Some of us like spending out vacations or time off at exotic locations or beaches to relax and unwind, but some others would prefer to learn a thing or two during our trips. Visit a museum or a temple or two, or maybe even a top security former prison. Alcatraz Island in San Francisco is perhaps one of the most famous prisons in the world due to the many stories and rumors surrounding it, which makes it a very interesting tourist spot.
Alcatraz Island became a federal prison from 1934 until 1963. Visitors can reach the island by a 15-minute ferry ride. The whole island is around 22 acres.
Landmarks on the island include the Main Cellhouse, Dining Hall, Library, Lighthouse, the ruins of the Warden’s House and Officers’ Club, Parade Grounds, Building 64, Water Tower, New Industries Building, Model Industries Building, and the Recreation Yard.
The Dark History of Alcatraz
The island was first documented by Juan Manuel Diaz, who named one of the three islands “La Isla de los Alcatraces”. Spaniards were responsible for building several small buildings on the island and other minor structures.
In 1846, Mexican governor Pio Pico bestowed the ownership of the island to Julian Workman so that he would build a lighthouse on it. Later on, the island was bought by John C. Frémont for $5,000. In 1850, President Millard Fillmore ordered that Alcatraz Island be set aside specifically as a United States military reservation. Fortification of the island began in 1853 until 1858.
Because of its isolated location by the San Francisco Bay, Alcatraz was used to house Civil War prisoners starting 1861, some of whom died due to the deplorable conditions. The military began to use the island as a detention center instead of a defense fort.
By 1907, Alcatraz was officially designated as the Western U.S. Military Prison. From 1909 to 1912, construction began on the concrete main cell block that was designed by Major Reuben Turner, which remains the island’s dominant feature.
During World War I, the prison held objectors to the war, including Philip Grosser, who wrote a pamphlet entitled “Alcatraz – Uncle Sam’s Devil’s Island: Experiences Of A Conscientious Objector In America During The First World War”.
Alcatraz penitentiary housed some of America’s most notorious criminals. Dubbed “The Rock”, Alcatraz welcomed hardened criminals such as the infamous Al “Scarface” Capone and the “Birdman” Robert Stroud.
According to the Bureau of Prisons, “The establishment of this institution not only provided a secure place for the detention of the more difficult type of criminal but has had a good effect upon discipline in our other penitentiaries also.”
The prison was closed down by President John F. Kennedy in 1963 due to the high cost of keeping it running.
Occupation and Protests on Alcatraz
However, that wasn’t the end for the infamous island. In 1964, it was occupied by Native American activists. Their aim was to protest federal policies related to American Indians. They remained on the island until 1971.
Escape Attempts from the Inescapable Alcatraz Prison
The “inescapable” reputation gained by the Alcatraz prison was due to the numerous failed escape attempts carried out by its inmates, most of whom were killed during these attempts or drowned in the turbulent waters of the Francisco Bay. The most notorious and intricate escape attempt was carried out by Frank Morris, John Anglin, and Clarence Anglin. They attempted to dig a tunnel through the wall using a metal spoon and an electric drill they handmade from a stolen vacuum cleaner motor. They also created a full raft made out of 50 raincoats.
While the FBI investigation into the case concluded with the assumption that the escaped inmates drowned since they were never found, recent findings (as recent as 2014) suggest that they may have been successful after all. Some of the escapees’ family members and friends also reported seeing them and receiving letters from them years after their escape.
Modern Day Tourist Attraction
Today the penitentiary has been transformed into a museum and a tourist attraction open for the public, with around 1.5 million visitors every year. Visitors arrive at the Francisco Bay Island by boat and are given a tour of the cell blocks and the entire island.
The Legends of Alcatraz
The purpose of Alcatraz was to isolate some of America’s worst criminals. To have all of them in one place was bound to create trouble and numerous incidents, some of which have remained unexplained to this day. Alcatraz has been cited as one of the most “haunted” places in America probably due to the many violent deaths that took place on the island, whether it was due to inmates attacking fellow inmates or prisoners taking their own lives, or being killed as they attempted to escape. Native Americans mentioned the evil spirits they encountered on the island before it even became a military prison. At the time, some Native Americans were even punished by banishment to the island to live among the evil spirits.
These spirits were described as having one arm and a wing instead of the other arm. They survived by eating anything that approached the island.
Mark Twain visited the island once and found it to be quite eerie. He described it as “being as cold as winter, even in the summer months.”
Reports were often made of the ghosts of prisoners and soldiers seen roaming the island by the guards. Even one of Alcatraz prison’s own wardens, Warden Johnston, was said to have heard the sound a woman’s wailing coming from the prison’s walls as he was leading a group on a tour of the facility.
The stories did not stop there. Since the 1940s many inhabitants of the island or visitors have reported ghostly appearances and unexplained deaths have also occurred where the deceased had previously yelled about seeing a deathly looking creature in the cell with him.
Today, many visitors to the “haunted” prison report hearing men’s voices, screams, whistles, clanging metal and terrifying screams, especially near the dungeon.
The nickname of “Hellcatraz” was definitely given to the eerie prison for a good reason. There are still numerous stories of hauntings and ghost sightings to this day. Some blame the tales of hauntings to the deteriorating mental state of the inmates, who were tortured and held in solitary confinement for years on end. However, that does not explain how some of the guards and even modern day visitors of the prison report paranormal activity.
Portrayals in Pop Culture
Alcatraz Island, like many other famous American landmarks, has been included in numerous forms of media though TV, cinema, radio…etc. Among the films that featured the well-known island of Alcatraz are the post-apocalyptic movie The Book of Eli (2010), X-Men: The Last Stand (2006), The Rock (1996), Murder in the First (1995), Escape from Alcatraz (1979), The Enforcer (1976), Point Blank (1967) , Birdman of Alcatraz (1962). TV producer J. J. Abrams also created a TV show in 2012 titled Alcatraz, dedicated to the island.
How to Visit Alcatraz Island
Regular tours are organized for visitors wishing to explore the island and the infamous prison. Tourists are taken by boat to the island where they can walk around and see for themselves the place that inspired so many legends, films, and stories around the world. The tour guides explain about Alcatraz Island’s famous inmates, escapes, and the 200 years of Alcatraz history.
The tours generally last 45 minutes to an hour and are taken during the daytime. While other tours are offered during the nighttime for a select number of visitors so be sure to book your tickets in advance.
The legends and tales surrounding the infamous Alcatraz Island prison make it a must-visit location for anyone passing through San Francisco on their travels.
Have you ever been there? If so, have you encountered any ghostly apparitions or heard any unexplained noises? Let us know!