Alcatraz Island

Alcatraz Island is a world-renowned military fortification and once federal prison on an island in the middle of the San Francisco Bay. Located just over a mile off the shore of San Francisco, the small island included structures such as a military fortification and a lighthouse, a military prison (1868) and a federal prison from 1934 until 1963. The island was opened to the public as a national recreation area in 1972 and designated as a National Historic Landmark in 1986. Photo: Marni/Fotolia


»History & Attractions

History & Attractions


Alcatraz Island was first documented by Spaniard Juan Manual de Ayala in 1775 while charting San Francisco Bay. He aptly named the island ‘La Isla de Los Alcatraces’ (‘Island of Pelicans’), which was home to huge flocks of the birds, and which later became known as Alcatraz for short. The Spanish built several small buildings and other minor structures on the island. Today, the island features the oldest operating lighthouse on the West Coast of the United States, early military fortifications, an abandoned prison and several rock pools with a seabird colony. Landmarks on the island include Building 64, the Lighthouse, the Officer’s Club and a Recreation Yard, among others.

Military Garrison

Alcatraz Island was set aside specifically as a United States military reservation by President Millard Fillmore by 1850 to be utilized for military purposes based upon the U.S. acquisition of California from Mexico as a result from the Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo, which ended the Mexican-American War. Following the procurement of California and the onset of the California Gold Rush, Alcatraz Island was fortified to be used as a coastal battery to protect the approaches to San Francisco Bay and became known as Fortress Alcatraz in 1858. The first garrison to call the island home had 200 soldiers and 11 cannons. The Island served as an arsenal for storage of firearms during the American Civil War, and later during the war to imprison Confederate sympathizers.

Military prison

Alcatraz was used to house prisoners of war during the Civil War due to the island’s isolation from the outside world and the strong, hazardous currents of the San Francisco Bay. Following the war, the army changed the plans for Alcatraz from a place of coastal defense to detention, and in 1867 a brick jailhouse was built, and the island officially became a detention facility for military prisoners. Alcatraz continued to act as a military prison during the Spanish-American War and was formally named as the Western U.S. Military Prison in 1907 and later the U.S. Disciplinary Barracks in 1915. Places to Visit in San Francisco, CA: Alcatraz Island - Photo: MaciejBledowski/Fotolia

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»More Attractions & Visitor Information

More Attractions & Visitor Information


Federal Penitentiary

The United States Disciplinary Barracks on Alcatraz Island was bought by the United States Department of Justice in 1933 and became a federal prison a year later. During the following 29 years that the island prison was in use, it held some of the most notorious criminals in American history, including Al Capone, Mickey Cohen, Bumpy Johnson, and James ‘Whitey’ Bulgar, among others. The penitentiary’s claim to fame is that during the 29 years of operation, no prisoner successfully escaped.

The prison was shut down in 1963 due to escalating costs and was later listed on the National Register of Historic Places in 1976 and designated as a National Historic Landmark in 1986. Today, the island is a popular tourist attraction.

Native American Occupation

In 1969, Alcatraz Island saw a group of Native Americans known as the United Indians of All Tribes led by Mohawk activist Richard Oakes to claim the land on behalf of ‘Indians of All Tribes.’ The group, who wanted new facilities such as an education and ecology center, and a cultural center built, remained on the island for two years During this time, President Richard Nixon rescinded the Indian termination policy and established a new policy of self-determination. The occupation of Alcatraz Island ended on June 11, 1971.

Visitor Information

Alcatraz Island is located in the center of San Francisco Bay and is open to the public every day of the week from 8:45 am to 8:45 pm. The island is accessible by ferries run by the Hornblower Cruises ferry company from Pier 33 near the Fisherman’s Wharf in Sab Francisco, and visitors can enjoy guided tours of the island and its facilities. The Dock Ranger Station and Theater is located near the dock on Alcatraz and presents an orientation film about the island, features several exhibits about Alcatraz's wildlife and the American Indian occupation (1969-1971), and a bookstore.

San Francisco, CA 94133, Phone: 415-561-4900

Back to: San Francisco Places to Visit in San Francisco, CA: Alcatraz Island - Photo: Bill Perry/Fotolia

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Places to Visit in San Francisco, CA: Alcatraz Island