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  • Writer's pictureCheryl Anne Stapp


Its name is an Angelized version of an archaic Spanish word for “pelican,” although those birds no longer roost there. Since the mid-19th century, the name has been—and still is—notoriously associated with maximum security prisons, even though the last one, Alcatraz Federal Penitentiary, closed in 1963. Lesser known, perhaps, is the fact that Alcatraz Island is the site of the first operational lighthouse on the West Coast of the United States.


The name has endured, although in the 18th century, it was first given to another island. When Spain ruled California. Spanish naval officer and explorer Juan Manuel de Ayala was the first European, in 1775, to chart San Francisco Bay, and Ayala’s charts clearly show that he conferred the name Isla de los Alcatraces on another island, to the east of the peninsula. However, as early as 1795, the Spanish who colonized the area had been calling this place Yerba Buena Island, as it is today. According to historians, in 1826 English Captain Frederick Beechey transferred an English version of Isla de los Alcatraces to the rocky island located just east of the Bay’s Golden Gate entrance, today’s Alcatraz.


In 1848, the United States acquired California in the treaty that ended the Mexican-American War. The next year, the Gold Rush brought thousands swarming into California, and the U.S. Army began studying the suitability of Alcatraz Island as a place to position coastal batteries as protection to the approaches of San Francisco Bay. In 1850, President Fillmore ordered that Alcatraz Island be reserved for military purposes. Accordingly, in 1853, the Army Corps of Engineers began fortifying the island, completing the initial version of Fort Alcatraz in 1858. A small garrison of about 200 soldiers arrived at the end of that year.


The first Alcatraz Island lighthouse was completed in 1853 at the island’s southern end. It was 50 feet tall, in a design typical of early Cape Cod style lighthouses, in which the light tower was an integral part of the keeper’s house, and centered atop the dwelling’s roof. Its Fresnel lens, shipped from Baltimore around Cape Horn, arrived in October 1853, and was lit for the first time on June 1, 1854.


During the Civil War, Alcatraz Island mounted 85 cannons (later increased to 105) around the perimeter as a defense against enemy invasion, and served as an arsenal for the storage or firearms. Fort Alcatraz held prisoners of war, and soldiers convicted of crimes. The cannons, never fired, were obsolete by war’s end, so the army switched its focus from coastal defense to long-term detention. In 1867, after a brick jailhouse was built, Fort Alcatraz was officially designated as a long-term detention facility for military prisoners.


The site continued as a prison facility, its inmate population rising, in 1898, to over 450 inmates in the aftermath of the Spanish-American War. After the 1906 San Francisco earthquake, civilian prisoners were sent to Alcatraz for safe confinement. In March, 1907, Alcatraz officially became the Western U.S. Military Prison. Meanwhile, the earthquake had damaged the island’s lighthouse, and a new, taller, 95-foot structure, which still stands, was built south of the first one, in 1909.


In 1933 the U.S. Department of Justice took over the island, and in 1934 it was designated as a federal prison to house the government’s worst felons . . . famous names such as gangsters Al Capone, George “Machine Gun” Kelly, and political terrorist Rafael Miranda. Isolated from the mainland amidst freezing, choppy waters, escape would be virtually impossible, or so it was believed. During the 29 years it operated, the penitentiary claimed that no prisoner had successfully escaped; yet a total of 36 prisoners made 14 escape attempts, two men trying twice. Twenty-three were caught alive, six were killed during their escape, two drowned; and five are listed as missing and presumed drowned, including three men whose headline-making escape electrified the public in June, 1962.   


Alcatraz Federal Penitentiary closed in 1963, and that same year the Coast Guard automated the island’s lighthouse, henceforth to be operated by remote control from mainland San Francisco. During 1969-1971 the island was occupied by Native American activists, but is now under the management of the Golden Gate National Recreation Area. Alcatraz Island, which opened to the public in 1973, is visited by upwards of 1.7 million people a year, who take a ferry from San Francisco’s Pier 33, located between the Historic Ferry Building and Fisherman’s Wharf.

Image by Brigette Werner

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