How It's Built: Alcatraz Island
As a prison that housed some of the most famous convicts and criminals in the world, Alcatraz Island has become an extremely popular tourist attraction in San Francisco, California. However, Alcatraz has always been more than a federal prison. With a history rooted as far back as the Gold Rush, the purpose and function of the island have evolved many times since its original founding in the mid-1800s.
The History of Alcatraz
The name Alcatraz comes from the Spanish word "Alcatraces". The island has this name because of Juan Manuel de Ayala, a Spanish explorer who was the first reported founder of the island back in 1775. While the exact meaning of the more Anglicized word Alcatraz is unclear, it is believed to mean something along the lines of "strange bird" or "pelican" due to their population in that area.
While the island of Alcatraz was founded in 1775, it wasn't until the 1850s that it became a useful defense strategy for the United States military. This is when the Gold Rush was happening in its full effect and San Francisco was facing extraordinary growth. As such, by presidential order, the U.S. Army was to use the island to build a fortress and defend the city of San Francisco.
In 1853, the United States Army Corps of Engineers had begun creating defense structures on the island that included a lighthouse, military fortification, and a military prison. The initial version of Alcatraz was finished in 1858 and 200 soldiers were assigned to the island to protect it. However, as the Gold Rush and wars ended, the need for protection slowly faded and the island would continue to serve as different kinds of prison for the next 100 years.
It was 1907 when Alcatraz became primarily a prison rather than a protective fortress as the Western U.S. Military Prison took over control of the island. In 1909 construction started on the cell block for which Alcatraz is known today, designed by Major Reuben Turner. It was finished in 1912.
Finally, in 1933, Alcatraz was acquired by the United States Department of Justice and became a federal prison a year after. The first carousel of prisoners arrived at Alcatraz on August 11th, 1934 from across the United States before it was shut down in 1963. Some of the world's most famous criminals like Al "Scarface" Capone, George "Machine Gun" Kelly, Robert "The Birdman" Stroud, and more were held there during this time. Overall, more than 15,000 inmates lived in Alcatraz over 29 years of being a federal prison.
Alcatraz closed in 1963 for a multitude of reasons. Although there was a famous escape in which the bodies were never found, the reason for the prison closing reportedly has nothing to do with the incident. Alcatraz closed because of the cost of operation as well as the wear and tear on the buildings due to salt water saturation.
Due to the fact that the prison was on an island in the middle of the ocean, all supplies for inmates, guards, wardens, and overall prison staff had to be brought by boat. The island also had no fresh water and just under one million gallons of water had to be barged to the prison every week. This meant that the average cost of a prisoner per day was around $10 when the average at most other prisons across the country was $3. Although the island's isolation was the main way to ensure security from the general population and decrease the chances of any escapes, it was also the reason that the island had to close down.
It wasn't until 10 years after the island closed its prison operations in 1963 that Alcatraz became a popular tourist destination and a national park.
How Alcatraz Was Built
As mentioned above it wasn't until 1907 that Alcatraz became a military prison and it was in 1933 that it became a federal prison. However, before all that, there were already a few buildings on the island. First, there was the dock.
As Alcatraz is an island, one of the most important structures on the entire island is the dock as it acts as the main port for boats that are carrying supplies and products. The dock was completed on-site in 1854 and has been modified many times since. Modifications include making it bigger to allow for larger boats as well as upgrading the materials of which it is made in order to support more weight.
There also was the original lighthouse. As the Gold Rush was in full effect and ship traffic was high, Alcatraz was the perfect location for a lighthouse as it stood perfectly between the Golden Gate of what is now known as Land's End and Battery Spencer. The lighthouse was first lit on June 1, 1854, and was reportedly the first lighthouse to be built on the pacific coast. The original lighthouse was replaced by a new, 84-foot concrete lighthouse in 1909 and is the same one you would see on the island if visiting today.
During this time, Alcatraz was also primarily a military base and used as a fortification for San Fransisco. This meant that they needed to develop buildings and housing for soldiers. That's when they built the barracks. The ground floor was built between 1865 and 1867. It was built to be bomb-proof by creating 10-foot-think brick walls that would protect the soldiers from any attack. Once the island become a prison in 1907, inmate labor was used to build three more stories on top of the original level. The barracks served as soldier housing and also as a place to put cannons that would protect the dock from any unwanted visitors. While Alcatraz was a federal penitentiary, the barracks were fenced in to protect the families and guards.
In 1907 when the barracks were built, plans were also made for the island to house over 600 prisoners in a primary cell house. Designed by Major Reuben Turner, a construction engineer, the cell house was the largest steel-reinforced building in the world at the time and was completed in 1912. Turner is renowned for some of his work on prison designs, especially the development and inclusion of innovative features like central steam heat, skylights, and electric lights.
However, there were a few challenges when building the cell house. First were the materials. As the cell house was built on top of a hill on a rock in the middle of the ocean, getting materials to the island presented a huge challenge. As such, equipment had to be barged in from the mainland which proved to be costly. The second issue was the workers. As the cell house was being built by unskilled inmates, it took a while to train them on how to properly pour concrete and use construction best practices. Lastly, concrete is a mix that requires freshwater. If the island had been in the middle of a lake, making concrete would have been easier. But since Alcatraz was surrounded by salt water, they also had to source water from the mainland. Once the cell house was finished, many of the builders became prisoners of the very structure that they built.
When the United States Department of Justice took over the island in 1933, the cell house underwent some renovations by the Bureau of Prisons. These changes included constructing six guard towers around the prison, stringing up barbed wire, adding chainlink fences around the entire cell house, and installing metal detectors across the compound. Lastly, in 1939, some cells were remodeled and electric doors were installed.
Visiting Alcatraz Island
As an ex-prison and military base, Alcatraz Island is a historic landmark on the West Coast and a must-visit if you're ever in San Francisco. According to the Federal Bureau of Prisons, it is one of the most visited national parks in the United States with over one million visitors to the park each year. Make sure to plan your visit to Alcatraz in advance as it can be difficult to get tickets due to its popularity.