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A sinister place used for many years to incarcerate the most dangerous criminals of the United States – that’s the first association that comes to mind when someone mentions Alcatraz Island. Even though famous gangsters like Al Capone were indeed once imprisoned here, the island also has another surprising history. Alcatraz is more than just a prison.
The island of the pelicans – that’s the literal translation of ‘La Isla de los Alcatraces’ as it was named by the Spaniards who first set foot here in 1775. These seabirds inhabited the island then and Alcatraz continues to be a nesting ground for many species of birds. Before it became a prison, the island also served as a military fort to protect the American mainland during the gold rush in the mid-19th century, when gold diggers travelled en masse to the California coast to try their luck.
Obviously, it is the exciting stories about serious criminals and adventurous escape attempts that make Alcatraz the number 1 attraction in San Francisco. On entering the prison, each visitor receives an audio tour. The tour is available in several languages, but we recommend choosing the English version, since you get to hear the original voices of former prisoners, who talk about their time on ‘The Rock’, as the island is also called. Sounds of, for example, slamming cell doors, bring the stories to life. As you look through the window at the contours of the city, you can imagine what it must have been like to be locked up here.
In the 29 years that Alcatraz served as a federal prison, there were no fewer than 14 escape attempts. These involved a total of 36 prisoners, 13 of whom succeeded in disappearing from the island for good.