Alcatraz Island in San Francisco Bay has been a community center for all sorts of creatures over the last two centuries. It was a forbidding, barren rock when the white man first found it in the 1700s, inhabited by large colonies of sea birds. The name Alcatraz is derived from the spanish Isla de los Alcatraces: Island of the Pelicans.
The U.S. Army built a fortress here in the 1850s. The large paved area pictured here, at the east (leeward) end of the island, was the fort's parade grounds. Over time, soil and plant materials were brought from nearby Angel Island to make The Rock, as it quickly became known, a more attractive place for the residents.
During the 1860s, the island became home to Civil War prisoners. In the early 20th century, the large cellhouse was built on the island's crest, and by the late 1920s was at full capacity.
Due to rising operational cost, the military decided to close the prison in 1934, and the US Department of Justice took over as landlord. By August of that year, the toughest prisoners of the US prison system were transferred here, including many of the most notorious names in US crime: Al Capone, Doc Barker, "Machine-Gun" Kelly, Robert "Birdman" Stroud.
Prisoners were housed in windowless cells
5 ft by 9 ft — concrete and steel cages stacked three high in rows of 56. Prison staff was housed in apartments near the dock and in residential buildings on the old parade grounds, with the warden's house (to the left of the parade grounds) overlooking it all from a place of prominence.
But the corrosive effects of high winds and salt water took their toll eventually on the prison. By the mid-1960s, Alcatraz was costing the government over ten dollars per prisoner per day, triple the cost of other facilities, and after 29 years of federal operation, the prison was closed by Attorney General Bobby Kennedy in 1963.
Alcatraz lay fallow and crumbling until a large group of American Indians landed on the island in 1969 and claimed it as Indian property. But the isolation, lack of water, and high cost of occupancy stymied them too. The original activists drifted away and the social structure of the community deteriorated. After fires destroyed the warden's home, officers' club, and lighthouse keeper's residence, Federal Marshalls ended the anarchy by removing the remaining residents in 1971.
The island was added to the Golden Gate National Recreation Area shortly thereafter, and is one of the most popular sites in the National Park System, with over a million visitors annually. Gardens are maintained by volunteers.
And the parade grounds? Now closed to the public, with all the buildings gone, it's home to one of the largest colonies of western gulls on the northern California coast.