Alcatraz is best known for being a prison – and in particular, being the prison that once held infamous names like Al Capone, Robert Franklin Stroud and George “Machine Gun” Kelly. And today, most tourists flocking to the island aren’t going for the abundant bird life, but rather the prison history – a narrative that was further romanticized by Hollywood with flicks about the only ever successful escape, and of course the Nicolas Cage hostage situation that featured a weirdly neon-green weaponized biological agent.
But the famed prison break attempts are but a slice of this island’s history. Besides acting as a prison, Alcatraz was also home to the West Coast’s first lighthouse, a major Native American protest, and during the Second World War, it served as a small military installation.
Recently in March, more about the island’s past came to light after archaeologists had discovered tunnels beneath the prison on Alcatraz. But these weren’t prison era tunnels made by potential escapes – instead, they went all the way back to the time of the Civil War.
Along with the uncovered tunnels, discoveries of buried buildings and ammunition magazines confirmed for historians long-held suspicions that Alcatraz prison was actually built right about an old military fortification. Using radar and terrestrial laser scans, the archaeologists were able to examine the ground below the 20th century’s prison recreation yard.
Timothy de Smet, an archaeologist from Binghamton University, told PBS of the study, which was published in the journal Near Surface Geophysics. “This really changes the picture of things. These remains are so well preserved and so close to the surface. They weren’t erased from the island — they’re right beneath your feet.”
The U.S. government first took note of the military value of Alcatraces – what the island was called then – back in the 1840s. they began building a military fortress in 1853 and installed 111 cannons to encircle the island. In 186, Fort Alcatraz became the Pacific Coast’s main military prison. During the Civil War, in addition to incarcerating rebel soldiers as prisoners, Alcatraz also served as an Army training ground.
In 1934 Alcatraz became a U.S. Penitentiary, but during World War II, the island was still used for military purposes. The soldiers in the picture below are posed with an anti-aircraft gun on the island during the war, keeping a lookout for Japanese pilots:
During the Fort Alcatraz years, Native Americans were often imprisoned at Alcatraz, especially during the late 1800s and early 1900s.
A few years following the close of Alcatraz as a U.S. Penitentiary in 1963, a group of American Indians occupied Alcatraz. Activist Richard Oakes, pictured on the left, was one of the leaders of the Indians of All Tribes movement, which occupied the island for 19 months between 1969-1970, to symbolically claim back the island for American Indians:
Then in 1972, Alcatraz became part of the National Parks Service, earning designation as a National Historic Landmark in 1986. And while the newly discovered Civil War-era tunnels and structures are all located underground, there’s still plenty to do at ground level and outdoors.
The Parks Conservancy tweeted about an art display at the prison earlier this summer:
The #ArtintheParks exhibition, #FutureIDS at Alcatraz, is prompting visitors to shift their thinking about rehabilitation, reentry, and reintegration. Here are some powerful reactions: https://t.co/dyr78iI4NZ pic.twitter.com/0Ke7KZxmBf
— Parks Conservancy (@parks4all) July 11, 2019
The park service also hosts conservation and sustainability programs there:
These volunteers are enrolled in a training program called CompostSMART, and earning graduation certificates. Here they’re led by Stephen Andrews of CompostSMART, and Dick Miner of the #GGNPC gardening program.
— Alcatraz Island (@AlcatrazIsland) May 29, 2019
And naturally, you can also see the original inhabitants of Alcatraz. They’re never confined to the island but seem to appreciate all the space:
The #SnowyEgrets are returning to the island, scouting for nest sites and entertaining visitors with their notorious squawks and gurgles.
Check for them on the West Road on your next island visit!
— Alcatraz Island (@AlcatrazIsland) April 9, 2019
What do you think of Alcatraz’s fascinating history?