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Alcatraz Wasn’t Always ‘Uncle Sam’s Devil’s Island’

Though it was a prison for more than a century, it didn’t become the famous maximum-security penitentiary until 1934

Alcatraz Island as it looks today. (Wikimedia Commons)
smithsonian.com

On this day in 1934, the first federal prisoners arrived on the rocky island of Alcatraz in San Francisco Bay. Before that, the island had almost a century of history as a prison, but it wasn't always the notorious prison it's known as today. Here are five things to know about its history.

Its first use by the United States government was as a military fort

The island, which had first been mapped by Spanish explorer Juan Manuel de Ayala in the late 1700s, was set aside for potential military use by an 1850 presidential order. “The California Gold Rush, the resulting boom in the growth of San Francisco and the need to protect San Francisco Bay led the U.S. army to build a citadel, or fortress, at the top of the island in the early 1850s,” writes the Federal Bureau of Prisons.   

It quickly became a prison

But by the late 1850s, the Bureau writes, the island was already being used to hold military prisoners. “While the defensive necessity of Alcatraz diminished over time (the island never fired its guns in battle), its role as a prison would continue for more than 100 years,” the Bureau writes.

In 1861, writes the National Park Service, the government declared Fort Alcatraz to be “the official military prison for the entire Department of the Pacific." During the Civil War, civilians who were accused of treason were also held there.

Its iconic buildings were built in the 20th century

After the San Francisco earthquake of 1906 damaged many mainland prisons, many prisoners were moved to Alcatraz and started work on a new jail. This building became an Army disciplinary barracks until 1933.  Military prisoners had a decent life there, according to ThoughtCo: they were trained for other occupations and had educational opportunities in a minimum security environment. “Many prisoners trained as gardeners,” writes ThoughtCo. “They planted roses, bluegrass, poppies and lilies on the eastern side.”  

During the Great Depression, though, the Army wasn’t able to afford the costs of bringing food and supplies to the island. The military prisoners were transferred to shore.

It was the first high-security federal prison

The prison site was purchased by the federal government the next year, and prisoners were moved in on this day in August 1934. Because of its remote location, the island was an ideal setting for holding dangerous prisoners. In that first month, Al Capone was among the prisoners sent to the island.

“Although some three dozen attempted, no prisoner was known to have successfully escaped ‘The Rock,’” writes History.com. Some of the attempted escapees drowned. By the end of 1937, according to professor David Ward, the prison had already earned the nickname "Uncle Sam's Devil's Island," eventually shortened to Devil's Island.

In the end, running the prison proved too expensive for the federal government, as it had for the army, and U.S. Attorney General Robert F. Kennedy ordered it closed in 1963. Today, the former prison and island park are tourist attractions.

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