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Alcatraz Island Early History and Modern Trip Information

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Alcatraz Island is located less than six miles away from the southern shores of Sausalito. Originally, the famous island of Alcatraz was recognized as an egg gathering area by the local Ohlone peoples and the native Miwok tribes that resided nearby to the coastlines in the San Francisco region. Thousands of Native American people enjoyed living along the California coastlines for up to 20,000 years before Europeans arrived on the continent.

A Brief Early History Of Alcatraz:

When explorers from Spain arrived in the San Francisco area in 1769, Alcatraz was a barren island of land that was painted in decades of shimmering white bird droppings. From Sausalito, Alcatraz would have appeared to be made of a substance that was quite different from the lush local landscapes. Sausalito is named for its groves of fresh-water willow trees that marked the location as a place that had sweet drinking water to offer.

Many of the local Ohlone and Miwok oral traditions were lost as the Spanish explorers overran the native communities and claimed the lands around San Francisco for Spain. Historians suggest that Alcatraz Island was used as an easy egg gathering area by the native cultures; however, fragments of Indian lore suggest that Alcatraz Island was an early prison situation that held banned tribal members until they died from exposure.

In 1775, “La Isla de Los Alcatraces” was named by Spanish Lt. Juan Manuel de Ayala as he mapped the San Francisco bay. ‘Los Alcatraces’ (Seabird Island) became ‘Alcatraz’ (Bird Island) in newer rendering of maps. Nicknamed ‘The Rock’ by locals, the 22-acre Alcatraz Island became an active participant in American history when the California gold rush brought over 30,000 new people into the area during the years around 1850.

During 1850, Alcatraz was designated as government land and the island became a military outpost that was designed to protect the harbor. A large lighthouse was erected in 1854 to help ships servicing the gold rush crowds navigate through the treacherous San Francisco waterways. By 1859, a permanent military fort was completed on Alcatraz and military wrongdoers began arriving at Fort Alcatraz to serve-out their sentencing times.

Between 1860 and 1933, Alcatraz was an evolving military fortress and prison. Over the years, military personnel and families lived on the island while tending to their military duties and correctional institution responsibilities. Nearby Sausalito grew in pace with Alcatraz Island. The current City of Sausalito was first visited by Europeans in 1775 and grew to become a colorful illegal alcohol drop-off location during prohibition: 1920-33.

Alcatraz Island Today:

Today, Alcatraz Island is run by the National Park Service; pier 33 in San Francisco sells ferry tickets that stop in Sausalito before continuing on to Alcatraz Island. Each year about one million people visit the 22-acre island that offers tours of the famous Alcatraz Federal Prison that was active between 1934 and 1963. Visitors can tour the prison, see exciting museum displays and enjoy the protected bird sanctuary on Alcatraz Island.

There are many stories and myths that surround the Alcatraz Federal Prison days on the island. Prisoners believed that the San Francisco Bay waters were home to sharks that would prevent their swim to the mainland. In truth, there are only bottom-feeding sharks in San Francisco Bay that have no interest in sampling tasty prisoners. During the 1960s, fitness guru Jack LaLanne made the swim from Alcatraz to the mainland, towing a boat.

The historic Alcatraz gardens draw many visitors to the island each year. During the 1920s, soil was imported from Angel Island, and lush gardens were installed in the non-prisoner living areas, prison district and in terraced “hillside” locations on the 22-acre rock called Alcatraz Island. Prisoners were allowed to carefully cultivate the gardens as a form of luxury recreation for those who chose to follow all prison rules and regulations.

All fresh water on Alcatraz must be brought in from the mainland, and this fact became the ultimate downfall of Alcatraz Federal Prison. When delivery costs outweighed the cost of building new prison facilities on land, Alcatraz was closed. Today, visitors to Alcatraz Island should wear comfortable walking shoes and bring a layering of clothes to be ready for all types of weather conditions. Sausalito vacation planners can arrange for ferry trip bookings and the Alcatraz Federal Park prison tour tickets upon request.

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Photos copyright by Jay Graham Photographer