

Like all of the islands in the San Francisco Bay, Alcatraz began its life as a mountain punctuating a vast savannah. At the end of the last ice age around 13,000 BC, it extended beyond the Golden Gate and was home to such exotic and extinct animals as the s
hort-faced bear, the American cheetah, camel and the ground sloth.

As glaciers melted and sea levels rose, the savannah filled to become San Francisco Bay. Soon after, people arrived from the Bering Land Bridge and set up shop on the bay’s shore. Here they mingled with grizzlies, elk, and birds in such number that they blocked out the sun ascending in flight.
Naked from wind erosion, Alcatraz was home only to seabirds that bleached the barren rock with their guano. It wasn’t until the military’s first installation in 1854 when Alcatraz first captured the attention of the young nation, first by protecting the booming West and then by holding the its most hardened criminals. Today, bird watchers, military buffs, gangster enthusiasts, students of social protest, amateur historians, and garden loving green-thumbs can all find something of intrigue on Alcatraz.

Top 25 Historical Facts of Alcatraz Island

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Alcatraz in Fog by Greg McLemore

Early History
1.Alcatraz Island is 22 acres and reaches 121 feet above sea level. Aside from the few natural rainwater collecting cisterns, the island has no source of fresh water.

2.Deer mice, the only non-feathered residents along with banana slugs and slender salamanders, are believed to have originally arrived on Alcatraz by swimming across the bay.

3.While never living there, the Ohlone hunted for eggs on the island. The murre’s egg was particularly prized for its size (twice that of a chicken’s egg) and flame colored yolk. During the Gold Rush, white egg hunters revised the practice and nearly wiped out the island’s bird population.

4.The Spanish explorer Jose Canizares christened it La Isla de los Alcatraces 1775 for the large population of black cormorants (alcatraceo). Some believe he was referring to the island’s pelicans, which in archaic Arabic infused Spanish is alcaraz.

5.Despite rumors, no Spanish dungeons ever existed on Alcatraz. Ownership was granted to Julian Workman in1846 by the Mexican Governor Pio Pico under the stipulation that he build a lighthouse. Later that year, John C. Fremont bought the island for $5000. The US government sued for possession in 1848.

Alcatraz History

Alcatraz Buildings by Kiran Sangherra

Military Fortress
6.In 1854 work began on the new fort. A 23,000 gallon wooden watertank was built and soil was hauled from Angel Island to plant trees and shrubs on the barren island.

7.Standing 166 feet above the water with a lens manufactured in France and costing over $15,000 to build, Alcatraz’s lighthouse was completed in 1854 and was the West Coast’s first. Two years later, the island’s foghorn was built. In foggy weather, it’s 1,000 pound bell was struck with 30 pound mechanical hammer every ten seconds.

8.The garrison was completed in 1859 when 200 soldiers arrived to defend the port, then the 12th largest urban area in the country.

9.The small rocky outcrop on the west side of the island, known as “Little Alcatraz”, was renamed “Paul Pry Rock” when the Paul Pry, a 330-ton excursion steamer shipwrecked in 1862.

10.While Alcatraz fired no shots during the Civil War, the island was armed with three 50,000 pound canons and its guns could simultaneously discharge 6,949 pounds of ammunition.

11.Between 1861 and 1865, Alcatraz held a number of Confederate sympathizers, including 39 men who praised the assignation of President Lincoln.

12.Alcatraz began holding Indian prisoners in1873, including 19 Hopi who refused to send their children to English only schools.

13.In the wake of the 1906 earthquake, civilian prisoners were transferred to the island until the city’s jails could be rebuilt.

14.When the three-story cellhouse was completed in 1912 it was the world’s largest steel-reinforced concrete structure. It stands to this day.

Alcatraz San Francisco

Alcatraz Prison and Tower photo by Abbey Meyer

The Federal Penitentiary
15.Al “Scarface” Capone helped inaugurate the new Federal Penitentiary in 1934 as one of its first prisoners. He was nicknamed “the wop with the mop” while on cleaning duty.

16.On clear nights, inmates claimed they could hear the clang of cable cars and light chatter of evening cocktail parties in San Francisco.

17.During World War II, inmates made khakis, fatigues and cargo nets for the war effort.

18.Contrary to the popular film released in 1962, Robert Shroud, known as the “Birdman of Alcatraz”, never kept any birds but he did publish two books on them.

19.Despite 14 attempts by 36 prisoners over 29 years, no one ever successfully escaped Alcatraz.

20.A $5 million repair bill, along with a well publicized escape attempt in 1962 lead Attorney General Robert Kennedy to close Alcatraz in 1963.

Alcatraz Cell

Alcatraz Prison Cell by David Meredith

Indian Living
21.The American Indian Foundation submitted several proposals to the Federal government for legal control of Alcatraz under the 1868 Treaty of Fort Laramie before a group of 75 Indians took the island in 1969.

22.Officials claim that 1,665 pounds of copper wire was stolen from the prison during the occupation.

23. After fires that destroyed several historic buildings, US marshals forcibly removed the remaining15 Indians, ending the occupation in 1971.

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Alcatraz Prison Island by Nancy Smith Jones

The National Park
24. Alcatraz became part of the Golden Gate National Recreation Area in 1973. It now has over 1.4 million visitors a year.

25. In 2003, work began to restore the historic gardens around Alcatraz that include the once thought extinct Welsh Rose.

26 .As Alcatraz is once again free of human residents, many of its wild former inhabitants have returned. Today over 100 different bird species visit the island, including the endangered peregrine falcon and brown pelican.

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By: Elizabeth Linhart

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