If I asked you to name the most popular landmark in the United States, what would you say? The Statue of Liberty? The Lincoln Memorial? The Washington Monument? Nope. According to a survey by TripAdvisor, the number one tourist spot in the United States is Alcatraz, (affectionately known as “The Rock”) an abandoned federal penitentiary, located in the San Francisco Bay, just a few miles from the number two tourist spot: the Golden Gate Bridge. Each year, Alcatraz Island draws more than 1.7 visitors.
Alcatraz Island was originally named La Isla de los Alcatraces (Spanish for “The Island of the Pelicans”) by Juan Manuel de Ayala, a Spanish naval officer who was the first to sail a ship, the San Carlos, into the San Francisco Bay in 1775. In 1846, Pio Pico, the last governor of Alta California, gave the island to his friend, Julian Workman, so that he would build a lighthouse on the island. Workman did not build the lighthouse, but conveyed the tile to Francis Temple, his son-in-law. Later that year, John Fremont, Military Governor of California, bought the island from Workman for $5,000 in the name of the U.S. government. Fremont recognized that the island was an ideal location for a lighthouse and a fort to protect harbor. The U.S. government did agree that Alcatraz, along with Fort Mason and Fort Lime (which was never built due to a land dispute) would form a formidable triangular defense. However the government did not believe that Fremont had the right to purchase the island. Many legal proceedings later, the U.S. government did take over title to the island without any compensation to Fremont or his heirs.
Beginning in 1853, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers began fortifying the island, now called Fort Alcatraz, mounting 105 cannons around the island and building quarters for 200 soldiers. In 1954, the first operational lighthouse on America’s West Coast was built on the southern end of the island. (It was damaged in the 1906 earthquake and rebuilt in 1909.) As early as 1859, the fort, due to its remote location, began housing prisoners in the basement of the guardhouses. The first prisoners were 11 soldiers who committed crimes; then two years later, the fort was established as a military prison for prisoners of war, Union deserters, and Confederate sympathizers during the American Civil War. In 1867 a brick jailhouse was built to house military prisoners. By 1898, the prisoner population had grown from 26 to 450 inmates.
By 1915, Fort Alcatraz was officially designated as the Pacific Branch, U.S. Disciplinary Barracks. The iconic concrete cell block on the center of the island was built between 1909 and 1912 to house up to 320 prisoners. One of the unique features was that each inmate lived in his own cell, containing a sleeping cot, toilet, sink (cold water only) and small metal table (cell blocks B and C). Cell block D, known as “the hole” was used for solitary confinement; the space was larger than the typical cells but was completely dark and had not bed, table, sink, or toilet (just a hole in the floor). Two decades later, in 1933, the island officially became a federal prison, known as Alcatraz Federal Penitentiary, to house some of the most recalcitrant criminals, predominantly murderers and bank robbers, in America. The mantra at Alcatraz was: “Break the rules and you go to prison, break the prison rules and you go to Alcatraz.” For the next 29 years, Alcatraz was home to about 250 men with a prison staff of about 155. About 300 civilians lived on the island. The guards and their families lived in nine apartment buildings located near the island’s harbor. The staff also had a recreation hall, post office, small convenience store, soda fountain shop, bowling alley, and beautiful gardens.
Due to the high cost of operation, saltwater’s deteriorating impact on buildings, and impact of the island residents’ sewage into the bay, Attorney General Robert F. Kennedy ordered Alcatraz to close in early 1963. Since 1972, the island is maintained and operated by the National Park Service.
Let’s take a look at this fascinating island and prison by the numbers:
Size of island: 1,675 feet by 590 feet; total area is 22 acres
Distance from closest shore: 1.25 miles
Temperature water around Alcatraz: less than 60 degrees Fahrenheit
Speed of currents around Alcatraz: 6 to 8 mph
Size of cells: 5 x 9 feet
Number of cells: 336
Bedtime for inmates: 9:30 pm “lights out”
Height of lighthouse: 84 feet
Range of lighthouse: 22 nautical miles
Number of lighthouse keepers (1853-1940): 14
Number of prisoners: average: 260; maximum: 320
Number or inmates over 29 years: 1,576
Number of staff: 155
Number of families living on Alcatraz: 60
Cost of rent for apartment for a prison guard: $25
Number of children that grew up on Alcatraz: 100 (they are now members of the Alcatraz Alumni Association)
Number of attempted escapes: 36 (23 of those were captures; six killed; two drowned; five went missing)
Number of inmates who died at Alcatraz: 28 (15 from natural causes, 5 from suicide, 8 murdered by other inmates)
Number of books in prison library: 15,000
Number of magazine subscriptions: 75
Cost to house a prisoner at Alcatraz: $10 a day (the average at other prisons was $3)
Number of birds that the Birdman of Alcatraz kept there: 0 (the movie’s premise was a complete fiction; Rober Stroud was not allowed to keep any birds at Alcatraz)
Number of Native American activists that occupied Alcatraz (1969-71): approximately 100
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Read related posts: The Golden Gate by the Numbers
Why is it Called the Golden Gate?
The Lone Sailor Memorial
For further reading: https://www.alcatrazhistory.com/rock/rock-01.htm