Get ready for Alcatraz. For all its checkered history and infamy, Alcatraz is one of San Francisco
's main tourist draws and favorite landmarks. What attracts people to this bleak island with its sheer cliffs, swift currents and frigid waters? Well, for one thing, this has been home to some of the world's most notorious criminals. It is also a wildlife sanctuary with a number of bird species nesting there.
The history of Alcatraz, or The Rock, as it is more fondly called, began with high hopes. Juan de Ayala was the first European to discover and explore this island. He named it La Isla de los Alcatraces, or, Island of The Pelicans.
It then functioned as a military post starting from the mid1800s. This was the height of the Gold Rush. Thus a military fortification was built on the island to guard gold-rich California from possible invaders. The fortress served as a lighthouse and a symbol of military strength for the country.
But what has imbibed Alcatraz with its mystique is the fact that from the 1930s to the 1960s, this was considered as the country's foremost maximum-security prison, the crowning jewel of the US penal system, so to speak. How wouldn't it be, with incorrigible and hardened prisoners that have found their way to America's popular culture? People are irresistibly drawn to the stories of George "Machine Gun" Kelly (who is one of the most famous gangsters in his time), Scarface or Al Capone and Robert "The Birdman" Stroud.
Adding to the fascination are the "amenities" of the place – cramped cells, barren grounds and bleak buildings. Its image is so forbidding that it was once nicknamed Uncle Sam's Devil's Island. Really, these are the stuff that Hollywood legends are made of. Many movies have been made featuring Alcatraz.
It was also considered the most escape-proof prison. In the early 1900s, Robert Burge, one of the country's noted security experts during his time, helped design the fist cellblock. The buildings would later undergo renovations to make it more formidable. Several attempts to escape were made in various times. Records show that during its operation, 36 men have made some 14 escape attempts. Most of these were recaptured, shot or drowned. No one is said to have escaped the prison, although up until now, there are five people who remain missing and unaccounted for. They are presumed to have drowned during their attempt to escape.
Today, the cells are empty of its notorious residents. But over a million tourists still come and visit the island every year to see how they lived.
Alcatraz Island is now part of the Golden Gate National recreation Area. It used to house prisoners, but now, seabirds such as the black-crested night heron make their home here. It also houses rare flowers and various kinds of marine wildlife.
Here are some things for you to remember when visiting Alcatraz. Book your tickets in advance, as tours to Alcatraz are popular. Also, wear a windbreaker or heavy sweater for the cold and comfortable shoes for the short treks you will have to do. Consider bringing some drinks and snacks, as these can be expensive once you arrive at the island.