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What is Alcatraz Island?

Mary McMahon
Updated May 17, 2024
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Alcatraz Island is a 19 acre (0.07 kilometer) National Park located in the middle of the San Francisco Bay. Like many of the islands in the bay, it has a long and colorful history, and it is also open to visitors year round. It is accessible via a private ferry service run from the city of San Francisco and is maintained by the National Parks Service. In addition to being a National Park, Alcatraz is also a registered National Historic Landmark.

When early explorers reached California, they established the first military base in the West on Alcatraz in 1850. The first lighthouse followed, in 1853, when increased ship traffic illustrated the clear need for navigational aids. The island was used for military prisoners such as conscientious objectors from the First World War until 1934, when a Federal prison was built and opened.

From 1934 to 1963, the island was home to one of the most notorious Federal prisons in American history. Known as “The Rock,” it hosted many famous criminals including Al Capone, and despite 34 known escape attempts, historical records indicate that no prisoner successfully escaped alive. In 1962, three prisoners engaged in a daring escape which was later documented in the film Escape From Alcatraz. While the prisoners did disappear from the island, they may not have survived the rough conditions in the bay.

In 1963, Alcatraz was converted to a National Park. Visitors today can walk around most of the island at well, looking at the old prison buildings and a museum. The island also offers refuge to seabirds, so some areas are restricted, and visitors are asked not to feed or interact with the birds. Ferry service runs throughout the day, allowing visitors to spend as much time there as they like, and sometimes special night time cruises are held as well.

Visitors should be aware that the weather on the bay is extremely changeable. Dressing in layers is advised, and a waterproof windbreaker or jacket is also an excellent idea. If food or drinks are desired, they should be packed. Pets are not allowed, although registered service animals are. People with disabilities can take advantage of an electric shuttle service which accommodates wheelchairs. Park service personnel can assist guests in locating sites of interest and are always happy to answer questions about the unique history of the island, which also includes a brief occupation by Indians of All Nations from 1969-1970.

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Mary McMahon
By Mary McMahon

Ever since she began contributing to the site several years ago, Mary has embraced the exciting challenge of being a America Explained researcher and writer. Mary has a liberal arts degree from Goddard College and spends her free time reading, cooking, and exploring the great outdoors.

Discussion Comments
By TreeMan — On Aug 25, 2012

@Emilski - That is the most famous rumor of Alcatraz, as far as whether or not Frank Morris and his accomplices made it across the bay in a daring escape.

Personally I feel that this is probably one of the greatest prison escape stories of all time, just based on what they did to escape this prison that should be unescapable.

The fact that they went through so much trouble, like creating dummies of themselves to fool guards, as well as welding tools in their cell, and making life rafts to escape, shows that they really had to take extraordinary measures in order to try and escape this island.

The best part about the story is they were never heard from again, which leads people to believe that they did not make it, but still the fact they were never found only turns this event into a legendary tale.

By Emilski — On Aug 25, 2012

I have always heard the rumor that Alcatraz Island is haunted by many of the inmates that lived there in the past.

I have watched several ghost story shows in my day and have seen numerous tapings done inside the walls of Alcatraz hoping to catch the elusive ghost to go along with the various stories.

I know I have heard a story that Al Capone still haunts the prison, even though he did not spend much of his life there, and I have also heard that Frank Morris, a man who escaped and was never found, also haunts the prison.

This makes people believe that he did not make the escape across the bay and that this should be enough to dispel the rumors that he managed to successfully escape the prison and start a new life.

By chicada — On Mar 13, 2011

@georgesplane- Spending the night on Alcatraz is possible. For a fee and some conservation work, groups of visitors can spend the night in the D-block and relive some of Alcatraz's famed history. There is a non-refundable deposit involved and you will need to sign up for community service with the park rangers. If you are interested, you should contact Park Rangers responsible for the Alcatraz state park.

By Georgesplane — On Mar 12, 2011

Can you spend the night in Alcatraz prison? I have seen shows about people spending the night in the prison looking for ghosts, and I was wondering if this is something that the public is allowed to do.

Mary McMahon
Mary McMahon

Ever since she began contributing to the site several years ago, Mary has embraced the exciting challenge of being a...

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