Bay Lights Blog

Alcatraz Island: Top 7 Questions Answered

by Anna Harutyunyan

Once considered the "prison of America," Alcatraz Island is filled with a rich history. We put together this article to answer some of the most commonly asked questions about this historic prison island. Learn about the prisoners that served time here, the possibilities of escaping and the overall concept of Alcatraz's purpose.

Related Blog: Top 5 Activities on the Water in San Francisco

When was Alcatraz Built?

Alcatraz was initially built between 1910-1912, as an old military fort. The island, along with the structure, was purchased by the U.S. Department of Justice in 1933 and the structure was demolished and rebuilt. The new 3-story structure reopened on August 11th, 1934 as the Alcatraz Federal Penitentiary. This prison contained 600 cells and was known as the biggest concrete structure in the world and supposedly the most secure on the plant. It was meant to lock away the most dangerous and violent offenders.

Who were the First Prisoners of Alcatraz?

The first civilian prisoners arrived via ship on August 11th, 1934. Al Capone was one of the first prisoners to be locked away here. Al Capone was a well-known gangster that dabbled in a bit of everything, including - bootlegging, prostitution and gambling. Capone was responsible for many brutal acts of violence, generally against other gangsters. He is famously known for the St. Valentine's Day Massacre, in which he ordered the assassination of seven rivals. Capone was never arrested for this massacre but was finally brought to justice for income-tax evasion (go figure) in 1931.

Al Capone was incarcerated for nearly 7 years, before being released. He died in 1947.

Why is Alcatraz Famous?

Why is Alcatraz NOT famous? Alcatraz was a one of a kind prison. It served as the prison for the most dangerously notorious criminals. We already know Capone was incarcerated here, but along with Capone this prison also was once "home" to the following bad guys:

  • George "Machine Gun" Kelly
  • "The Birdman of Alcatraz" - Robert Stroud
  • Roy Gardner
  • Alvin Karpis
  • James "Whitey" Bulger

Not only did this prison serve as a place for the most dangerous inmates, but it was uniquely placed on an island surrounded by the icy cold currents of San Francisco Bay. The warmest water temperature of the bay is only around 60 degrees Fahrenheit (brrr).

Even with these low temperatures, three prisoners were ambitious enough to escape. If they weren't popularly known then, they sure are now. The Anglin Brothers and Frank Lee Morris managed to escape which lead to the closing of Alcatraz. Continue on to learn more about the escaped prisoners.

Why Alcatraz Prison Closed Down?

The prison closed down in 1963 after it proved to be "faulty".

Seawater was used for plumbing and the type of concrete used to build the prison did not mesh well with the saltwater. Any leaks throughout the prisons piping would slowly soak into the concrete, eventually creating chips and breaks in the concrete. This is one of the reasons the 3 prisoners that escaped were able to scrape through their walls, with a SPOON.

In between the walls, there was minimal space, along with all of the pipes and plumbing for the prison. Once these prisoners reached the top, they would not have been able to be seen. Because Alcatraz is surrounded by "shark infested" icy cold waters, it was thought that there was no need for fencing around the prison. Boy, were they wrong. Did the prisoners make it across the island alive? To this day, it is still a mystery.

Is Alcatraz Haunted?

Alcatraz is said to be the most haunted prison in the country. Whether you believe in that kind of stuff or not, a visit to Alcatraz can still creep anyone out. Visitors claim to have heard men screaming, whistling, talking, and doors clanging in the prison. Many deaths have occurred in this prison and it is believed that those who have died in the prison haunt the building.

Can you swim to Alcatraz?

Sure you can.

The Alcatraz Sharkfest Swim is held every year in June. This is not open to just anyone and it is limited to 800 participants per year. This swim is 1.5 miles long and there are many kayakers and EMTs scattered throughout the water for any necessary rescue. This event sells out months in advance... apparently, there are many individuals that want to challenge themselves to this swim. On average, most swimmers that complete this challenge can finish within 45 minutes, but there is a 75-minute limit.

So, if you really want to see what the Anglin Brothers and Frank Lee Morris experienced, consider signing up for this annual swim. But remember, this swim is only open to experienced swimmers that can comfortably swim a mile in a pool within 40 minutes (without touching bottom). There are areas of the bay that are over 100 feet deep, after all.

Can You Visit Alcatraz?

Yes, you can. There are many tours available to book when you are in the San Francisco area. You can take a ferry ride and actually walk through and tour the prison. Or you can enjoy a comfortable charter tour around Alcatraz Island, along with many other iconic spots.

If you have any other questions or are interested in touring this notorious landmark, do not hesitate to contact us. Bay Lights Charters is reliable and can provide unforgettable experiences.

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