Western Trips

Western Trips

Saturday, January 7, 2012

Alcatraz Island

Where is Alcatraz? How did it get the name Alcatraz? Was it more than just a prison during the early and mid 1900's?

Touring Alcatraz

Alcatraz Island
One way to learn everything about this rocky island situated in the middle of San Francisco Bay is to be one of the thousands who each year take one of the highly popular Alcatraz Island cruises out of San Francisco. Some of these cruises stop on the island and tourists can walk around the small island and tour inside several of the historic buildings. Other cruises make several passes by the island to and from a ride under the nearby Goldengate Bridge.

San Francisco Bay was first explored by the Spaniards. The island was first charted by Juan Manuel de Avala in the year 1775. Avila named the island "La Isla de los Alcatraces," which translates as "The Island of the Pelicans".While most modern day tourists think of Alcatraz in the context of Al Capone and the Birdman of Alcatraz, the island really has a very historic past dating back to the early to mid 1800's and not all of it has to do with prisons.

Alta California and San Francisco

San Francisco was part of Alta California, the Spanish colony on the west coast. Alta California extended northward from San Diego to a bit north of San Francisco Bay to the area of Sonoma. As far as Alcatraz is concerned, the first record of any ownership of the island dates to the Mexican rule of Alta California in 1846. This of course was just a few years before California was taken over by the United States after the Mexican American War.

 In 1846, the provincial governor, Pio Pico, gave the island to a man named Julian Workman. Workman received the land with the understanding that he would construct a lighthouse on it. This made a lot of sense considering where the island is situated and with the fog often present  in the area. Later in that same year as leader of the Bear Flag Republic, John C. Fremont bought the island in the name of the United States government for a sum of $5,000.

The Uses of Alcatraz Island

Alcatraz cell block buildings
The first use Alcatraz after the U.S. controlled the region was that of a military battery. As you can easily see when touring the island, Alcatraz is strategically located for this purpose. It stands directly in the path of any vessel entering San Francisco Bay.

Soon after the start of the California Gold Rush the U.S. military began to build a fortress on Alcatraz, named appropriately, Fortress Alcatraz. The construction went on during the years 1853-57. With the Civil War beginning a few years afterward, Alcatraz was thought to be quite suitable for another purpose. In 1861 the island was used as a prison for Civil War captives.

After the Civil War

Alcatraz was an island that seemed to create new ideas in people who gazed upon her. When the Civil War ended and it's use as a military prison faded and warfare technology made it's use as a fortress mostly obsolete, another idea emerged. In fact, remnants of this next project can still be seen today by visitors to the island. The plan was to essentially level the whole island and build shell proof underground magazines and tunnels. Luckily for those enjoying a San Francisco vacation today in the 21st century this didn't come to fruition. Some work on this did indeed take place during the 1870's but it was abandoned. The flatness you'll see today on the southern portion of Alcatraz is a reminder of that 1800's project.

Alcatraz Becomes a Maximum Security Federal Prison

Old warning sign
It wasn't until the year of 1934 that Alcatraz, often referred to as The Rock, became a maximum security prison of the federal government.

During the years of prohibition and the Great Depression the American public was witness to a lot of spectacular crime. Kidnappings were frequent as were bank robberies, prison breaks and other gang related crime and the government was looking for a way to create a prison for the "worst of the worst" so to speak. In a way, a prison such as the one built on Alcatraz Island was used to send a message to the criminal element.

A prison on Alcatraz was considered to be escape proof in as much as the cold water and very heavy current surrounding the island made an escape literally impossible. Even if an inmate was successful in escaping the island, his chance of survival in the cold current was nil.

Native American Occupation of the Island

The Native American occupation of Alcatraz is an interesting story that can be connected to the 1868 Treaty of Laramie between the U.S. government and the Sioux.

During the 1850's, 60's and 70's, several treaties were put in place between the U.S. government and various Indian tribes. The Laramie treaty called for the return of all abandoned and out of use land to the Native Americans.

 In the case of Alcatraz, the federal penitentiary was closed in 1963 and this triggered a movement by some Native Americans to take over the island. There was a small group that occupied the island in 1964 for about four days. They essentially laid claim to the island, informed the GSA of their claim, and then left. A much larger effort took place on November 20, 1969 when about 79 Native American Indians, including students and married couples boated to Alcatraz Island. A few of them did land and occupy the island but most ended up being turned away by the Coast Guard.

The Interior Department offered to turn the island into a National Park. The occupiers/protesters wanted a Native American Center created. Negotiations dragged on between the protesters and the GSA but everything came to a head in May 1970 when electricity was cut off to Alcatraz and federal officers forcibly ejected the last of the occupiers. Many people feel that the occupation of Alcatraz in the late 60's established a precedent for Native American activism. At the same time there isn't evidence that the island was taken from the Indians in the first place. United States control of the island only occurred after Alcatraz was under the rule of Spain and Mexico.

A Visit to Alcatraz and Other Nearby San Francisco Bay Attractions

San Francisco skyline
Today, Alcatraz is arguably one of San Francisco's most popular tourist site. A cruise to Alcatraz as part of a San Francisco vacation is really a must thing to do.

While there are certainly many things to do in San Francisco, seeing Alcatraz close up is both a scenic and historic experience. It's also a terrific photo taking opportunity with great vistas of the San Francisco skyline and Marin county. You may also want to explore the two historic maritime sites shown below while at San Francisco's Fishermans Wharf.

See our articles on the  USS Pampanito Submarine ...the Last Paddlewheel Steam Tugboat...Steam ferry Eureka.

While there are several tours and cruises to the island daily, they do get filled up early especially during the summer tourist season. It's almost a necessity to call a few days in advance to secure a ticket.

Another favorite is the night tour of Alcatraz. These also fill up early so a reservation in advance is probably a good thing to do. Limited to only about two hundred tourists per night, the Alcatraz Night Tour is quite unique. This particular evening event includes special programs and activities not offered during the day. Hear interesting stories about Alcatraz's history and notable residents and enjoy spectacular views of the Golden Gate Bridge and the City at sunset.  Roundtrip transportation, a live narration and a guided tour is included with the Night Tour.

The ferry companies can answer all questions as to what exactly is included with each tour. I've had the opportunity to take these cruises and they are a lot of fun.

(Article and photos copyright Western Trips)

1 comment:

  1. Great post about Historic Alcatraz Island, The Island of the Pelicans.While most modern day tourists think of Alcatraz in the context of Al Capone and the Birdman of Alcatraz, the island really has a very historic past dating back to the early to mid 1800's and not all of it has to do with prisons.
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