Alcatraz Island


Alcatraz Island

Written by Scott Messmore

At one time or another, Alcatraz Island has been home to bank robbers and murderers, Confederate sailors, "renegade" Indians and military deserters.

Al Capone, Machine Gun Kelly, the Birdman of Alcatraz

Al Capone did time for tax evasion on Alcatraz. Machine Gun Kelly was locked up for kidnapping and bank robbery. The "Bird man of Alcatraz" was sent to the Rock for murder. With swift moving currents that and a bone-chilling, 53 degree water temperature swimming across the Bay to the city wasn't as easy as it looks. It's still not proven if any convict ever escaped the island prison. While most Americans think of an escape proof prison when Alcatraz is mentioned, in fact the island served as part of the defense for San Francisco as far back as the 1850s. As one National Parks web page puts it, Alcatraz Island was the place you were sent to "when you had blown it everywhere else".

Cannons, Confederates and Guarding the Gate

San Francisco is the largest natural bay on the west coast of the United States and that fact wasn't soon lost on the War Department. Fortifying Alcatraz Island was the first military defenses built for San Francisco. The first cannons, some of which were massive 15-inch wide guns that fired 450-pound cannon balls, were put into place as early as 1854. The Civil War was the event that put Alcatraz on the map. The War Department wanted the fort to protect the Bay from Confederate warships. Many of the island's early prisoners were in fact the crew of a Confederate privateer. Fort Alcatraz continued as the first line of defense against foreign invaders for the next 50 years but the increasing power of modern cannons eventually bypassed the fort's defensive works.

Fortifying Alcatraz Island

In 1907, Alcatraz Island was transformed into the Pacific branch of the U.S. Military Prison system. During the Great Depression, the military prison was transferred to the civilian sector to save defense money. In 1934, the Department of Justice created the federal prison on Alcatraz Island to house the worst of the worst in America.

Visiting Alcatraz Island can be tiring for some tourists since the trek to the top of the cell house is a whopping one-quarter of a mile. A shuttle operates each hour to carry visitors up the slope. Hungry visitors should eat before they leave the bay shore or bring food with them. No food is sold on the island although a place to eat is located by the dock. Alcatraz visitation starts at 9:30 a.m. with departures to the Island every half an hour. In the summer time the Island closes at 6:30 p.m. and at 4:30 p.m. the rest of the year. The only days Alcatraz Island is closed are Christmas Day and New Year's Day. The National Park Service strongly advises visitors to get advance ferry tickets from the Blue & Gold Fleet since tourist volume can be so heavy during the summer months. Tours can sometimes sell out a week in advance. Present fares to Alcatraz if ordered by telephone are: adults: $14.50; seniors older than 62: $12.75; children 12 to 18:$14.50 and $9.25 for children from five to 11 years old. Prices include ferry ride and audio tour.

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