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The History of Alcatraz Island

Alcatraz Island, helicopter view resized 600

Alcatraz Island

It's Alcatraz prison that now gets the spotlight on these few acres of island in the San Francisco Bay. Once considered the prison of American prisons, over the years, Alcatraz at one point became reserved for military use under President Millard Fillmore, the 13th President of the United States. The former military detention center became America's first maximum security penitentiary in 1934 under the jurisdiction of the Federal Bureau of Prisons.

There is evidence that even the local prehistoric population considered 'The Rock' as an appropriate location to quarantine their misfits.

Lt. Juan Manuel de Ayala named the little island after its only year-round inhabitants, "La Isla de Los Alcatraces" (Island of the Pelicans), when he sailed into the bay on August 5, 1775.

Ayala was the first European to pass through the Golden Gate Straits. Just 75 years after he mapped his discovery, a U.S. presidential order by Millard Fillmore made Alcatraz and other islands in the San Francisco Bay 'reserved for public purposes'.

Alcatraz InmatesIn 1854, the first lighthouse on the west coast was built on Alcatraz. This was urgently needed since hundreds of ships had already wrecked on the rocks in their hurry to the gold rush.

It was in 1859 that the U.S. Army completed construction of their fortifications. Just a few years later the military installation on Alcatraz Island became the largest fort, west of the Mississippi River, during the Civil War. The army started to confine its own convicts at Fortress Alcatraz almost immediately.

The Rock

In the 1870's the Native American population started to return to the prisoners. Chiefs and other tribal leaders were incarcerated on the 'Rock' into the 1880's. By 1907 the fort was officially Alcatraz Prison.

Housing some of the most dangerous and heinous criminals, prisoners were only allowed four sole rights. The right to food, shelter, medical attention and clothing. Punishments for bad behavior included rights being stripped and prisonsers being delegated to solitary confinement where they were only allowed bread and water. Wearing a 20 pound ball and chain and hard labor were some of the less extreme punishments.

The military transferred these facilities to civilian management in 1933. Alcatraz became the first federal maximum-security penitentiary. No judge could sentence a criminal to 'The Rock'. Only a transfer from another prison could get you admitted to this exclusive penal colony.

Alcatraz Inmate last words

Infamous Last Words

Until 1963 the 'prison within the prison system' held the most notorious and troublesome criminals. Many escape attempts were made but the guards were vigilant, the water was cold and the currents strong. There were 14 escape attempts by over 30 prisoners. There were no recorded survivors.

Alcatraz Island became a national park in 1972. Open to the public in 1973, Alcatraz sees more than one million tourists visiting the enticing barracks each year. 

Alcatraz Island in the background

Tour Alcatraz Island with Mauiva AirCruise

Experience this haunting maximum security penitentiary when you Cruise to Alcatraz Island with Mauiva. Journey through its gloom and in one of the world's most remembered prison systems, see where some of the most infamous were housed. Dive into their world and leave with a newfound knowledge of the criminal mastermind.


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