The Rock was the byname of Alcatraz because it was an island in the middle of San Francisco Bay. The prison was known to hold some of the most notorious criminals of American history, and it was often thought of as an inescapable prison. But before the island was modernized, how did the Native Americans utilize the island?
Before the infamous prison was built, Native Americans also used the island as a prison where tribe members who violated tribal laws were banished. They also believed that the island had evil spirits.
The History of Alcatraz
Before the island in the middle of San Francisco Bay became home to some of the most notorious outlaws in the country, it was known to be a place that the Native Americans avoided. They believed that evil spirits roamed its grounds. Native Americans called the island Ohlone and often used it as a place of isolation and banishment for tribe members who violated tribal laws. (Source: Legends of America)
Despite the legends of evil spirits contained on the island, these Native Americans also used it to gather bird eggs and other sea animals used for food. Spaniards discovered the island in 1769 and were further explored by Lieutenant Juan Manuel de Ayala in 1775, naming it Isla de los Alcatraces (Isle of the Pelicans). (Source: Britannica)
Several Native Americans used the island as a hiding place, escaping the forced Christianity imposed on them when the Spanish began building Southern California missions. At the end of the Mexican-American war in 1848, the island was sold to the American government. The US Army realized that the island was a strategic defensive location. The Army built a fortress on it in 1853.
In 1854, the construction of the lighthouse was complete, along with eleven mounted cannons. By 1859, the island became the most powerful defense in the West. Realizing that the island’s position was not only an excellent defense post but also a great site for a prison, military deserters, escapees, and prisoners were sent to the island.
By 1861, Alcatraz was officially designated as the military prison for the Department of the Pacific and continued to be so until the early 1900s. The Army realized that maintaining the island prison was too expensive. Alcatraz was taken of the Army’s hands by J. Edgar Hoover, who envisioned it as an ideal super-prison for the rising number of criminals with gangster affiliation.
By 1934, the military prison became the Alcatraz Island Federal Penitentiary and was upgraded to an escape-proof maximum security prison. This became the home of some of the nation’s most notorious criminals, including Al Capone, George Machine Gun Kelly, Arthur Doc Barker, Floyd Hamilton, who was the driver of Bonnie and Clyde, and Alvin Creepy Karpis. (Source: Legends of America)
Closing Down Alcatraz
Alcatraz was officially closed on March 21, 1963, after 29 years of operating as a maximum-security prison. Despite its reputation of being inescapable, the government found it expensive to maintain. The costs of maintenance and restoration work to keep it open were estimated to be about $3 to 5 million, and this didn’t include the operating costs. The logistics cost also played a significant factor in the prison’s closure. All the supplies needed to run the prison had to be delivered by boat.
The island was abandoned for several years before it became a park service site in 1972. It officially became a tourist spot in 1973. It is estimated that Alcatraz attracts more than 1 million visitors annually, generating funds for the government. (Source: Gray Line of San Francisco)