Recently, I took a vacation to San Francisco, California. I had never been there before, and I have no shame: I wanted to cram as many touristy experiences possible into my week-long trip. Visit the Golden Gate Bridge? Of course! Head down to Fisherman’s Wharf? Sure! Book a ferry months in advance to visit Alcatraz? …Well, what’s so interesting about an old prison? We have one of those on the East Coast; how different could it be? I really didn’t care about hearing about Al Capone or the “Birdman” for the thousandth time (I know a few people who really like crime documentaries). What I didn’t realize was that Alcatraz has a much more complex history.
First of all, what does “Alcatraz” mean, anyway? The name comes from Lieutenant Juan Manuel de Ayala, who scoped out the island in 1775. He named it Isla de los Alcatraces (“Island of the Pelicans”), which, as you may have guessed, has become anglicized in the centuries since, to Alcatraz Island. The island became a military reservation in 1850, after California was made a state, and also in part due to the California gold rush, when there was a population explosion in San Francisco. A fort was built and completed on Alcatraz in 1859 (Alcatraz Island, 2017).
Although it was first created for harbor defense, in 1861, Alcatraz was made the official military prison of the Department of the Pacific, and continued to serve that purpose for the U. S. Army in various capacities until 1933. However, its time as a prison wasn’t over: it was a federal penitentiary, holding some of the most notorious criminals in American history, from 1934 until expenses (continually transporting fresh water and supplies to a remote island is not cheap!) caused the site to be abandoned in 1963 (National Park Service, 2015).
In 1964 and 1969, Native Americans attempted to claim the land as their own, but were ultimately unsuccessful. You can still see the signs painted on some of the areas from the latter occupation, which ended in 1971 (Alcatraz Island, 2017). One of the park rangers on duty the day I visited was giving a talk on this topic, but unfortunately, I didn’t make it in time.
In 1972, Alcatraz became part of the larger Golden Gate Recreation Area (Alcatraz Island, 2017), and is now partially essentially a bird sanctuary, in addition to having significant building preservation projects occurring all the time! I couldn’t believe how many birds there were all over (the smell, was, shall we say, pungent in certain sections), and park rangers warned us to steer clear of nesting mothers and babies. Some areas were even closed off because birds have completely taken them over to breed. Most of these birds are seagulls, and species I’d never heard of, like Brandt’s cormorants, which can be seen in force in the photo below:
There’s also a lot to learn about the civilians who lived on the island while the prison was functioning, as well as stories from the guards and some of the prisoners in Alcatraz (part of the tour package is a free audio tour), but if you’re going to book your own ferry several months in advance to go visit Alcatraz one day (and you really do have to schedule it that far ahead), I don’t want to spoil everything for you! In short, Alcatraz has a lot to offer for history buffs, nature buffs, and yes, crime buffs. If you’re planning on visiting the area, you should definitely go.
Alcatraz Island. (2017). In Encyclopædia Britannica. Retrieved from http://academic.eb.com/levels/collegiate/article/Alcatraz-Island/5495
National Park Service. (2015). The post on Alcatraces. Retrieved from https://www.nps.gov/alca/learn/historyculture/the-post-on-alcatraces.htm