Famous for its federal penitentiary, the rocky island's history before and after the penitentiary era is virtually unknown to most visitors. Few know that Alcatraz was the site of the first American lighthouse on the West Coast or that the island was a harbor defense fort during the Civil War.
It was only after the fort became obsolete the the U.S. Army turned the island into a military prison. A century later, and six years after the closing of the penitentiary, Alcatraz history was made once again when the island became the site of one of the most important American Indian protest movements — the Alcatraz Occupation.
Native Americans were the first to arrive to Alcatraz Island as early as 10,000 years ago.
The Miwok Tribe lived north of the bay in what is known today as Marin County, and the Ohlone lived between Point Sur and the San Francisco Bay. By 1769, when the first Spanish explorers arrived, more than 10,000 First Nations people inhabited the area around the San Francisco Bay.
When Spanish Lieutenant Juan Manuel de Ayala charted the harbor in 1775, he described Alcatraz as a rocky, barren island and named it Island of the Sea Birds (La Isla de Los Alcatraces).
By 1850, when the Gold Rush was raging and California became the thirtieth state, the U.S. army realized that San Francisco Bay was vulnerable to attack.
They fortified the entrance of the harbor with a fort and batteries on Alcatraz Island. It became an important defence position during the American Civil War.
As hundreds of ships headed for San Francisco during the Gold Rush, many were shipwrecked along the treacherous California coastline. In 1854, Alcatraz became the site of the first lighthouse on the Pacific west coast.
As early 1860, the U.S. army began sending convicted soldiers to the Alcatraz fort. As the fort became less important, it gradually became known more as a military prison. Most of the buildings were built by the military prisoners and it would remain a military prison until 1933.
1934 was a monumental date in Alcatraz history. That's when the military prison was transfered to the Bureau of Prisons and was converted into the first state-of-the-art, maximum-security, civilian penitentiary.
It became home to the most dangerous and psychotic criminals, gang leaders and problem offenders. Alcatraz welcomed America's most notorious criminals including mob boss Al Capone and "Machine Gun" Kelly. Conditions were harsh for the inhabitants with inhumane treatment, including long periods of solitary confinement in small rooms without light. The island's tough physical conditions meant that escape would be an impossiblity.
Although Alcatraz was a prison for only 29 years, its legacy continues as one of the most brutal jails in the history of the country.
Courts could not sentence anyone directly to Alcatraz, they had to be transfered there from other federal prisons. Alcatraz became the final stage for criminals who were too unorderly and hard to handle in ordinary prisons. On average, an Alcatraz sentence lasted about five years before the convicts either died or were reintroduced to lower-security prisons.
In May of 1946 a failed escape attempt by six prisoners led to the worst riot in the prison's history. It quickly became known as the Alcatraz Blastout.
Three prisoners and two guards were killed in the 3-day standoff ended finally by US Marines.
There was a media frenzy surrounding the sensational event and coverage lasted for days. Newspapers described the events in detail —
It was Joseph Paul Cretzer – "Dutch Joe," the bank robber and cop killer, who went wild with a .45. "1 was shot down in cold blood by Cretzer," said Guard Robert R Baker. Baker lay playing dead in the cell block for 10 hours.
But it was crafty little Bernard Coy, a Kentucky bank robber who sprung 24 hardcore convicts from their cells. Guards said Coy, probably cleaning windows, reached through the bars of the gun gallery and caught Guard Burch around the throat with a T-shaped squeegee.
He dragged Burch against the bars and slugged him. With a handful of keys, a rifle and revolver, Coy threw the release switch on the cells. Coy kept the rifle. Cretzer, the killer and escape artist, got the pistol…
The three prisoners who were not killed were tried and convicted for the murder of the guards.
But the notorious prison was destined for new things in its future. Read more about it in —
• Alcatraz + City Tour…
• Alcatraz + Bay Cruise…
• Alcatraz + A Day Trip…
• Unique Alcatraz Tours…
• History of Alcatraz…
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