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‘Alcatraz’. Even the name is formidable. It acted as a federal prison up to 1963; however it is now a tourist attraction which you can reach by ferry from San Francisco. Visitors to the island can enter into the world that was once off-limits to the public and learn all about its history which you may not have realized existed.

Most of us probably only know of the Hollywood version of Alcatraz, as many films have been filmed which reference or are about the island. But, there is so much more to it. The island is home to the oldest operating lighthouse on the western coast of the U.S.A. Actually, the very first lighthouse built on the island was put there during the gold rush; so many gold seekers came in by ship that San Francisco needed a lighthouse to guide them. In 1909, the old lighthouse was torn down to make way for Alcatraz prison, and a new lighthouse, the one that is in working order today, was erected.

Before becoming a federal prison, Alcatraz was a military prison. Its surrounding cold water and strong currents made it ideal; who would try to escape? Following the San Francisco earthquake of 1906, civilians were transferred to the island for their own safety. In 1912 a large house was built in the centre of the island. Between the 1920s and 1930s, crime rates rose an awful lot, putting government under pressure to deal with it. An idea for a super prison was spawned and various places were checked out as a location. Alaska was considered but eventually Alcatraz was decided upon. The folks of San Francisco at the time were not at all happy about the proximity of so many criminals, but the prison plans went ahead anyway.

Life at Alcatraz was tough for its inmates. For the first three months of their sentence they were not allowed outside visitors, and any privileges were only given to the inmates if they first earned them. Said privileges were taken away promptly at the first strike. No one ever successfully escaped from Alcatraz, or so they say, though some did try. Some famous ‘guests’ at Alcatraz include the ‘Birdman of Alcatraz’, Robert Stroud; the infamous Al Capone, George ‘Machine Gun’ Kelly, and James ‘Whitey’ Bulger.

Alcatraz is a place full of mystery and natural beauty; a strange and enjoyable combination. A visit to the island will shake some of that mystery, though plenty will certainly remain as to what went on in those dark years of Alcatraz.