September 24, 2020
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San Francisco's most intriguing attraction isn't where you think it is—on an island in the San Francisco Bay. Alcatraz, also known as "The Rock," will leave you speechless with its incredible history of incarceration. Alcatraz Island was a military prison in the 1900s before becoming a maximum-security federal penitentiary, which was home to several of the cruelest mobsters and criminals between 1934 and 1963. In addition to housing inmates, the 22-acre island was home to an estimated 300 civilians: the prison guards, staff members, and their families.
Until the second half of the 20th century, nobody willingly visited Alcatraz Island. Today, the island is part of the Golden Gate National Recreation Area and draws millions of visitors every year. For a chilling adventure, relive the lives of former Alcatraz prisoners by taking a tour of the prison. Although California's national parks and historic sites are extraordinary, there's nothing that beats the intrigue of Alcatraz Island.
A Brief History Of Alcatraz
Alcatraz is one of California's historic landmarks to add to your list. The historically significant island held the oldest operating lighthouse on the West Coast before becoming an early military fort, military prison, and federal prison.
In 1934, the first federal prisoners arrived at Alcatraz. Throughout the years, the facility housed the most infamous criminals at the time, including notorious bank robbers, murderers, and mobsters. The prison’s most well-known inmates were Al Capone, Robert Franklin Stroud—a.k.a., the Birdman of Alcatraz—Mickey Cohen, and James Bulger.
On March 21, 1963, the institution was shuttered because it was too expensive to continue operating. Ten years later, Alcatraz opened to the public as a national park and has since attracted more than 1.7 million annual visitors.
Alcatraz Escape Attempts
The prison was coined “The Rock” for its location: Alcatraz was built atop a rocky island in the middle of the bay. Its location was no coincidence; it was intentionally built in a place where the frigid cold waters of the Pacific could prevent convicts from escaping. However, that didn't stop several prisoners from trying. During the 29 years Alcatraz was in operation, the prison witnessed escape attempts from 36 prisoners—five of whose whereabouts remain unknown to this day.
The most famous prison escape in U.S. history took place here in June 1926. The inmates in action were John Anglin, Clarence Anglin, and Frank Morris; all three were former bank robbers who were sent to Alcatraz to finish out the remainder of their sentences.
Although the events that took place following the crew's escape still remain a mystery to this day, the inmates spent weeks preparing for the only escape from Alcatraz. Set in place by the genius Frank Morris, the escape plan consisted of stealing spoons from the cafeteria to chip away at the walls, hair from the salon to put atop fake heads made out of soap wax, and raincoats that they would later use to inflate as rafts.
The three men made their way through the ventilation shaft from a utility corridor leading to the roof. From there, the crew slid down a pipe using their raincoat rafts and made it to the ground, before setting sail on the San Francisco Bay. Their absence wasn't noticed until the next morning, and the three inmates were never found.
Alcatraz Tours and TIckets
No first-time trip to San Francisco is complete without a visit to Alcatraz Island. Head to Pier 33 Alcatraz Landing, located near Fisherman’s Wharf, and hop aboard an Alcatraz Cruises ferry to take an Alcatraz boat tour. The ride to Alcatraz is roughly 20 minutes, and you'll get to enjoy magnificent views of the Golden Gate Bridge on the way there. (Tip: The ferry trip to Alcatraz tends to fill up fast, so make sure to get your Alcatraz tickets well in advance and to reserve a spot on the ship's top level for optimal photo sessions.)
Once reaching Alcatraz, visitors are first given a historical background of the island before being set free to roam about the prison ruins. There's a short yet steep walk to get to the prison, so take as many breaks as you'd like (or better yet, hop on the shuttle to go wherever you'd like in the prison).
You can also choose from several Alcatraz tour options. While you can join Alcatraz Island Rangers for a guided tour, nothing says fun like exploring an infamous prison on your own. The Cellhouse Audio Tour offers insight on the lives of guards and inmates while featuring their own voices—talk about chilling. The National Park Service has a wide range of additional programs and guided tours for visitors to gain general knowledge on the island as well.
After completing an eye-opening tour of the legendary prison, visitors are encouraged to stop at the Gardens of Alcatraz, the Recreation Yard, the ruins of the Warden’s House, or the lighthouse. The island also features a theater where visitors watch the history of Alcatraz. Don’t forget to swing by the gift shop for a souvenir or two; you may also want to visit the Alcatraz Island Bookstore to grab a book with inmates’ personal letters and their escape attempt stories.
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