The Island

The Early Years
Although Alcatraz has a strategic location, its climate, terrain, and treacherous sea all contribute to the islands harsh environment. This environment was difficult to tame and maintain. Even though some Alcatraz “pioneers” succeeded in taming the “Rock” it was a costly endeavor.

Alcatraz is an island that is 22 acres. Alcatraz is a drowned mountain peak. The island is made up entirely of rock with the exception of a thin layer of dirt. The “Rock” was barren with only birds as habitants. The island has no fresh water and was deemed “uninhabitable”.

Alcatraz is one of many small islands in San Francisco Bay. What makes Alcatraz distinct from the other islands in the bay, aside from the events that surround it is that Alcatraz is strategically placed almost in the middle of the entrance to the Bay.

When exploring the California coast by boat it is nearly impossible to miss Alcatraz when approaching San Francisco. The early explorers of California did not fail to notice Alcatraz on their expedition to San Francisco, California. Although the Spanish exploration of California dated back to 1542, they did not take much interest until more than two centuries later. The first recorded sightings of Alcatraz date to 1769.

The name Isla de los Alcatraces (meaning Island of the Pelicans) came from the Spanish explorer, Lt. Juan Manuel de Ayala, on August 12, 1775 and was later called Alcatraz. There is actually a very long story behind the many names of Alcatraz. John A. Martini’s book Fortress Alcatraz give a good account of the history of it’s name.

The island was property of Spain until Mexico won its independence in 1822. The island became personal property while under the control of Mexico, but in 1846 the Californians and Mexicans went to war and Alcatraz became property of the United States. Alcatraz was then declared government property and has remained so since.

The Lighthouse
One of the first goals of the government was to put a lighthouse on Alcatraz. There had been plans to put a lighthouse on Alcatraz since 1846, but due to the strife between California and Mexico construction did not start until December 4, 1852. On June 1, 1854 Alcatraz’s lighthouse was up and ready. The lighthouse cost $15,000 to build and shone 14 miles out to sea.

In 1909 the lighthouse was torn down and a new one was built in a new location. This new light cost $35,000 and shone more than 19 miles out to sea. On November 14, 1963 the lighthouse was automated and no longer needed a keeper.