“So, what are some things that spring to mind for you when you hear the word Alcatraz?” This question was posed to the lingering group of stragglers I had found myself in, deciding to follow the National Park Service Officer who was now hitting us with this random but interactive question, while on an hour long walking tour into Alcatraz’s less famous past.
A silent and slightly awkward response was broken with my reply “Nicolas Cage!”
I know what you’re thinking – “those bloody Aussies…” BUT the point I’m trying to make here is that prior to my actual visit to the famous island, I had no idea of the other interesting points in its colourful past aside from its role as a Federal Penitentiary and backdrop to a 90’s action film.
The first big surprise for me during my visit to Alcatraz was how easy it was to get there. The sole ferry company that is responsible for moving tourists to the island leaves from San Francisco’s Pier 33. After visiting New York City’s historic Ellis Island a few months earlier and thus undergoing its visitor security screening which resembles nothing less than the security at US airports, I was quite surprised with how relaxed and smooth the boarding process was over here on the West Coast – I might even go as far as saying the two experiences are the perfect metaphor of how I would compare and explain the persona of these two cities…
While left untouched by America’s indigenous people’s due to their belief that the island was cursed, Alcatraz was officially documented by a Spanish explorer called Juan Manuel de Ayala when charted the San Francisco Bay area for the first time in 1775. Ayala named the island “La Isla de los Alcatraces” – The Island of the Pelicans.
As you can see, the name stuck.
Long before acquiring its most famous role as a jail, Alcatraz’s first official function was as a Military Fort where it protected the entrance of the harbour from posing outside aggression with numerous artillery batteries.
This role for Alcatraz came about after San Francisco became the epicentre of the Californian gold rush in 1849, just a year after the state was acquired by the USA from Mexico at the ending of the Mexican-American War. The fortifications on the garrison island were expanded throughout the civil war with the island’s total number of guns reaching 105 in 1866.
The traces of Alcatraz’s most famous function that most of us commonly know it for, can be found towards the second half of the 19th century, when the US military slowly began using Alcatraz as a military jail. This became its official role in 1868 and the island’s main draw-card today, the central cellblock, was built as part of this project, being completed in 1912. The military’s influence over Alcatraz ended in 1933, when the island was handed over to the Bureau of Prisons, thus creating what was to become the world’s most famous civilian jail.
While the vast majority of information on Alcatraz highlights the time and events where it was a federal penitentiary, there is one more piece of fascinating history to the island that often gets overlooked. The Native American occupation that began there after the prison was closed in 1963.
A group known as the United Indians of All Tribes occupied Alcatraz in November 1969 in protest of the Federal Governments policies towards Native American Indians. The protest lasted 19 months and nine days and brought significant issues surrounding Native American affairs to the forefront of national discussion. During the time of the occupation, new policies of Indian self-determination were set and large amounts of land was returned to various Native tribes. While the protest officially ended in June 1971, traces of it still remain today as graffiti from the occupy movement is still visible at various places on the island, acting as a reminder of this vital part in the development of America’s social history.
As I remember discussing with Vagabundo’s Bossman, Brendan van Son, we travel writers can sometimes get wrapped up in wanting to hunt down the places and stories that no one else has shared about. In doing so, we can often neglect the fact that the big tourist attractions draw the crowds they do because of one simple fact – They’re fucking awesome…
Alcatraz definitely doesn’t stray away from this and is one of those rare landmarks that manages to tick all the boxes for its visitors – a widely known and well presented insight into its most popular role, an intriguing learning experience with the lesser known parts of its past and of coarse the unmatched views it provides of one of America’s greatest Cities and harbours.
But Really, who visits San Francisco for the first time and doesn’t have Alcatraz on their “to-do” list anyway?