San Francisco is one of the most beautiful cities in the country, with more famous landmarks, scenic vistas, and other tourist attractions than you can shake a stick at. But during the years I lived there, the only times I seemed to experience any of these things for myself were when friends or family visited from out of town. That’s when we rode the cable cars, visited Fisherman’s Wharf, went see the Golden Gate Bridge, eat in Chinatown, checked out the museums, and so on. And when we did, we thought, “Wow, this is cool. What a great city we live in! We should do this more often.” And inevitably we didn’t…until the next visitor showed up.
One sight we rarely get excited about, though, was the one visitors invariably wanted to see: Alcatraz, the little island out in San Francisco Bay that was once a federal penitentiary. We’ve been there many times, and the novelty wore off after the first couple of visits. The first time I went there, I didn’t understand what the big deal was until I heard people talking about a movie called Escape from Alcatraz. It did seem interesting to visit the place where a movie had been set, even though I hadn’t seen the movie at that time. Once there, the tour guides regaled us with stories about notorious criminals who had served time at Alcatraz—again, I hadn’t heard of these people, but I took the guides’ word that they were infamous and that therefore it must be a great privilege to stand in their former cells. And frankly, it’s a good thing I did have those stories to help spark my interest, because when you get right down to it, Alcatraz is a thoroughly unpleasant place: cold, windy, dilapidated, and depressing. No wonder it loses its tourist appeal after a while.
Of course, this unpleasantness was not lost on the officials who decided to designate the island a prison in 1934. That, along with the site’s isolated, escape-resistant location made it the ideal home for some of the nation’s most dangerous and recalcitrant offenders until 1963.
As the old saying goes, “familiarity breeds contempt.” And yet, I realize that there must be plenty of people in the rest of the world who still haven’t seen the movies, heard the stories, and endured one too many visits to the island nicknamed “The Rock” (yes, there was a movie by that name too), and that such people might still find Alcatraz a bit more interesting than I do. Rather than rehashing the entire history of Alcatraz, about which you can read any number of perfectly good accounts, I thought I’d share just a few of the most interesting things I’ve learned about Alcatraz:
- The Name: The name Alcatraz is a shortened, anglicized form of the Spanish word for “pelicans.” A Spanish explorer named the island “Isla de los Alcatraces” (Island of the Pelicans) in 1775.
- The Fort: The military began building a large fort on Alcatraz in 1853 to help defend the San Francisco Bay against invaders who might be attracted by the recently discovered gold deposits nearby. It went into operation in 1859. Less than two years later, the U.S. Civil War broke out, and Alcatraz was considered an important Union defense post against the Confederate army. Although a military base remained in use on the island until 1933, Alcatraz was never actually attacked. (For much of that time, the island served as a military prison more than as a defensive outpost.) The year after the military left, the Bureau of Prisons began using the island as a maximum-security prison. One of its first inmates was Al Capone.
- The Birdman: Another legendary prisoner, Robert Stroud, was known as the Birdman of Alcatraz. Stroud had studied canaries while incarcerated at Leavenworth before being transferred to Alcatraz—and had even published a book on canary physiology and disease. But during his 17 years at Alcatraz, he was never permitted to study birds—making the nickname a misnomer. Nor was Stroud ever permitted to see the 1963 film Birdman of Alcatraz, for which actor Burt Lancaster won an Oscar.
- The Escapes: Several prisoners did escape from Alcatraz—sort of. Two who made it off the island were later recaptured, and five others are unaccounted for. Because the waters of the San Francisco Bay are so cold and the currents so strong near the island, most people assume these prisoners drowned. However, the swim can be done successfully. In fact, hundreds of people do it every year as part of the annual Escape from Alcatraz Triathlon. Most of these participants, however, are wearing wetsuits!
- The Indian Occupation: During the years between the prison’s closure in 1963 and the island’s reopening as a national park in 1972, Alcatraz was not entirely uninhabited. For 19 months from 1969 to 1971, up to 100 Native American protesters occupied the island in an attempt to force the government to declare it Indian property. They planned to establish a university, cultural center, and museum on the island. Although the occupation did not achieve those results, it did have the effect of raising public awareness and prompting the government to give greater recognition and autonomy to Native American tribes.
The sight of a deteriorating former prison facility in the Bay contrasts sharply with the nearby Golden Gate Bridge and scenic Angel Island, not to mention San Francisco’s famous skyline. Alcatraz is famous mainly for being famous, its harsh, decaying outline now perceived as beautiful by residents of the city where people once complained about having their Bay views marred by a prison. And that, I think, is the very most interesting thing about Alcatraz—its mysterious transformation from a place of pain to a place of pride.
Note: This is an updated version of an article that originally appeared on Interesting Thing of the Day on March 9, 2005.