Named La Isla de los Alcatraces (Island of the Pelicans) by Juan Manuel de Ayala, a Spanish explorer, in 1775, Alcatraz Island became a U.S. military fortress in the 1850s, sporting about 100 cannons to protect San Francisco Bay. The island also housed the West Coast’s first operational lighthouse. In addition, by the end of the 1850s, Alcatraz served as a prison for military offenders.
During the American Civil War, the island’s prisoners included Confederate sympathizers and people accused of treason. After the war, a number of American Indians were held at the famous prison. Completed in 1912, a 600-cell building on Alcatraz became the largest reinforced structure in the world. The complex also included a hospital and other buildings.
Serving as a maximum-security federal prison from 1934 to 1963, Alcatraz Island, nicknamed The Rock, incarcerated gangster Al Capone, murderer Robert Stroud (the Birdman of Alcatraz) and other notorious felons—more than 1,500 prisoners altogether. Contrary to rumor, there never was a documented escape from Alcatraz, although there were 12 known attempts. Interestingly, since 1980, athletes have participated in the Escape from Alcatraz Triathlon, which includes the 1.5-mile swim from the island to San Francisco, as well as a bike ride of 18 miles and an 8-mile run.
Due to high operational costs, the island prison was shut down in 1963. For two years, beginning in 1969, American Indians occupied Alcatraz, claiming the island for Indians of All Tribes (IOAT), marking the beginning of Indian activism. The remaining Indians were forcibly removed in 1971. The following year, Alcatraz Island became part of Golden Gate National Parks and, in 1973, opened to the public. Today, more than a million visitors from all over the world visit this storied site annually.
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