WELCOME TO THE ROCK
1. Is the Alcatraz we see today much different from how
Alcatraz looked when it was a penitentiary?
Other than structures burned or razed before it became a National Park site,
Alcatraz looks pretty much the same today as it did when the penitentiary was in
operation. The National Park Service has made some changes for visitor
accessibility and safety--including the installation of an elevator in the
cellhouse--and the Park Service has allowed some areas to revert to a more
natural state for resource management purposes. The National Park Service has
also rebuilt, reinforced or retrofitted much of what had been constructed on
Alcatraz and restored the Alcatraz gardens.
The most obvious difference between Alcatraz today and Alcatraz in the prison
days is the number of people on the island. More park visitors take the ferry to
Alcatraz on a busy summer day than were on the island as prisoners during the
entire 29 years of its use as a federal penitentiary.
2. Do former inmates ever come back to Alcatraz?
Yes. Alcatraz is the only federal penitentiary open for recreational visits from
former inmates. Convicted felons, after release from prison, are generally not
allowed to visit the pals they left behind, and active prisons aren't really very
accommodating to sightseeing visitors. But a return visit to Alcatraz is as easy as
getting on a ferry.
3. Why is this former prison a National Park?
Because preserving, protecting and interpreting natural, scenic and historic areas
is the mission of the National Park Service--and Alcatraz Island, part of Golden
Gate National Recreation Area, is natural, scenic and historic.
And because the visiting public wants to see Alcatraz.
When tours of Alcatraz began in 1973, the National Park Service thought that a
few months of tours would be ample time to give any and all interested members
of the public an opportunity to view the island, then provide feedback for Park
Service officials as they tried to figure out future plans for Alcatraz. The Alcatraz
tour quickly became one of the most popular attractions in Northern California.
The popularity extends beyond the intrigue of the former prison. The prison
opened in 1934, but the history of Alcatraz began long before the federal
4. When was Alcatraz Island discovered?
The first European discovery of this 22.5 acre island took place when Alcatraz was
explored by Spaniards in 1775. The Spanish had been exploring up and down the
California coast for several years, but heavy fog obscures the entrance to San
Francisco Bay all summer long.
Also, if the Spanish ships had sailed past San Francisco Bay from well offshore,
the entrance to the bay might have been obscured by Alcatraz Island and Angel
Island which, from a distance, visually fill in the gap known as the Golden Gate,
the mouth of San Francisco Bay.
Spain's Juan Manuel de Ayala first explored and charted San Francisco Bay in
1775. The first chart of San Francisco Bay recognized as being relatively accurate
didn't come out for more than half a century after Ayala's initial exploration of the
Somehow, between the explorer and the mapmaker, and with the passage of so
much time, there was confusion about which island in the bay had been given the
name "La Isla de Los Alcatraces", but once the map was published, Alcatraces
became the name of what we now call Alcatraz.
California became an American possession in 1848, and a state in 1850. President
Millard Fillmore declared Alcatraz to be for public purposes, which meant
government property to be used by the military.
5. What does the name "Alcatraz" mean?
"Alcatraz" is a derivative of "Alcatraces", a name given by the Spaniards. Most
folks believe the Spanish mariners used the word in reference to birds.
There are several possible stories about what the word means. Some etymologists
point to the word's ancient Arabic origins as a term for an irrigation bucket,
suggesting the irrigation bucket reference was evoked by the pelican's distinctive
beak, then generalized to other birds.
Others argue that Alcatraces translates to "Island of the Cormorants", another
distinctive bird of the California coast, or to a gannet, a coastal bird that resembles
6. Why did the U.S. federal government want Alcatraz?
It started with navigation in San Francisco Bay. In 1850, a lighthouse was
commissioned for Alcatraz Island. When the Alcatraz Lighthouse light was lit for
the first time, on June 1, 1854, it was the first lighthouse to operate on the entire
This lighthouse was razed in 1909, and replaced with a taller lighthouse--the one
we see on Alcatraz today--because the original lighthouse was too short to be seen
over the new cellhouse that was being built.
Supplemented by two foghorns and now automated and modernized, the Alcatraz
lighthouse remains an important navigational aid in San Francisco Bay.