Right in the middle of San Francisco Bay sits an abandoned prison, one that was once considered one of the most notorious prisons in the United States…
San Francisco is a complex city that has a lot to offer all kinds of travelers from the adventurer to the city-lover and everything in between. While some people may prefer to spend time outside to fully appreciate the beauty of San Franciscoothers may get excited about the many activities this busy and vibrant city has to offer, including visiting Fisherman’s Wharf and taking pictures of the iconic Lombard Street.
Whatever your San Francisco vacation looks like, make your way over to Alcatraz Island is a must. Whether you’re spending time in the city by the bay before your Intrepid tour begins or have organized a few days in San Francisco after your tour ends, Alcatraz is one of those historical landmarks that simply cannot be overlooked, and not just because is the major focal point when you look out over San Francisco Bay.
Way back in 1868, it was decided that the island of Alcatraz should be the site of the United States’ new military prison. Many years later, and after much of the prison had been rebuilt, Alcatraz was converted into a federal penitentiary in 1934 and remained that way until its closure in 1963, seeing hundreds of criminals pass through its doors, including some of America’s most notorious.
Despite its violent history and somewhat disturbing atmosphere, a visit to this prison provides an intriguing insight into the American prison system and allows you to step back in time to imagine what life would have been like for the criminals who were unfortunate enough to be imprisoned there. . To make sure you have a better understanding of the prison and its history before you take a look inside Alcatraz, we’ve gathered all the questions you’ve been dying to have answered.
1. What does Alcatraz mean?
Alcatraz Island got its name from Spanish Lieutenant Juan Manuel de Ayala when he sailed into San Francisco Bay in 1775 and claimed the rocky, deserted island as “La Isla de los Alcatraces”, roughly translated as “Island of the Pelicans “. Over the centuries the name has been anglicized and is now just “Alcatraz”.
2. How far is Alcatraz from San Francisco?
Alcatraz is only 2.4 km from land, with the ferry ride taking only about 15 minutes to reach the prison.
3. Why did Alcatraz close?
Alcatraz locked its doors (all puns intended) in 1963 mainly because of how expensive running the prison actually was. Resources such as water and food, among other things, had to be brought specially to the island, which made it unsustainable to keep it open. Repairs and restoration of up to $5 million were also needed to maintain the prison’s main establishment, and it was decided that these costs were too high to justify execution.
4. Who was inside Alcatraz?
Alcatraz housed more than 1,500 in its time as a federal prison, and became famous for incarcerating some of America’s worst criminals. Gangsters such as Al “Scarface” Capone and Alvin “Creepy Karpis” Karpowicz spent time there with the latter imprisoned for 25 years; the longest of any prisoner held at Alcatraz. Other notorious criminals included kidnapper George “Machine Gun” Kelly, murderer Robert Stroud (“the Birdman of Alcatraz”) and mobster Mickey Cohen.
5. What happened during the Battle of Alcatraz?
Over a two-day period in 1946, 6 prisoners attempted to escape from inside Alcatraz in what would later become the most violent and bloodiest incident in the history of the federal penitentiary. Dubbed the ‘Battle of Alcatraz’, the 6 prisoners managed to overpower their guards, steal their weapons and the keys to their cell block, but escape was not easy with a fight breaking out between the prisoners and their guards. The US Marines were called in to help restore order, but not before two guards and three prisoners were killed in the skirmish, with a further 12 guards also injured during the fight.
6. How many people escaped from Alcatraz?
Alcatraz prided itself on being almost inescapable thanks to the harsh and freezing waters of the Pacific Ocean that surrounded it, the strategic placement of watchtowers on the prison grounds, and fully fortified steel bars on all the cells. Escaping Alcatraz was supposed to be impossible, but that didn’t stop people from trying. During Alcatraz’s 29-year history, 36 men attempted 14 different escapes, and most of them were recaptured or killed while trying to escape. The most famous escape attempt was made by Frank Morris and brothers John and Clarence Anglin, who carefully planned the attempt over many months. They managed to escape the prison, but are strongly suspected of having drowned on the way to Angel Island, despite some circumstantial evidence that they made it ashore alive. However, their bodies were never found and their whereabouts remain unknown.
7. Are there sharks around Alcatraz Island?
Another reason why Alcatraz was said to be impossible to escape from was that there were reports of great white sharks swimming in San Francisco Bay and around the island itself. Stories of shark sightings may have been greatly exaggerated to prevent any escape attempts by captives, but there have been Great White Shark sightings around the bay over the years. However, a prisoner would have been more likely to drown from the freezing temperature of the water and the harsh conditions than from a shark attack.
8. Is Alcatraz Haunted?
There have been many reports of ghost sightings and paranormal activity on Alcatraz Island over the years, and many have believed that some of the souls of the inmates still haunt the prison. Since the federal penitentiary was a high maximum security prison with little or no amenities for the inmates, it is believed that the often violent and harsh living conditions may have contributed to the nature and frequency of the ghostly apparitions. Some of the more haunted places in the prison are said to be the sight of the ‘Battle of Alcatraz’ and Cell Block D.