11 Unique Alcatraz Facts You Should Know Before You Go

Posted on February 28, 2018 |

Eleven unique Alcatraz facts you should know before you go. Learn why Alcatraz is famous, how Al Capone was transferred to Alcatraz Island and more.

Taking a ferry to Alcatraz Island has become a quintessential part of the San Francisco experience. People from all over the world come to SanFrancisco to learn more about Alcatraz Island, hear Alcatraz prison stories, and of course, listen to Alcatraz ghost stories. 

The hardest part of getting to Alcatraz is getting a ticket. Tickets to Alcatraz sell out fast, super fast, 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.

You can see Alcatraz now, with our  Alcatraz & Famous Tour. We think it is the best way to see Alcatraz, San Francisco, and Muir Woods over two days.

No matter how you’re getting to Alcatraz San Francisco, whether it’s from an Alcatraz tour or on your own, here are eleven Alcatraz facts that you probably didn’t know.

1. Alcatraz interesting facts: Isla de Alcatraces

Facts about Alcatraz, the Island was originally named Isla de Alcatraces.

Alcatraz facts: through some confusion the Island was named Island of the Pelicans.

The first of our 11 interesting facts about Alcatraz is, the island was initially named Isla de Alcatraces, which translates to, Island of the Pelicans. The thing is, there are rarely any pelicans on Alcatraz, and the name was meant for Yerba Buena Island. There was a miss communication, but reading a map is tricky, you know?

2. Native Ohlone Native Americans didn’t nickname Alcatraz island

Facts about Alcatraz, White seagulls on the rock,

White seagulls cover Alcatraz Island.

Native Ohlone Native Americans didn’t make 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 prison operated for less than 30 years

A cell at Alcatraz prison, facts about the rock

A prison cell, during the infamous prisons 30 years of operations.

Is Alcatraz still used? Unfortunately, the island is currently no longer a prison, but it does host tours for tourist. 

Another one of our Alcatraz island facts is that the infamous Alcatraz prison operated for less than 30 years, from 1934 – 1963.

Why did Alcatraz close? The prison closed because the government found that it was too expensive to keep running. 

4. Facts about Alcatraz: Alcatraz and the Civil War

Facts about Alcatraz, history of Alcatraz prison and the island

The famous prison was once a military outpost, older than the Civil War.

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 Fun Facts: the first lighthouse

Facts about the history of Alcatraz, the island was home to the first lighthouse

Before the infamous prison, the island was home to the west coast’s first lighthouse.

A part of the Alcatraz construction in 1854, was the building of its famous lighthouse. Alcatraz Island was home to the first lighthouse on the West Coast.

6. Alcatraz prison facts: island became a military prison

The history of Alcatraz, the island housed prisoners in the civil war

Some of the first prisoners at Alcatraz Prison.

Fort Alcatraz’s nearly escape-proof island made it a fitting location for jailing everyone from military officials to Native Americans and eventually become an official military prison in 1861.  As the Civil War raged, Alcatraz was used to jail citizens suspected of being Confederate sympathizers.

7. Alcatraz famous inmates: The Birdman

Alcatraz famous prisoner, The Birdman's old cell room

The Birdman’s secluded cell room at Alcatraz prison.

Why is Alcatraz famous? One reason why the prison gained famed, is because it housed so many famous criminals. Al Capone, Machine Gun Kelly, and of course Alcatraz prisoner 105 – John Kendrick, are among some of the notorious prisoners that were kept on the island.

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

8. Alcatraz famous prisoner: Al Capone

Alcatraz history, Al Capone's transfer

The authorities were nervous that Al Capone would escape while being transferred to the Island, so they transported three cars on the train he was driving.

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 at Alcatraz Island by placing his three-car train onto a barge, bringing the entire train to Alcatraz.

9. University Students saved the island from private real estate developers

Alcatraz 1970, Native American's saved Alcatraz Island

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

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

10. Alcatraz facts: kids grew up on Alcatraz Island

History of Alcatraz, children lived on the island

Children of the guards lived and grew up on Alcatraz Island.

Some kids grew up on Alcatraz. Where else would the guards and their families live? Jolene Babyak, whose father was a correctional officer, 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. 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 a movie prop

Alcatraz San Francisco, the Rock

Movie prop on Alcatraz Island.

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

 

Do these surprising 11 facts have you wanting to explore Alcatraz for yourself? Do you have questions about the island – are you wondering, “was Alcatraz haunted,” or “what life was like on the island?” The best way to learn is through experience, so come and enjoy an Alcatraz tour for yourself. Check out our Alcatraz tours below:

Alcatraz and Famous Tour

A Day in the Bay Tour

Read the following posts for more information about Alcatraz:

10 Things You NEED to Know Before Going to Alcatraz

20 Best Alcatraz Tours: How to Get Sold Out Alcatraz Tickets

Should you buy an Alcatraz ticket or an Alcatraz tour?

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