10 Things You Didn’t Know About Alcatraz

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Alcatraz Island as seen from Bay Voyager

The Rock. La Isla de Los Alcatraces. Alcatraz. One of the most popular tourist attractions in the United States and the world, Alcatraz Island is a destination that invites mystery and intrigue. The very first building on Alcatraz was a lighthouse. It was followed by a United States Military fort that eventually devolved into a maximum security, Hollywood-hyped prison in 1907. Today the island is a National Park attracting visitors who tour it’s “haunted” hallways and take in stunning views not too unlike what the prisoners must have seen from their cells.

  1. The very first lighthouse on the West Coast was built on San Francisco to guide ships and gold seekers safely into the Bay. This lighthouse operated from June 1, 1854, until 1907, when a building for the prison was constructed and blocked it.
  2. Military convicts built the prison in 1909 when the fort was an army fort and correctional facility. Alcatraz officially became a federal prison in 1934.
  3. Alcatraz wasn’t as miserable as Hollywood lead audiences to believe. The warden found that lousy food caused riots, so inmates were fed a buffet of good food and allowed to come back for seconds or thirds. Additionally, the prison’s one-person per cell policy appealed to most convicts, and requests for transfers to Alcatraz were common.
  4. Alcatraz was the only prison in its day to give inmates warm showers in the hopes of deterring them from attempting to swim to shore in the cold Bay waters. It worked – for most inmates.
  5. Hundreds of people make the 1.5 mi swim between the nearest shore and the island during the annual Escape from Alcatraz triathlon every summer. However, prisoners didn’t have as much support as the triathlon competitors do today. In 1962, prisoner John Paul Scott staged his escape and made it to shore where the police found him exhausted and in hypothermic shock from the chilly and challenging swim.
  6. Alcatraz was closed in 1963 because it was too expensive to maintain. Running the prison cost $10.10/person – three times as much as running other federal prisons in the country at the time. Saltwater waged a never-ending war on the buildings that needed constant upkeep and repair. Additionally, 1 million gallons of freshwater had to be delivered from the mainland every week.
  7. Guards and their families who were living on Alcatraz planted gardens that are still intact today. You can tour these gardens and their hardy vegetation when you visit the island.
  8. Guards perpetuated the myth that man-eating sharks surround Alcatraz, waiting to chow down on prisoners. Contrarily, the San Francisco Bay is full of bottom feeder sharks. These sharks are harmless and not nearly as threatening or deadly as the frigid temperature and strong currents of the Bay.
  9. One infamous prisoner, Al Capone, became a model inmate during his stay. Eventually, he was allowed to play the banjo in the prison band, which performed on Sunday nights. Throughout the years, Capone played more than 500 songs in the group, including an original called “Madonna Mia.”
  10. Alcatraz was never at capacity. There were 336 “mainline” cells and 42 “solitary confinement” cells on the island. The average inmate population at Alcatraz was 260, while its highest headcount was 306. There was always more room for prisoners.
  11. In 1969, hundreds of American Indians from different tribes seized the island for a political protest to focus attention on the plight of the population across the nation. The protest lasted for eighteen months and regarded as a pivotal point in the treatment of American Indians and a reawakening of American Indian culture, traditions, identity, and spirituality.

Want to learn more about this infamous island and see it from a different angle? Hop aboard our Alcatraz Combo Cruise to get the best of both worlds. See Bay Voyager’s schedule and reserve your tickets.