Alcatraz – “The Rock”

A mile and a half from Fisherman’s Wharf, Alcatraz was the site of the first lighthouse built on the Pacific Coast. Later it was made a federal prison from 1934 to 1963, for such notorious convicts as Al Capone. Now it is one of the city’s most popular attractions.

A visit to the island includes a tour of the cell house where visitors can see where the prisoners lived. Although the last inmates were transferred off the island in 1963, the main prison block with its steel bars, claustrophobic cells, mess hall, library and “dark holes”. The recalcitrant languished in inky blackness, is still structurally intact.

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Alcatraz San Francisco

General Visitor Info

Alcatraz Cruises is the official ferry provider. Departures start at 9:30 AM and are available every half an hour throughout the day. However, please note that these cruises frequently sell out, so as much as possible, plan and book your cruise in advance, especially in the summer and on holidays. Purchase you tour here

Touring the island will be at your own pace. There is no formal tour, but an audio tour is available for the cell house portion of your visit. This award-winning audio tour is available in many languages and can be purchased upon your arrival on the island or with your ferry ticket. Evening tours are also available.

The weather varies every day on the island, sometimes even on the same day. It can be warm, windy and wet any day of the year. The best way to prepare yourself is to dress in layers and wear comfortable shoes as well.

Where is Alcatraz located?

Alcatraz is located in San Francisco Bay, approximately 1.25 miles (2.01 KM) from the northern shore of San Francisco. To get there, take an Alcatraz Cruises from Pier 33 Alcatraz Landing, located along San Francisco’s northern waterfront promenade, on The Embarcadero near the intersection of The Embarcadero and Bay Streets, located approximately 1/4 mile from San Francisco’s Fisherman’s Wharf.

How to Get There

The following SF Municipal Railway (MUNI) bus lines stop within three blocks of THE Hornblower Alcatraz Landing at Pier 33:

#8X Third Street bus
#82X Presidio & Wharves Express bus
F Line streetcar. The most direct route. Use the Bay Street stop
#10 Townsend bus (Weekdays only, ending at 7 p.m.)

For additional information, routes, and schedules, please visit the San Francisco Municipal Transportation Agency

Transfers – book here

Our special tip: See Alcatraz from the air​

Take a 35-45 minute flight that starts off with a fly-over downtown Oakland, along the Bay Bridge, and over the Embarcadero, into San Francisco. From there your pilot navigates all the landmarks San Francisco has to offer including Coit Tower, Alcatraz, and the Golden Gate Bridge. This flight takes place as the sun sets and the skies highlight the Bay in beautiful orange and red hues. Witness nightlife waking up as the city lights light up all the main roads and buildings, and the first stars of the night greet you from above. Buy tickets here

Alcatraz history

The first European to document the islands of San Francisco Bay was Spanish naval officer and explorer Juan Manuel de Ayala, during Spanish rule of California in 1775. He named today’s Yerba Buena Island “La Isla de los Alcatraces”. Later named Alcatraz Island by Captain Beechey, an English naval officer and explorer. Over the years, the Spanish version “Alcatraz” became popular and is now widely used. The Spanish built several small buildings on the island and other minor structures.

Fort Alcatraz

Alcatraz year 1885

The earliest recorded private owner of the Island is Julian Workman. It was given by Mexican governor Pio Pico in June 1846, with the understanding that Workman would build a lighthouse on it. Later in 1846, acting in his capacity as Military Governor of California, John C. Frémont, bought the island for $5,000 in the name of the United States government from Francis Temple.

In 1850, President Millard Fillmore ordered that the Island be set aside specifically as a United States military reservation. It was to use for military purposes based upon the U.S. acquisition of California from Mexico following the Mexican–American War.

Following the acquisition of California by the United States in 1848, the U.S. Army began studying the suitability of the Island for the positioning of coastal batteries to protect the approaches to San Francisco Bay.

In 1853, the United States Army Corps of Engineers began fortifying the Island. Work continued until 1858, when the initial version of Fort Alcatraz was complete. The island’s first garrison, numbering about 200 soldiers, arrived at the end of that year.

When the American Civil War broke out in 1861, the Island mounted 85 cannons (increased to 105 cannons by 1866). At this time, it also served as the San Francisco Arsenal for storage of firearms to prevent them falling into the hands of Confederate sympathizers. Alcatraz was to form a “triangle of defence” with Fort Point and Lime Point, but the work on Lime Point was never built. The first operational lighthouse on the West Coast of the United States was built on the Island. During the war, Fort Alcatraz was used to imprison Confederate sympathizers and privateers on the west coast, but never fired its guns at an enemy.

Military Prison

Because of its isolation from the outside by the cold, strong, tremendous currents of the waters of San Francisco Bay, Alcatraz was used to house soldiers who were guilty of crimes as early as 1859. By 1861, the fort was the military prison for the Department of the Pacific and housed Civil War prisoners of war (POWs). Starting in 1863, the military also held private citizens accused of treason, after the writ of habeas corpus in the United States was suspended.

The Civil War era saw rapid changes in artillery and fortification. Alcatraz’s defences were obsolete. Modernization efforts, including an ambitious plan to level the entire island and construct shell-proof underground magazines and tunnels, were undertaken between 1870 and 1876 but never completed. Instead, the army switched the focus of its plans for Alcatraz from coastal defence to detention. In 1867, a brick jailhouse was built, and in 1868, Alcatraz was officially designated a long-term detention facility for military prisoners. The facility was later discontinued for POWs in 1946. Among those incarcerated at Alcatraz were Confederates caught on the West Coast and some Hopi Native American men in the 1870s.

In 1898, the Spanish–American War increased the prison population from 26 to over 450, and from 1905 to 1907 it was commanded by U.S. Army. After the 1906 San Francisco earthquake, civilian prisoners were transferred to Alcatraz for safe confinement. On March 21, 1907, Alcatraz was officially designated as the Western U.S. Military Prison. In 1909 construction began on the huge concrete main cell block, designed by Major Reuben Turner, which remains the island’s dominant feature. It was completed in 1912.

To accommodate the new cell block, the Citadel, a three-story barracks, was demolished down to the first floor, which was actually below ground level. The building had been constructed in an excavated pit creating a defensive dry moat. The first floor was then incorporated as a basement to the new cell block, giving rise to the popular legend of “dungeons” below the main cell block. The US Disciplinary Barracks was deactivated in October 1933 and transferred to the Bureau of Prisons. During World War I, the prison held conscientious objectors, including Philip Grosser, who wrote a pamphlet entitled Uncle Sam’s Devil’s Island about his experiences.

Federal prison

The United States Disciplinary Barracks on Alcatraz were acquired by the United States Department of Justice on October 12, 1933. The island became a federal prison in August 1934. Alcatraz was designed to hold prisoners who continuously caused trouble at other federal prisons. August 1934, the first batch of 137 prisoners arrived at Alcatraz. Arriving by railroad from the United States Penitentiary in Leavenworth, Kansas to Santa Venetia, California. They were escorted to Alcatraz, handcuffed in high security coaches and guarded by 60 special FBI agents, U.S. Marshals and railway security officials.

Most of the prisoners were notorious bank robbers and murderers. The prison initially had a staff of 155, including the first warden James A. Johnston. The staff were highly trained in security, but not rehabilitation. During the 29 years it was in use, the jail held some of the most notorious criminals in American history, such as Al Capone, Robert Franklin Stroud (the “Birdman of Alcatraz”), George “Machine Gun” Kelly, Bumpy Johnson, and Alvin “Creepy” Karpis (who served more time at Alcatraz than any other inmate).

The Island also provided housing for the Bureau of Prisons staff and their families. During its 29 years of operation, the penitentiary claimed that no prisoner successfully escaped. A total of 36 prisoners made 14 escape attempts, two men trying twice. 23 were caught alive, 6 were shot and killed during their escape, 2 drowned, and 5 are listed as “missing and presumed drowned”. Perhaps the most famous is the intricate escape carried out on June 11, 1962; 3 men are believed to have drowned in their attempt. Contrary to popular belief, it was possible to escape and swim all the way to shore. In 1962 prisoner John Paul Scott escaped and made it to the shore. However, upon reaching the shore he was so weary that he was found unconscious by police and in hypothermic shock. 

To this day, people compete in the Escape from Alcatraz Triathlon and swim the 1.5 miles to shore.

Walk row

Prison cell

Cell blok

Closing of the prison

There are several reasons that Alcatraz closed as a penitentiary in 1963: The penitentiary cost much more to operate than other prisons – nearly $10 per prisoner per day, as opposed to $3 per prisoner per day at Atlanta.

In November 1969, the island was occupied for more than 19 months by a group of Native Americans from San Francisco. They were part of a wave of Native American activists organizing public protests across the US through the 1970s.

In 1972, Alcatraz became part of Golden Gate National Recreation Area and received designation as a National Historic Landmark in 1986.

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Useful Links

Book Accommodation San Francisco – Book Airport Transfer San Francisco – Book Car Rental San Francisco – Book Flight to/from San Francisco – Book Train San Francisco – What Wikipedia says about Alcatraz