No visit to San Francisco is complete without venturing out to “The Rock” in the choppy waters of San Francisco Bay – Alcatraz stood as a notorious federal prison for almost 30 years between 1934 and 1963 and housed some of America’s most dangerous prisoners including gangster Al “Scarface” Capone and murderer Robert Stroud or the “Birdman of Alcatraz”. Here are 5 interesting facts I learnt about Alcatraz on my visit in May.
1. Alcatraz gets its name from the Spanish word “alcatraces” meaning pelicans. When the Spanish first sailed through San Francisco Bay in the 18th century, they were amazed to discover the island housing colonies of brown pelicans. They named the island “La Isla de los Alcatraces” and the name stuck! I didn’t spot any pelicans on my visit, but there sure were plenty of seagulls!
2. Speaking of seagulls, they are currently thriving on the island among other species of birds including Cormorants and Guillemots. Since parts of Alcatraz Island were closed to the public, the colonies of birds have been nesting on rocky outcrops and in rubble of some buildings. All animals are protected on the island
3. Alcatraz Island is part of the Golden Gate National Recreation Area and falls under the management of the National Park Service. The Park receives 16 million visitors a year making it one of the most popular in the country!
4. Alcatraz used to be a military fortress before it became a federal prison. Cannons were installed to ward off invaders and the island was seen as an ideal place to keep military prisoners due to the cold, choppy waters surrounding the island which lies 1.5 miles away from San Francisco.
5. Despite being seen as “unescapable” in its day, you can try and swim from Alcatraz to the mainland. The annual Escape from Alcatraz Triathlon lets elite (read: crazy) athletes swim across San Francisco Bay as well as go for a bike ride and a run while they are at it. I can barely swim 3 lengths of a swimming pool so that’s me out!