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Top 10 Famous Facts About Alcatraz Island

One of the best things to do in San Francisco is to hop on a ferry to visit a small island that is located just nearby. This island has an extensive history and is home to one of the most notorious buildings in the country.

This building was once the home of some of the most dangerous criminals in American history and has now become a tourist attraction.

In this article, you’ll discover some of the most interesting facts about Alcatraz Island, a famous island in the United States that features some of the most historic buildings in San Francisco.

1. It’s located relatively close to San Francisco’s northern shore

Even though the island is one of the most famous islands in the United States, it’s pretty small as well. It has dimensions of just 511 by 180 meters (1,675 by 590 feet) which means you can walk all around it in less than an hour.

The island covers a total area of just 8.9 hectares (22 acres). That being said, it’s quite visible from the northern shore of San Francisco which features the Marina District and the popular Fisherman’s Wharf.

That’s not only because it reaches a maximum height of 41 meters (141 feet), but also because it’s located just 2.01 kilometers (1.5 miles) offshore, right in between the iconic Golden Gate Bridge and its equally impressive brother nearby, the SF-Oakland Bay Bridge.

VIew of Alcatraz island facts
View of the island / Hubert Yu /

2. It’s part of a much larger protected area in and around the city

Alcatraz Island has an extended history and has been used for a wide variety of purposes throughout its history. Ever since 1972, however, it has been turned into a major tourist attraction that is managed by the National Park Service.

This is the year that Alcatraz Island became part of the Golden Gate National Recreation Area, a large protected area surrounding San Francisco Bay.

The protected area covers an area of 33,195 hectares (82,027 acres) and mostly consists of ecologically important areas and landscapes around the city. It stretches from San Mateo County in the south to the northern part of Marin County in the north.

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Since this is an urban public park, it’s considered to be the largest of its kind in the world, covering an area two and a half times the size of the city of San Francisco itself.

Alcatraz Island location
The island and its surroundings / Wiki Commons

3. The first buildings on the island were built during the 1850s

Ever since the United States acquired California through the “Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo” in 1848, an event that ended the Mexican–American War, options to use the island as a military base have been explored.

The location of the island was perfectly suited to install military fortifications to protect the city of San Francisco.

The first phase of this fortification project was completed between 1853 and 1859. This marked the completion of the first version of what is referred to as “Fort Alcatraz.”

Later that year, the first 200 soldiers were stationed here. Recruits were trained on the island in preparation for the Civil War starting in 1861 as well.

Alcatraz Island in 1895

4. It’s home to the first lighthouse on the West Coast

Another historic building on the island is the Alcatraz Lighthouse. The first version of this important lighthouse was completed in 1854, around the time that the military fortifications were being built too.

This was the first lighthouse that was ever built on the West Coast of the United States. The original version was eventually replaced by the current lighthouse which was completed in 1909.

The lighthouse stands 26 meters (84 feet) tall and was built because the original tower was destroyed by the 1906 Earthquake that flattened most parts of the city.

Alcatraz Island Lighthouse
Alcatraz Lighthouse / Jared Zimmerman / Wiki Commons

5. The military prison was transformed into a federal prison in the 1930s

Even though the island served as a military fortification initially, it was quickly used as a military prison for naughty soldiers as well. The first prisoners to arrive here did so as early as 1859.

It wasn’t until 1867, however, that the first brick-built jailhouse was constructed on the island. Before this, the inmates were kept in the basement of the guardhouse, not exactly a great place to be locked up.

During the Spanish-American War in 1898, about 450 prisoners were held here and the prison became the official Western U.S. Military Prison in 1907.

The most prominent building on Alcatraz Island is the huge concrete jailhouse that covers its central part. This structure was completed between 1909 and 1912 and would end up housing some of America’s most notorious criminals.

It served as a federal prison for 29 years between 1934 and 1963 and was once the home of notorious gangster Al Capone (1899-1947).

The cell of Al Capone in Alcatraz
The cell of Al Capone / Tres Calcetines /

More interesting facts about Alcatraz Island

6. Even though it was assumed that a prisoner escaping from Alcatraz Island was impossible, one man managed to swim across the cold San Francisco Bay.

On the evening of December 16, 1962, a prisoner named John Paul Scott (1927-1987) made it all across the bay after successfully escaping from the federal prison. He washed ashore near the Golden Gate Bridge, about 5 kilometers (3 miles) from the island.

He was unconscious and completely exhausted which resulted in his apprehension and subsequent return to the prison.

7. The name of the island was initially assigned by the Spanish in 1775 as “La Isla de Los Alcatraces.” This, however, didn’t refer to the island we know today as Alcatraz but to the nearby Yerba Buena Island.

It’s assumed that the Spanish named it as such about the pelicans on the island. “Alcatraz” translates to “pelican” from Old Spanish, even though the current translation is “pelícano.”

Alcatraz island bird

8. Even though the lighthouse appears to be the tallest structure on the island, this is not the case. The Alcatraz Water Tower is 3 meters (10 feet) taller than the lighthouse as it reaches a height of 29 meters (94 feet).

The reason why it appears to be much taller when you approach the island is that it was built on much higher ground. This was needed to reach a focal height of 65 meters (241 feet) above sea level.

9. The United States Government once had the idea to completely flatten the island and build a network of underground spaces and tunnels. This project was started and lasted between 1870 and 1876.

They realized, however, that this impossible and futile task was indeed impossible and stopped their efforts. They only managed to flatten the southern tip of the island, a section now known as the “Parade Grounds.”

Aerial view of Alcatraz island
Aerial view of the island / Ralf Baechle /

10. To visit the island you can take a ferry operated by Alcatraz Cruises LLC. This ferry boarding station is located at Pier 33, right in the heart of San Francisco’s Embarcadero.

Alcatraz Island has been one of the city’s most popular tourist attractions for multiple decades and welcomes over 1.7 million visitors every year.

Alcatraz island fun facts
Approaching the island / Chris6d / Wiki Commons