11 Things You Didn’t Know About Alcatraz Island

Posted on February 28, 2018 |

By Leila N’Amara

Taking a ferry to Alcatraz Island has become a quintessential part of the San Francisco experience. That is, if you can get tickets to Alcatraz! Tickets to Alcatraz sell out fast. We’re talking months in advance during the summer. Don’t worry, we’ve got you covered with an article on What to do if Alcatraz Tickets Are Sold Out! We might be a little biased, but our Alcatraz & Famous Tour  just might be the best way to see Alcatraz, San Francisco and Muir Woods in two days.

No matter how you’re getting to Alcatraz, whether it’s from an Alcatraz tour or a lucky day of purchase, here are ten Alcatraz facts that you probably didn’t know.

1) Alcatraz Island was originally named Isla de Alcatraces — translating to Island of the Pelicans. Except that there are almost never any pelicans on Alcatraz. Because the name was actually meant for Yerba Buena Island. But reading maps is tricky, ya’know?


2) Native Ohlone Indians didn’t really an official name for the island. They only ever called it The White Rock, because so many seabirds roosted on the island — leaving behind a white look to the sandstone island.


3) Alcatraz is most famous for being a Federal Penitentiary. But the infamous Alcatraz prison operated for less than 30 years, from 1934 – 1962


4) Most of the island’s history was as a military outpost that predates the Civil War. Construction for the Fortress Alcatraz Citadel began in 1853 — eight years before war broke out.


5) Alcatraz Island was home to the first lighthouse on the West Coast in 1854.


6) Fort Alcatraz nearly escape-proof island location made it a fitting location for jailing everyone from military officials to American Indians. Eventually becoming an official military prison in 1861.  As the Civil War raged, Alcatraz was used to jail private citizens suspected of being Confederate sympathizers.


7) The Birdman of Alcatraz never actually kept birds on Alcatraz. The Birdman became famous while keeping birds at Leavenworth Federal Penitentiary. Unfortunately for him, Alcatraz Federal Penitentiary had a strict no-pets-allowed policy. In fact, The Birdman was kept away from the general population and was kept in seclusion in the hospital wing.


8) Arguably the most famous inmate to serve time on The Rock was Al Capone. There was a realistic fear that Capone would bribe his way to an escape route during the transfer from his train to his boat to Alcatraz. So, they never had Al Capone get off the train. Al Capone arrived to Alcatraz Island by placing his three train car onto a barge and bringing the entire train to Alcatraz.


Children playing at the beach during the occupation of Alcatraz 1970.  Alcatraz 1970

9) If it hadn’t been for a 19 month long occupation from American Indian students at San Francisco State, Alcatraz Island would have fallen into the hands of private real estate developers. Even though the Indian Occupation was an effort to build a university and cultural center — the occupiers succeeded in preserving Alcatraz Island for future generations.


10) There are kids who grew up on Alcatraz! Where else would the guards and their families live? Jolene Babyak, whose father was a prison guard,  grew up on Alcatraz Island and chronicled life on the prison island in her book Eyewitness on Alcatraz, Life on The Rock as told by Guards, Families and Prisoners. In fact, you just might run into Jolene in the Alcatraz gift shop signing copies of her books and answering your most burning questions about growing up in the shadow of the world’s most infamous prison.


11) The last remaining guard tower on Alcatraz… is actually a movie prop built for scenes on the famous Sean Connery and Nic Cage blockbuster The Rock.

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