Alcatraz Island in San Francisco
Alcatraz Island is an island located in the San Francisco Bay, 1.5 mi offshore from San Francisco, California, United States. Often referred to as "The Rock" or simply "Traz", the small island was developed with facilities for a lighthouse, a military fortification, a military prison, and a Federal Bureau of Prisons federal prison until 1963. Beginning in November 1969, the island was occupied for more than 19 months by a group of American Indians from San Francisco, who were part of a wave of Indian activism across the nation, with public protests through the 1970s. Later, in 1972, Alcatraz became a national recreation area and received designation as a National Historic Landmark in 1986.
Today, the island's facilities are operated by the National Park Service as part of the Golden Gate National Recreation Area; it is open to tours. Visitors can reach the island by ferry ride from Pier 33, near Fisherman's Wharf in San Francisco. In 2008 the nation's first hybrid propulsion ferry started serving the island. Alcatraz has been featured in many movies, TV shows, cartoons, books, comics, and games.
The first Spaniard to document the island was Juan Manuel de Ayala in 1775, who charted San Francisco Bay and named the island "La Isla de los Alcatraces," which translates as "The Island of the Pelicans," from the archaic Spanish alcatraz, "pelican", a word which was borrowed originally from Arabic: القطرس al-qaṭrās, meaning sea eagle. In August, 1827 French Captain Auguste Bernard Duhaut-Cilly wrote "...running past Alcatraces (Pelicans) Island...covered with a countless number of these birds. A gun fired over the feathered legions caused them to fly up in a great cloud and with a noise like a hurricane." The California Brown Pelican (Pelecanus occidentalis californicus) is not known to nest on the island today. In modern Spanish, the word alcatraz stands for gannet.
The United States Census Bureau defines the island as Block 1067, Block Group 1, Census Tract 179.02 of San Francisco County, California. There was no permanent population on the island as of the 2000 census.
It is home to the now-abandoned prison, the site of the oldest operating lighthouse on the west coast of the United States, early military fortifications, and natural features such as rock pools, a seabird colony (mostly Western Gulls, cormorants, and egrets), and unique views of the coastline.
The earliest recorded owner of the island of Alcatraz is one Julian Workman, to whom it was given by Mexican governor Pio Pico in June 1846 with the understanding that the former would build a lighthouse on it. Julian Workman is the baptismal name of William Workman, co-owner of Rancho La Puente and personal friend of Pio Pico. Later in 1846, acting in his capacity as Military Governor of California, John C. Fremont, champion of Manifest Destiny and leader of the Bear Flag Republic, bought the island for $5000 in the name of the United States government from Francis Temple. In 1850, President Millard Fillmore ordered that Alcatraz Island be set aside specifically for military purposes based upon the U.S. acquisition of California from Mexico following the Mexican-American War. Fremont had expected a large compensation for his initiative in purchasing and securing Alcatraz Island for the U.S. government, but the U.S. government later invalidated the sale and paid Fremont nothing. Fremont and his heirs sued for compensation during protracted but unsuccessful legal battles that extended into the 1890s. In 1909 construction began on the huge concrete main cell block, designed by Major Reuben Turner, which remains the island's dominant feature. It was completed in 1912. To accommodate the new cell block, the Citadel, a three-story barracks, was demolished down to the first floor, which was actually below ground level. The building had been constructed in an excavated pit (creating a dry "moat") to enhance its defensive potential. The first floor was then incorporated as a basement to the new cell block, giving rise to the popular legend of "dungeons" below the main cell block. The Fortress was deactivated as a military prison in October 1933, and transferred to the Bureau of Prisons. Mickey Cohen, Arthur R. "Doc" Barker and Alvin "Creepy" Karpis (who served more time at Alcatraz than any other inmate). It also provided housing for the Bureau of Prison staff and their families.
The majority of the prisoners at Alcatraz had been sent there after causing problems at other prisons.
During its 29 years of operation, the penitentiary claimed no prisoner had successfully escaped. A total of 36 prisoners made 14 escape attempts, two men trying twice; 23 were caught, six were shot and killed during their escape, and three escaped and were never found. The most violent occurred on May 2, 1946 when a failed escape attempt by six prisoners led to the Battle of Alcatraz.
On June 11, 1962, Frank Morris, John Anglin and Clarence Anglin carried out one of the most intricate escapes ever devised. Behind the prisoners' cells in Cell Block B (where the escapees were interned) was an unguarded 3 ft wide utility corridor. The prisoners chiseled away the moisture-damaged concrete from around an air vent leading to this corridor, using tools such as a metal spoon soldered with silver from a dime and an electric drill improvised from a stolen vacuum cleaner motor. The noise was disguised by accordions played during music hour, and the progress was concealed by false walls which, in the dark recesses of the cells, fooled the guards.
The escape route led up through a fan vent; the prisoners removed the fan and motor, replacing them with a steel grille and leaving a shaft large enough for a prisoner to climb through. Stealing a carborundum abrasive cord from the prison workshop, the prisoners removed the rivets from the grille and substituted dummy rivets made of soap. The escapees also constructed an inflatable raft from several stolen raincoats for the trip to the mainland. Leaving papier-mâché dummies in their cells affixed with stolen human hair from the barbershop, they escaped. The prisoners are estimated to have entered San Francisco Bay at 10 p.m.
The official investigation by the FBI was aided by another prisoner, Allen West, who was part of the escapees' group but was left behind (West's false wall kept slipping so he held it into place with cement, which set; when the Anglin brothers (John and Clarence) accelerated the schedule, West desperately chipped away at the wall, but by the time he got out, his companions were gone). Articles belonging to the prisoners (including plywood paddles and parts of the raincoat raft) were discovered on nearby Angel Island. The official report on the escape says the prisoners drowned while trying to reach the mainland in the cold waters of the bay. But there were sightings of the men over the years, and friends and family of Morris and the Anglins claimed to have been receiving postcards written in the men's handwriting.
The MythBusters investigated the myth, concluding it is “plausible” that the three survived their intricate escape attempt. The attempt was the subject of the 1979 film Escape from Alcatraz with screenplay by Richard Tuggle, directed by Don Siegel, and starring Clint Eastwood as Frank Morris, Jack Thibeau as Clarence Anglin, and Fred Ward as John Anglin. The film implied that the three made it.
Frank Morris and the 1962 escape were examined in a 2011 National Geographic Channel program entitled "Vanished from Alcatraz". According to the newly uncovered official records discussed on the program, a raft was discovered on Angel Island with footprints leading away. Furthermore, there was also a report of a stolen car in the area that night, which could have been used by Morris and the other escapees. However, while confirming these facts, which were hidden from the officials for quite some time, the findings of further investigations remain inconclusive. As a result, the U.S. Marshall’s office is still investigating this case, which will remain open on all three escapees until their 100th birthday.
Robert Stroud, who was better known to the public as the "Birdman of Alcatraz", was transferred to Alcatraz in 1942. He spent the next seventeen years on "the Rock"—six years in segregation in D Block, and eleven years in the prison hospital. In 1959 he was transferred to the Medical Center for Federal Prisoners in Springfield, Missouri, (MCFP Springfield). Although called the Birdman of Alcatraz, Stroud was not allowed to keep birds while incarcerated there.
When Al Capone arrived on Alcatraz in 1934, prison officials made it clear that he would not be receiving any preferential treatment. While serving his time in Alcatraz, Capone, a master manipulator, had continued running his rackets from behind bars by buying off guards. "Big Al" generated incredible media attention while on Alcatraz though he served just four and a half years of his sentence there before developing symptoms of tertiary syphilis and being transferred to the Federal Correctional Institution at Terminal Island in Los Angeles.
George "Machine Gun" Kelly arrived on September 4, 1934. At Alcatraz, Kelly was constantly boasting about several robberies and murders that he had never committed. Although his boasts were said to be tiresome to other prisoners, Warden Johnson considered him a model inmate. Kelly was returned to Leavenworth in 1951.
Alvin "Creepy Karpis" Karpowicz arrived in 1936. He constantly fought with other inmates. He spent the longest time on Alcatraz island, serving nearly 26 years. He was convicted for worse crimes than any other inmate. He never attempted an escape.
James “Whitey” Bulger spent three years on Alcatraz (1959–1962) while serving a sentence for bank robbery. While there, he became close to Clarence Carnes, also known as the Choctaw Kid.
Ellsworth Raymond "Bumpy" Johnson, the Godfather of Harlem, was an African-American gangster, numbers operator, racketeer, and bootlegger in New York City's Harlem neighborhood in the early 20th century. He was sent to Alcatraz in 1954 and was imprisoned until 1963. He was believed to have been involved in the 1962 escape attempt of Frank Morris, John and Clarence Anglin.
Mickey Cohen worked for the Mafia’s gambling rackets; he was convicted of tax evasion and sentenced to 15 years in Alcatraz Island. Two years into his sentence, an inmate clobbered Cohen with a lead pipe, partially paralyzing the mobster. After his release in 1972, Cohen led a quiet life with old friends.
Arthur R. "Doc" Barker the son of Ma Barker and a member of the Barker-Karpis gang along with Alvin Karpis. In 1935, Barker was sent to Alcatraz Island on conspiracy to kidnap charges. On the night of January 13, 1939, Barker with Henri Young and Rufus McCain attempted escape from Alcatraz. Barker was shot and killed by the guards.
Rafael Cancel Miranda, a member of the Puerto Rican Nationalist Party, who attacked the United States Capitol building in 1954. On March 1, 1954, Cancel Miranda together with fellow Nationalists Lolita Lebron, Andres Cordero, and Irving Rodriguez entered the United States Capitol building armed with automatic pistols and fired 30 shots, hitting five congressmen, who all survived their wounds.
During the nineteen months and nine days of occupation by the American Indians, several buildings at Alcatraz were damaged or destroyed by fire, including the recreation hall, the Coast Guard quarters and the Warden's home. The origins of the fires are unknown. The U.S. government demolished a number of other buildings (mostly apartments) after the occupation had ended. Graffiti from the period of Native American occupation are still visible at many locations on the island.
During the occupation, President Richard Nixon rescinded the Indian termination policy, designed by earlier administrations to end federal recognition of tribes and their special relationship with the US government. He established a new policy of self-determination, in part as a result of the publicity and awareness created by the occupation. The occupation ended on June 11, 1971.
The Alcatraz occupation inspired numerous other political actions by American Indian activists: the seizure of the Mayflower II in Boston on Thanksgiving Day 1970; the Indian occupation of Mount Rushmore; the Trail of Broken Treaties in 1972, ending in Indian occupation of the Department of Interior headquarters in Washington, DC; the Wounded Knee Incident at Pine Ridge Indian Reservation in 1973, in which Oglala Lakota held territory against federal forces for 71 days; and the Longest Walk in 1985.
The occupation of Alcatraz gave many Native Americans a sense of shared pan-Indian identity, as well as renewed purpose about activism and reclaiming their cultures. It is defined as a key movement in their struggle for enforcement of treaty rights, recognition of tribal sovereignty and desire for self-government, and a renewal of American Indian identity. Following a succession of demands at Alcatraz, the U.S. government returned excess, unused land to the Taos, Yakama, Navajo and Washoe tribes.
Landmarking and development
The entire Alcatraz Island was listed on the National Register of Historic Places in 1976, and was further declared a National Historic Landmark in 1986. In 1993, the National Park Service published a plan entitled Alcatraz Development Concept and Environmental Assessment. This plan, approved in 1980, doubled the amount of Alcatraz accessible to the public to enable visitors to enjoy its scenery and bird, marine, and animal life, such as the California slender salamander.
Today American Indian groups, such as the International Indian Treaty Council, hold ceremonies on the island, most notably, their "Sunrise Gatherings" every Columbus and Thanksgiving days.
Proposed peace center
The Global Peace Foundation proposed to raze the prison and build a peace center in its place. During the previous year, supporters collected 10,350 signatures that placed it on the presidential primary ballots in San Francisco for February 5, 2008. The proposed plan was estimated at $1 billion. For the plan to pass, Congress would have had to have taken Alcatraz out of the National Park Service. Critics of the plan said that Alcatraz is too rich in history to be destroyed. On February 6, 2008, the Alcatraz Island Global Peace Center Proposition C failed to pass, with 72% of voters rejecting the proposition.
Fauna and flora
- Cisterns. A bluff that, because of its moist crevices, is believed to be an important site for California slender salamanders.
- Cliff tops at the island's north end. Containing a onetime manufacturing building and a plaza, the area is listed as important to nesting and roosting birds.
- The powerhouse area. A steep embankment where native grassland and creeping wild rye support a habitat for deer mice.
- Tide pools. A series of them, created by long-ago quarrying activities, contains still-unidentified invertebrate species and marine algae. They form one of the few tide-pool complexes in the Bay, according to the report.
- Western cliffs and cliff tops. Rising to heights of nearly 100 ft, they provide nesting and roosting sites for sea birds including pigeon guillemots, cormorants, Heermann's Gulls and Western Gulls. Harbor seals can occasionally be seen on a small beach at the base.
- The parade grounds. Carved from the hillside during the late 19th century and covered with rubble since the government demolished guard housing in 1971, the area has become a habitat and breeding ground for black-crowned night herons, western gulls, slender salamanders and deer mice.
- The Agave Path, a trail named for its dense growth of agave. Located atop a shoreline bulkhead on the south side, it provides a nesting habitat for night herons.
- Alcatraz prison and its surroundings.
Gardens planted by families of the original Army post, and later by families of the prison guards, fell into neglect after the prison closure in 1963. After 40 years, they are being restored by a paid staff member and many volunteers, thanks to funding by the Garden Conservancy and the Golden Gate National Parks Conservancy. The untended gardens had become severely overgrown and had developed into a nesting habitat and sanctuary for numerous birds. Now, areas of bird habitat are being preserved and protected, while many of the gardens are being restored to their original state.
In clearing out the overgrowth, workers found that many of the original plants were growing where they had been planted – some more than 100 years ago. Numerous heirloom rose hybrids, including a Welsh rose that had been believed to be extinct, have been discovered and propagated. Many species of roses, succulents, and geraniums are growing among apple and fig trees, banks of sweet peas, manicured gardens of cutting flowers, and wildly overgrown sections of native grasses with blackberry and honeysuckle.
In popular culture
Alcatraz Island has appeared many times in popular culture, most notably "The Rock" starring Sean Connery and Nicolas Cage. Its appeal as a film setting derives from its isolation and its history as a prison from which, officially, no prisoner ever successfully escaped.
- Islands of San Francisco Bay
- Robben Island
- Hornblower Cruises
- National Park Service
- Alcatraz Official Website
- Alcatraz Island Virtual Museum Exhibit, National Park Service, Park Museum Management Program
- "American Devils Island Holds Toughest Prisoners" Popular Science, February 1935
- A Brief History of Alcatraz – Federal Bureau of Prisons
- California State Military Museum – Post at Alcatraz Island
- Escape From Alcatraz – slideshow by Life magazine
- Alphabetical Index of Former Inmates of U.S. Penitentiary, Alcatraz, 1934–63 from Records of the National Archives.
- Report on the 1962 escape incident (from the FBI's FOIA electronic reading room)
- Map of Alcatraz with marker pictures.
- Alcatraz.mobi mobile website
- Alcatraz Map and Tour for iPhone and iPad.