Now And Then: Alcatraz Island

Ghost of the Golden Gate: Alcatraz Island

To those that only know the Hollywood version, the rich history of Alcatraz is surprising. Civil War fortress, infamous federal prison, bird sanctuary, first lighthouse on the West Coast, and the birthplace of the American Indian Red Power movement are just a few of the fascinating stories of the Rock. Alcatraz Island is a designated National Historic Landmark for its significant contribution to the nation's history.

Click and drag center circle back and forth, to compare then and now image.
teepee in alcatraz garden faces SF cityscape teepee in alcatraz garden faces SF cityscape

Left image
Alcatraz Occupation Poster; GGNRA, Park Archives. Photo: John Slavicek

Right image
June 13, 2018 Time: 9:40 a.m.

"They made many promises, but kept only one.
They promised to take our land, and they took it."

Alcatraz was closed on orders of Attorney General Robert F. Kennedy in 1963. On November 20, 1969 a group of 93 American Indians landed on Alcatraz, claimed the island as Indian property under the 1868 treaty that allowed Indians to appropriate surplus federal land. They offered to buy the island for “$24 in glass beads and red cloth”. In response, the Nixon Administration decided to leave occupiers alone, attempting to negotiate for them to leave. The population grew to more than 600 people, formed a governing council, established a clinic, kitchen, and a grade school. They were supported by activists shuttling supplies from San Francisco and were visited by celebrities such as Anthony Quinn, Jane Fonda, and Merv Griffin. However, as the movement’s students and organizers had to leave the island to return to school, ”freelance photographes and hippies” replaced the activists, attracted by living rent free. In January, 1970, the daughter of organizer Richard Oakes fell to her death from one of the apartment buildings. He left the island afterward and the organization began to fall apart. The government cut all power to the island in May and a few weeks later, fires destroyed several of the historic buildings. Armed federal marshals removed the last of the residents in June, 1971. However, the movement inspired a broader American Indian Movement and led to protests at a variety of sites across the country. The government followed by returning millions of acres of ancestral Indian land and passing multiple laws supporting tribal self-rule.

people walking by alcatraz garden people walking by alcatraz garden

Left image
June 13, 2018  Time: 11:03 a.m.

Right image
Catalogue #: AZ24; GGNRA, Park Archives

Inmate Elliot Michener, a former counterfeiter, was given the privilege of gardening outside the prison walls after he earned the trust of the warden by turning in a set of keys he found while retrieving balls outside the recreation yard. Several prisoners were afforded the same privilege over time, establishing a number of unique botanical varieties on the west side of the island. He described the garden work, “The hillside was a refuge from the disturbances of the prison, the work a release.”

two people walk across asphalt prison rec yard two people walk across asphalt prison rec yard

Left image
Catalogue #: AZ41 Credit: GGNRA, Park Archives

Right image
June 13, 2018 Time: 11:23 a.m.

Handball was a very popular activity during the weekend sessions. It was one of the few opportunities the men had to get physical exercise.

people walk around outside concrete stairs people walk around outside concrete stairs

Left image
January 10, 2018 Time: 2:42 p.m.

Right image
Staff of Alcatraz Post Hospital 1918

In 1907, due to advances in military technology, the island was no longer considered an effective military outpost. It was redesignated as Pacific Branch, U.S. Disciplinary Barracks. It was to be used only as a military prison and it included a hospital on the floor above the Dining Hall. The medical center included full surgical dental and laboratory facilities. The current cell-house, when completed in 1912, was the largest reinforced concrete structure in the world. 

view of visitors in the Alcatraz dining hall from cell door view of visitors in the Alcatraz dining hall from cell door

Left image
January 10, 2018 Time: 2:24 p.m.

Right image
Catalogue #:  AZ34 Credit: GGNRA, Park Archives

The dining hall, aka “the gas chamber”, was a dangerous place. With 250+ hardened criminals in one room at one time, guards limited issuance of tableware, removed sharp bones (which could be used like a knife), and monitored the temperature of coffee which could be used to burn someone. Fourteen teargas dispensers were mounted on the ceiling and could be triggered by a guard stationed on an exterior catwalk. Food at Alcatraz was considered the best in the system and inmates could eat as much as they wanted.


filled street car goes down busy street with view of Alcatraz filled street car goes down busy street with view of Alcatraz

Left image
July 12, 2018  Time: 3:53 p.m.

Right image
Catalogue #:  AZ28 Credit: GGNRA, Park Archives

Before the U.S. Army claimed Alcatraz in 1853, the “Rock” was just that – a gently sloped, graywacke sandstone island covered with scrub brush and guano. There was no natural source of water, and no evidence of any human habitation. Some historians believe that local members of the Ohlone tribe may have used the island for ceremonial purposes and to collect eggs. There are reports that Spanish and other sailors landed on the island both to collect eggs and guano for use in saltpeter, in important ingredient in gunpowder. The population in San Francisco in 1853 was around 40,000 as compared to 850 when gold was discovered in 1848 and 884,000 today.

path overgrown with grass and dirt path overgrown with grass and dirt

Left image
January 10, 2018 Time: 2:49 p.m.

Right image
Catalogue #:  AZ25 Credit: GGNRA, Park Archives

Guards and other prison employees who lived on the island lived a normal life that included many recreational pursuits, including fishing. These fishermen pose with their catch in front of apartments built on the old military parade ground. Those apartments were vandalized near the end of the Indian occupation in 1971.  After the apartments were destroyed by fire, the government decided to demolish the buildings and leave them in place rather than spending millions of dollars to remove the rubble from the Island. The rubble now serves as valuable habitat for nesting birds and the indigenous deer mouse.

people walk outside of the cell house people walk outside of the cell house

Left image
Feb 27, 2018  Time:11:51 a.m.

Right image
Catalogue #:  AZ18 Credit: GGNRA, Park Archives

Initially conceived as a military fortress, part of the “Triangle of Defenses” protecting San Francisco Bay from attack (Fort Alcatraz, Fort Point, Fort Lime Point). The Citadel was completed in 1859 as the last point of military defense on an island surrounded by 111 cannon. The Citadel consisted of a basement surrounded by a dry moat and two aboveground levels. The basement housed a kitchen, storerooms, a few bedrooms and single jail cells. The upper levels were used as military personnel quarters, parlors, and mess room. The basement and moat still exist underneath the current cell-house. The United States built the first lighthouse in California on Alcatraz in 1853. Today, approximately 4,500 tourists visit the island daily.

dock of alcatraz island dock of alcatraz island

Left image
December 20, 2017 Time: 8:31 a.m.

Right image
Catalogue #:  AZ35 Credit: GGNRA, Park Archives

The first Bureau of Prisons inmates were brought by train across the U.S. from other prisons. Most of the initial prisoners were considered “the worst of the worst”, too incorrigible for other prisons. The security risk was so high, that no chances would be taken by off-loading them on the mainland, so the rail cars with the prisoners shackled within, were loaded on to barges and towed across the bay to Alcatraz.


Last updated: December 5, 2019

Park footer

Contact Info

Mailing Address:

Golden Gate National Recreation Area
Building 201, Fort Mason

San Francisco , CA 94123-0022


415 561-4700

Contact Us


Stay Connected