The History Of Alcatraz

The history of the famous Alcatraz prison nicknamed the Rock.

An icon of power and strength, Alcatraz has become the single most recognizable symbol of American society. Situated in the San Francisco Bay, one can't help but be drawn to the rocky shore, the dark walls, and the lone light tower sanding cold against a picturesque sunset imagining what it would have been like to be incarcerated in one of the world's most infamous prisons.

Discovered in 1775 by the Spanish explorer Juan Miguel de Ayala, La Isla de los Alcatraces was little more than a rock inhabited by a group of pelicans from which the island bears its name (Alcatraces meaning pelicans in Spanish). However, in 1847 the US government began to look at it as much more. Strategically placed at the mouth of the San Francisco Bay it was the perfect site for a military fort. By 1853 a state of the art military fortress was protecting the Western United States against foreign infiltration. In 1861, with outbreak of the Civil War, Alcatraz began receiving its first military prisoners. However, it wasn't until 1898 and the Spanish- American War that the isolation of the island that made it an impregnable military installation also made it an inescapable prison. During this war the prisoner population jumped from 26 to 450. That number spiked again as civil prisoners were transferred from city jails after the famous 1906 earthquake. With the island becoming more and more a prison and less and less a military fort, a cell house was built in 1912. This is generally felt to be the point at which the fort perishes and "The Rock" is born.

"The Rock" however, was little more than a minimum-security resort. Many prisoners worked as servants and maids for the many families that were required to live on the island. A few were even commissioned to baby sit young children who lived on the island. Flowers and shrubs were imported to help beautify the rocky island. Many inmates, because of this, were allowed their own private gardens. In the 1920's prisoners were allowed to build a baseball field on which different inmate teams played in their own uniforms. On Friday nights hundreds of people would come from the mainland to see the exciting "Alcatraz Fights" which pitted two inmates against each other in a boxing-type match.

With the rise of organized crime in the 1930's Alcatraz went through some dramatic changes. The deteriorating cell house was refurbished with electronically controlled cell doors, metal detectors, gun galleries which allowed guards an elevated view of the entire cell house, permanently mounted tear gas canisters in the ceiling of the dining hall, and tool proof bars. New cells nicked named "Strip" cells and "The Hole" were built to house those inmates who required complete isolation. A strict silence rule was instituted and those who violated it could be put in isolation for up to eight days. The once merry days of baseball games and gardening were over.

In 1963, due to the exorbent cost of running an island prison, Alcatraz was officially closed. Arguments quickly arose over what to do with the eyesore that the prison had become. In 1969 a group of Native American Indians claimed the island as their own. However, they soon ran into the same problems that the U.S. government had, namely the cost of importing food, water, and fuel. 1971 saw the island go up in flames, badly damaging the lighthouse and many of the houses that used to house the cell guards and their families. The last remaining Indians were removed after this fire. Once again faced with the cost of maintaining the island facility, the U.S. government decided to make Alcatraz part of the newly opened Golden Gate Park. Today the island attracts over a million visitors a year, more than making up the operation costs of the island.

Through the life of the fort turn prison turn tourist site, Alcatraz has experienced countless changes. From flower gardens to isolation cells, this small, rocky island that once only supported pelicans has seen it all. However, through all the changing inmates and wardens, through all of the construction and destruction, through all of the fluctuating social attitudes and opinions, Alcatraz has retained one thing. Its walls have never ceased to capture hold of the onlooker's wonder and amazement, drawing forth that all-important feeling of awe. That small island on the mouth of the Bay is and always will be known as "The Rock".

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