Few places conjure up as many negative and frightening thoughts as Alcatraz Island, yet every year, millions of tourists make the trek to visit what was once one of Americas toughest federal prisons. Alcatraz is one of the most popular tourist attractions in San Francisco, and finds its air of mystery created from books and movies. People from all over the world find themselves drawn to the island, to view firsthand the site where America housed some of its most famous criminals. You can ride the Alcatraz ferry across San Francisco Bay, finding thousands of visitors wandering the grounds in complete fascination.
In 1775, the Spanish explorer Juan Manuel de Ayala charted the area known as the San Francisco Bay, naming it La Isla de los Alcatraes, which in translation means, "Island of the Pelicans'', henceforth it became known by the American name, Alcatraz. By 1847, the US Army took notice of the tiny island and what it could provide in terms of military fortification. In 1853, the Army Corps of Engineers began constructing a military fort and introduced along with it, the first operational lighthouse on the Pacific Coast.
Gold was discovered along the California coastline in 1848, with it came boatloads of miners from all corners of the globe. The US Government, increased security measures, in order to protect its gold and resources, thus Alcatraz was born. It stood as a testament to American military strength. Alcatraz featured long range cannons, four 36,000 pound Rodman guns, which could sink massive ships up to three miles away. However, as the times progressed the use of Alcatraz as a military fortress began to wane.
By 1861, Alcatraz had become a military prison, housing prisoners of the Civil War. In 1889, during the Spanish-American war, the inmate population expanded exponentially from 26 prisoners, to over 450. The San Francisco earthquake in 1906, brought about the need to transfer the civilian prisoners to the island for confinement. In 1912, there was an additional large housing unit constructed and by the late 1920's, a three story facility was added.
Due to high operational costs, the military decided to close the prison in 1934, and ownership went to the US Department Of Justice. During the late 20's and 30's, America experience a surge in the crime rates as the Great Depression ensued. Alcatraz was viewed as a viable solution to this ever-growing problem. In April of 1934, the face of Alcatraz changed as updates and additional security measures were enacted, such as the Special Gun Galleries.
Alcatraz as a prison, was home to some of the most infamous criminals in American history. During its heyday some of its inmates were Al Capone, George "Machine Gun'' Kelley, Henry Young, and perhaps the most well known, Robert Stroud, known as the "Birdman of Alcatraz''. There were 14 total escape attempts recorded in Alcatraz history, most inmates were either caught, died from injuries or were missing and presumed dead. In October 1973, Alcatraz was officially opened to the public and drew more than 50,000 visitors. In addition to serving as a popular tourist attraction, American Indians return every year in November to commemorate their 1969 occupation on the island, it is home to the Alcatraz lighthouse which is the oldest lighthouse in the west, and the islands two foghorns still ring throughout the Golden Gate area, which continues to add an air of mystique to the island.