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Is Alcatraz Worth Visiting? Hauntings, Daring Escapes and Tips for Families

Perched on a desolate island in the middle of San Francisco Bay, Alcatraz Island stands as a haunting reminder of America’s past. It’s a place where history, intrigue, and legends converge, making it an unparalleled destination for families seeking a thrilling and educational adventure. From its notorious inmates and daring escapes to the eerie tales of haunting, Alcatraz is much more than a prison; it’s a living testament to the human spirit’s resilience and the quest for freedom. I

In this article I will share why I think Alcatraz is worth visiting with your family as well as share some thrilling stories about “The Rock” and tips for visiting with kids.

Disclaimer: Links in this page are meant to help you find relevant information and book attractions easier by linking directly to specific pages on partner websites (i.e. TripAdvisor, Vegas.com). If you click a link, we may earn a small commission on transactions. This helps support the cost of running our website, and it adds absolutely no extra cost to you as the consumer. Thank you, we appreciate your support! You can read more on our disclosure policy.

Brief History

The island’s military history dates back to the 1850s when the United States recognized the strategic importance of San Francisco Bay. It was initially reserved for military use due to its location at the entrance of the bay, making it an ideal location for defending against potential naval threats.

During the Civil War, Alcatraz was fortified with cannons and used as a military prison to hold Confederate sympathizers, as well as deserters and other prisoners. At it’s peak Alcatraz Island had over 400 soldiers stationed, but by 1907 the army decommissioned Alcatraz as a fortification.

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Technically, Alcatraz has always been a type of prison. It held deserters, criminals, and Confederates during the Civil War era. The island was also used to incarcerate Native Americans from the Hopi, Apache, and Modoc during the many Indian Wars. Then in 1898 it held captives from the Spanish-American War. Finally, in 1915 Alcatraz was named the “United State Disciplinary Barracks, Pacific Branch,” and was used to house objectors to World War I.

The prison we are so familiar with today made it’s transition in the 1930’s when Alcatraz was transferred from the War Department to the Department of Justice. In 1934 Alcatraz reopened as a federal penitentiary. 1,545 men would go on to do their time at Alcatraz, including notorious criminals like Al Capone, Doc Barker, Alvin Creepy Karpis, Machine Gun Kelly, Floyd Hamilton, and the Birdman of Alcatraz.

Alcatraz was designed to be maximum security prison, isolated, inescapable. Men sent to Alcatraz had reputations as troublemakers and escape risks. Of the 14 escape attempts only one still remains a mystery, as their bodies were never found. All other attempts failed.

Eventually, the maintenance and operating costs were too much and Attorney General Robert F. Kennedy closed Alcatraz in 1963.

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Alcatraz Occuption of 1969

In the late 1960s, Native American activists across the United States began demanding recognition of their rights, tribal sovereignty, and improved living conditions. These movements were part of a larger civil rights struggle during that era.

In a historic moment on November 20, 1969, around 89 Native American activists, predominantly youth, arrived on Alcatraz Island and officially proclaimed it as “Indian Land,” invoking the 1868 Treaty of Fort Laramie, which had pledged surplus federal land to Native tribes. Under the leadership of figures like Richard Oakes, John Trudell, and LaNada Means, these occupiers aimed to shed light on the formidable challenges confronting Native communities while endeavoring to reclaim land they believed to be rightfully theirs. Their occupation swiftly garnered widespread national and international media attention, rallying support from diverse backgrounds to their noble cause.

During their time on Alcatraz, the activists encountered a multitude of difficulties, including adverse weather conditions, limited supplies, and a lack of basic amenities. Despite these adversities, they managed to establish a thriving community on the island, complete with a school, clinic, and even a radio station. Their resilient efforts struck a chord with many Americans, prompting donations and support from across the nation that played a crucial role in sustaining their occupation.

Initially, the U.S. government attempted a forceful removal, but the complexities of public opinion and legal challenges hindered such efforts. In 1970, negotiations between President Richard Nixon’s administration and the occupiers commenced, eventually leading to the gradual conclusion of the occupation. The Alcatraz Occupation is widely regarded as a pivotal moment in the Native American civil rights movement, catapulting issues like tribal sovereignty, land rights, and living conditions into the national spotlight.

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Alcatraz Island is not only steeped in history but also boasts a unique ecosystem. Despite its former use as a prison, the island has become a sanctuary for various bird species and a surprising diversity of flora.

Alcatraz is home to a thriving seabird colony, with species like Western gulls, cormorants, pigeon guillemots, and even a small population of snowy egrets. The absence of predators on the island has created a safe breeding ground for these birds.

Over the years, Alcatraz has seen efforts to restore its natural vegetation. Today, you can find gardens with a variety of plant species, including colorful flowers, succulents, and even historic gardens dating back to the time of the prison.

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How to Get to Alcatraz

Alcatraz Ferry to get to Alcatraz

Your Alcatraz adventure starts with an short, yet scenic, ride on the Alcatraz Ferry. Included in your tour ticket price, most visitors depart from Pier 33, which is conveniently located near San Francisco’s Fisherman’s Wharf.

Plan to arrive at least 30 minutes before your scheduled departure time. Alcatraz cruises are on a strict schedule, and you don’t want to miss your boat. There is no bad seat on the ferry, but if you want views of Golden Gate Bridge and Alcatraz board to the right of the ferry. Refreshments are available on the ferry, including adult beverages, food and more.

The ferry ride to Alcatraz Island is not just a means of transportation; it’s also a scenic journey that offers fantastic views of the San Francisco skyline, Golden Gate Bridge, and the bay. It takes approximately 15-20 minutes to reach the island.

Family-friendly Alcatraz ferry

Once you arrive on Alcatraz Island, you’ll be greeted by park rangers who will provide you with maps, information about the island, and any scheduled programs or tours. Make sure to grab a brochure that includes the self-guided audio tour.

After your visit to Alcatraz, return to the mainland by taking the ferry back to your departure point.

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What You’ll See On Your Alcatraz Tour

The Alcatraz Dock, first site when visiting Alcatraz

Although expanded over the years, the original dock was built in 1854. The first building you see when entering the dock is the Barracks Building which was built in 1865 to house soldiers and cannons. Off to the right you will see the restored guard tower from its days as a federal penitentiary.

Today, this is where you watch presentations, shop at the bookstore, grab your guide books and start your tour. You can partake in complimentary guided tours, or enjoy the grounds a your own pace and audio tour.

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Barracks and Apartments on Alcatraz Island

Thanks to inmate labor, the finished Barracks Building in 1905 was originally used to house soldiers on prison duty. Once Alcatraz transitioned to a federal prison, the Barracks were converted to be used as correctional officer and family housing. The complex included a post office and market and was fenced off for the security of the families living on the island.

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Alcatraz guardhouse and sally port military fort

The Guardhouse is the oldest building on the island, built in 1857. It was the first line of defense and could only be reached by a draw bridge. Two gun ports flanked the entrance with a wall for riflemen positions on the the roof. There were also rifle slits along the brick walls. Seemed fool proof, but it was never used in battle. Instead the Guardhouse was used as a holding cell for Confederate sympathizers, Army prisoners and later jail cells.

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Post Exchange and Officer's Club on Alcatraz

This was known as the soldier’s clubhouse. Built in 1910 this building held the general store for soldiers. Then in 1934 it was used as a recreation hall and officer’s club. It even had a dance floor, gym, bowling alley, and soda fountain. Unfortunately, this building was destroyed in the fire of 1970.

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Military Schoolhouse on Alcatraz Island

This Mission Revival-style building was built in the 1920’s. It has served many purposes over the decades, including a shoe shop, and hat factory, meeting house, and schoolhouse. It was even used as housing for the bachelor guards that worked at Alcatraz prison.

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Historic cellhouse tour on Alcatraz Island

In 1912 the cellhouse was the largest steel-reinforced building in the world, designed to hold up to 600 prisoners. They used inmate labor to help build the cellhouse, and many of those inmates would go on to become the first prisoners to live on the island. The cellhouse underwent major renovations before becoming a maximum security prison. Soft-steel barriers were replaced with tool proof bars, six guard towers, gun galleries, barbed wire fence, metal detectors, and later, electronic doors were added to the facility.

The Cellhouse contained four cellblocks, labeled A, B, C, and D. Each cellblock housed a different category of inmates, ranging from the least dangerous to the most dangerous. Inmates were confined to individual cells, which measured 9 feet by 5 feet and contained a bed, a small desk, and a toilet.

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Alcatraz Island Historic Lighthouse

The Gold Rush contributed to an increase in ship traffic through the Golden Gate, making it necessary to add build a lighthouse to Alcatraz Island. The light was lit in the Lighthouse in 1854, making this the first operating lighthouse on the Pacific. In 1909 the lighthouse you see today, replaced the original oil 1854 lighthouse. For years lighthouse keepers lived at the based, maintaining the lighthouse and even planting gardens, but by 1963 the lighthouse was automated and the last keeper left the island. Today the lighthouse is operated by the Coast Guard and still shines it’s light.

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Ruined Warden's House on Alcatraz Isand

The Warden’s House was once the impressive Mission Revival home for the wardens of Alcatraz. It had 17 rooms with big windows for gazes out at the breathtaking views of San Francisco mainland and the Golden Gate Bridge. It was actually built in the 1920’s for the military prison commandant, but once Alcatraz became a federal penitentiary, it became the warden’s home. James A. Johnston was the first of the four wardens to live here. This building too was ruined in during the 1970 fire.

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The first gardens were planted on Alcatraz by the military as a means to keep the island soft surface for sliding or blowing away. Later inmate gardeners, families of soldiers and officers would go on to plant flowers, vegetables, trees, and more. Along the wall pictured here is where the children’s gardens were panted. In the 1950’s the Captain of the Guards thought the children living on the island had too much free time, so he had them all plant their own little gardens. Today the park services work to maintain this sweet history on Alcatraz.

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Alcatraz Escape Attempts, Deaths, and Hauntings

Escape attempt 13 Alcatraz 1962

During the 29 years as a federal penitentiary, Alcatraz had 14 escape attempts. Alcatraz was deemed “inescapable,” so it is no surprise that most, if not all, were unsuccessful. The two in question are due to disappearances of the inmates, but many believe they drowned and their bodies were never found.

The bloodiest escape attempt was in 1946, known as “The Battle of Alcatraz.” This battle lasted three days and resulted in death to both inmates and officers, as well as a ton of damage to Alcatraz. It truly is an incredible story that I recommend reading more about. Briefly, six inmates, Coy, Cretzer, Shockley, Hubbard, Thompson, and Carnes, overpowered several guards, captured weapons, and took over the cellhouse. However, the key they needed to the recreation yard was hidden by Officer Miller. This resulted in a siege that lasted days, the lives of guards Miller and Stites, as well as, inmates Coy, Cretzer, and Hubbard being lost. Two other inmates, Shockley and Thompson would be executed later due to their roles in the attempt. There is so much more to this story that I could discuss, but that would be whole post alone. For further reading, I suggest Alcatraz From the Inside, a first hand account from former inmate Jim Quillen.

Another infamous escape attempt was the summer of 1962 when Morris and the Anglin brothers escaped their cells through air vents. They left dummy heads in their beds, climbed through the vents onto the roof, then down to the water where they loaded onto a floatation device made from raincoats. They were never seen again. Many believe they drowned as the water is extremely rough and cold. However, there are some that think they were successful. There are a ton of fun shows and books about this topic. It is a mystery.

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Visiting Alcatraz Morgue

There were no executions at Alcatraz, but there were deaths at Alcatraz during its time as a prison. There were several suicides, murders, and natural deaths. Five of the deaths we just covered in the 1946 escape attempt.

Joseph Bowers was shot and killed trying to make an escape attempt. He didn’t get far. He attempted to climb the fence, but a guard spotted him right away. Guards were taught to shot to kill.

During an escape attempt in 1938 inmates, Lucas, Limerick, and Franklin clubbed Officer Cline to death before making an attempt at the gun tower. The guard killed Limerick.

An escape attempt in 1939 by Doc Barker, McCain, Young, Stamphill and Martin, resulted in inmate, Doc Barker being fatally wounded. This also lead to McCain later being murdered by fellow inmate and fellow escapee, Young with a sharpened spoon.

In 1942 inmate, Herring, attacked a fellow inmate, Snow in the shower. Snow ended up stabbing Herring, severing an artery and killing him.

During an escape attempt in 1943 inmates, Hamilton, Brest, Hunter and Boarman, were caught after jumping guards and attempting to swim away. All of them were captured and injured, but Boarman was shot and fatally wounded. He was only 24 years old.

The barbershop murder that happened in 1945 was between two inmates. Claude Branch and Ralph Greene. Apparently, Greene hit Branch with a metal stand used to hold the barber’s clippers, resulting in Branch’s death two days later. Then in 1951 another inmate on inmate murder occurred when the prison barber, Freddie Thomas stabbed fellow inmate, Joseph Barsock in the neck and chest with his shears.

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hauntings at Alcatraz Prison San Francisco

With so much heartache, sadness and death it is no wonder Alcatraz has so many stories of hauntings. Alcatraz has been the subject on a number of ghost investigating shows, like Watcher’s Ghost Files, Discovery’s Dead Files, and more.

One of the most famous ghostly legends of Alcatraz revolves around the Cellhouse. Visitors and staff have reported hearing inexplicable sounds, such as clanging cell doors, echoing footsteps, and disembodied voices. Some claim to have seen shadowy figures moving within the cellblocks or standing in the windows of empty cells, even though the Cellhouse is no longer inhabited.

Apparently in cell 14D there was an Alcatraz inmate who met an eerie end after proclaiming that a malevolent entity threatened his life. Numerous visitors have described an uncanny sensation of icy tendrils enveloping them within this very chamber, as though the lingering presence of countless spirits still lingers in the air.

The barbershop is also said to be very haunted, but that is no surprise given its violent history.

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Tips for Families Visiting Alcatraz

Alcatraz is stroller and wheelchair accessible. I had a double and there was no where I couldn’t go. However, the hills are very steep on the island, especially the walk to the cellhouse. There is a tram that will take mobility impaired up to the top, but due to limited capacity, only those with issues walking up the hills can ride, not accompanying family members.

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There is no food our drink allowed on Alcatraz Island, except for water bottles. However, the Alcatraz Ferry does have refreshments, hot dogs, pretzels, beer, sodas, water, and more. I suggest getting a snack on the ferry ride to the island as you will be walking around quite a bit and kids will get hungry. You can pre-order you food on the ferry as well.

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Alcatraz Books

If you’re fascinated by Alcatraz and its history, there are several excellent books that provide in-depth insights into this infamous island prison. These books offer a range of perspectives on Alcatraz, from historical accounts to personal narratives. They provide a deeper understanding of the island’s complex history and its enduring fascination in popular culture. Here are some must-reads:

“Alcatraz: The Gangster Years” by David Ward and Gene Kassebaum: This book delves into the era when Al Capone, Machine Gun Kelly, and other notorious gangsters were inmates at Alcatraz. It provides a detailed look at the prison’s most famous occupants.

Bird Man: The Many Faces of Robert Stroudby Jolene Babyak: Babyak’s book offers a balanced perspective on Stroud, delving into his complex personality and the challenges he faced during his time in prison. It’s a compelling account of redemption and the power of passion, even in the most unlikely of circumstances.

“Alcatraz From the Inside,” by Jim Quillen: Written by a former inmate, the book offers a unique perspective on the daily challenges, routines, and struggles faced by those incarcerated on “The Rock.” Quillen’s narrative provides a vivid portrayal of the harsh conditions, strict rules, and the camaraderie that developed among inmates. It also explores his personal journey, including his criminal past and the events that led to his imprisonment.

“Escape from Alcatraz” by J. Campbell Bruce: Focusing on the infamous escape attempts made by inmates, this book provides a thrilling account of some of the most daring prison breaks in history.

That’s A Wrap!

A visit to Alcatraz is not merely a trip to a historical site; it’s an immersion into a captivating chapter of American history. The island’s haunting beauty, its ominous past, and the stories of its infamous inmates offer a unique and thought-provoking experience. It’s a journey that allows us to reflect on the complexities of justice, incarceration, and human resilience. While the walls of Alcatraz may have once housed society’s most notorious criminals, today, they serve as a powerful reminder of the enduring quest for freedom and redemption. So, if you’re seeking an adventure that combines history, intrigue, and breathtaking views of San Francisco Bay, Alcatraz is an absolute must-visit destination.

Disclaimer: Links in this page are meant to help you find relevant information and book attractions easier by linking directly to specific pages on partner websites (i.e. TripAdvisor, Vegas.com). If you click a link, we may earn a small commission on transactions. This helps support the cost of running our website, and it adds absolutely no extra cost to you as the consumer. Thank you, we appreciate your support! You can read more on our disclosure policy.

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Author

I am a busy mama with 3 delicious babies and a serious itch for travel and writing (when I am not bartending, that is)! After graduating from Cal State San Marcos with a B.A. in Communications, I decided to start a family and pursue a career in freelance writing. I created HotMamaTravel as an outlet to do what I love while sharing useful travel tips and inspiration with others. Our mission is to show parents how to master travel with kids, while keeping your Saturday-night selves. We call it "Family travel...with a twist".

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