Even 56 years after its closure, Alcatraz Federal Penitentiary never fails to intrigue. Here’s a look at five things you may not know about “The Rock”.
Alcatraz, an “inescapable” must-do when you visit San Francisco, is one of America’s most popular sites, and surely one of the world’s most captivating and fascinating places. Said to be impossible to escape, this legendary top-security prison is also famous its equally legendary criminals, including Chicago gangster Al Capone (“Scarface”), George “Machine Gun” Kelly, and Henry Young, who became famous from his role in the film “Murder in Alcatraz”.
Here’s a look at some lesser-known facts about this infamous prison.
1. A story related to Native Americans
Before Spanish explorer Juan Manuel de Ayala discovered the island in 1775, it’s said that Muwekma Ohlone tribe members visited there to collect pelican eggs. It was also Juan Manuel de Ayala who contributed his name to this island: “alcatraz” is, in fact, the Spanish word for “gannet,” a type of sea bird.
After the federal prison closed in 1963, a group of Native American activists from the American Indian Movement peacefully occupied the island for 19 months in 1969 to 1971. In less than a month, the population grew from 78 to about 600, coming from many different tribes. With irony and intelligence, they wrote the proclamation, “We hold the Rock!”
2. Alcatraz has not always been a maximum-security prison
The first stone was laid in the 1850s to build a military fortress housing the very first lighthouse on the west coast. In 1909, the island became a military prison and from 1934 to 1963, the high-security federal prison was built. Intending to serve as an archetype for American prisons, the impossible-to-escape penitentiary granted minimal privileges to the incarcerated. Rule number five, the most famous of the Alcatraz rules, states: “You’re entitled to food, clothing, shelter, and medical attention. Anything else you get is a privilege.”
Surrounded by steep cliffs, powerful icy Pacific streams, and one guard for every three detainees, Alcatraz was notoriously unescapable. In fact, in its 29 years of service, 36 inmates actually attempted, but only five of them were ever caught–the others were all presumed drowned. A doubt, however, floats on the most renowned escape, made famous by Clint Eastwood in the 1979 film “Escape from Alcatraz”. Brothers Clarence and John Anglin escaped in 1962 with Frank Morris, and the Anglin family is convinced that the three men succeeded. They claim to have received regular Christmas cards from the two brothers, as well as a photo of two men working on a farm who they say are Clarence and John.
4. A secret tunnel
Last February, archaeologists from New York’s Binghamton University discovered and revealed the existence of a tunnel connecting the prison to the mainland. The tunnel, perfectly preserved and located only a few meters from the ground surface, may have been built in 1860 when the prison was still a military fortress. The entrance is located in the penitentiary yard and runs through the prison with an ingenious ventilation system. More than fifty years after its closure, “The Rock” has not finished surprising us.
Alcatraz opened to the public in 1973, and since 1986, it’s been listed on the National Register of Historic Places of U.S. heritage. The island is managed by the National Park Service, which preserves the monument but also protects its many bird species dwelling there that can be observed by visitors. Along with the penitentiary’s interior, you can also admire the Alcatraz Gardens. Restored in 2003, the gardens were planted and maintained by the families of the guards and staff who inhabited the island. Weather permitting, visitors can also enjoy a spectacular view of San Francisco from the courtyard.