One of America’s most infamous prisons became a tourist attraction in 1963 when Alcatraz opened to the public for the first time.
The island was founded in 1775 by Spanish explorer Juan Manuel de Ayala and was used to house criminals who were either awaiting execution or had escaped imprisonment. Today, Alcatraz is open to visitors under limited hours, but there are still plenty of things that you’ll learn about the prison while visiting.
- It took two years for construction on Alcatraz to be completed. This was because the builders had to wait for low tides to transport supplies across the bay.
- Alcatraz was originally called “La Isla de Los Alcatraces,” which translates to “The Island of Seagulls.” This is because of an abundance of seagulls that would settle on the island. However, the Spanish settlers soon translated La Isla de Los Alcatraces into “La Isla de Los Alcatrazes,” which means “The Island of The Cormorants.”
- When Alcatraz first opened, it housed prisoners considered dangerous or inappropriate for other prisons due to crimes they had committed or affiliations. The first 15 prisoners were transported from the San Francisco County Jail on March 21, 1934.
- The prisoners were given cigarettes and told that the only way to the roof of their cells was through the chimney. They were also given reckless amounts of alcohol. When they awoke, Alcatraz guards found them too drunk to realize that they were in prison.
- One of America’s most notorious criminals, Al Capone, was transferred to Alcatraz in 1934 for his role in the St. Valentine’s Massacre. He remained imprisoned at Alcatraz until 1936. Capone spent his time reading newspapers and studying magazines about business and current events. He eventually became a model prisoner and an active participant in his church.
- Alcatraz held some of the most notorious criminals, including George “Machine Gun” Kelly, Robert Franklin Stroud (the Birdman of Alcatraz), and Bumpy Johnson.
- There was a total of 14 reported deaths at Alcatraz throughout its time of operation. While this number may seem small, one must keep in mind that there were only 32 guards for 196 prisoners at any given time.
- The remains of prison guard Clinton C. Rizzuto are buried on the site of Alcatraz’s original lighthouse. Rizzuto was presumed drowned after going missing during a foggy night in 1962.
- On October 2, 1983, Native American activists called “Indians of All Tribes” took over Alcatraz and occupied the island for 19 months before the government forced them to leave.
- The most famous escape attempt at Alcatraz occurred on June 11, 1962. Frank Morris and brothers John and Clarence Anglin used spoons to dig through their cell walls and into adjacent cells, eventually using the pipes to create an escape raft. The three were never found. It is assumed that they drowned in the bay during this attempt.
- The families of the three men who attempted to escape were eventually awarded $100,000 (reduced to $36,000) after the government failed to produce evidence that their family members were indeed dead. This amount was later reduced to $24,000.
- After it closed as a prison in 1963, Alcatraz was leased by the US National Park Service to be operated as a museum until 1969 (when it reopened in 1972). After closing again in 1971 due to neglect, the site became part of the Golden Gate National Recreation Area and has remained open since 1973.
- Alcatraz is now America’s most popular tourist attraction outside of Washington D.C. It receives over 1 million visitors each year.