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A world unto itself: Alcatraz Island, part of Golden Gate National Recreation Area, is remarkable for much more than just its legendary prison.

Alcatraz Island often conjures grisly images of notorious men doing hard time within the cold, solitary walls of "The Rock." The images, ingrained by television shows and movies, are accurate but represent only a chapter of the island's rich history. Alcatraz was also once the most powerful fort west of the Mississippi, as well as the site of a two-year takeover that attracted attention to the grievances of American Indians. Although these and other aspects of the island's history seem disparate, they do share a common theme: isolation.

Isolation was crucial to plans for a super-prison on Alcatraz Island in the San Francisco Bay area, an imposing structure designed to separate from society its most dangerous criminals--the very worst of the worst. Some historians consider Alcatraz the government's response to post-Prohibition, post-Depression America, an era in which the public grew hyper-aware of crime.

Most of the prison's 1,545 inmates were unknown, but Alcatraz held its share of the eras headline-makers. Infamous gangster Al Capone was among the first prisoners, and his 1934 arrival drew more media attention than did the prison's opening. George "Machine Gun" Kelly, notorious for holding a wealthy Oklahoma oil magnate for ransom, arrived at Alcatraz in the next shipment of inmates. Following them was an inmate who became perhaps the prison's most notable: Robert Franklin Stroud, "The Birdman of Alcatraz."

Convicted of manslaughter, Stroud was lodged in Leavenworth, where he kept and studied birds. Once Stroud arrived at Alcatraz, however, his bird studies ceased. Still, his presence on the island was somewhat fitting: The number of birds at Alcatraz prompted an early Spanish explorer to call it "Isla de los Alcatratces," or "Island of the Pelicans" (which was later shortened to "Alcatraz").

By 1962, the era of the super-prison was coming to an end. Alcatraz did not reflect the societal shift toward inmate rehabilitation, and the structure needed millions of dollars worth of repair and maintenance. The government deemed it cheaper to build another facility in Illinois, and Alcatraz closed in 1963.

Beyond the popular notions of "The Rock" lies the story of the Army's use of Alcatraz Island. In light of the Gold Rush of 1849, the federal government felt that the San Francisco Bay area, the largest natural harbor of the West, would be a target for foreign invaders. Alcatraz Island soon became the areas primary fort and a last line of defense. Ultimately, however, the island would prove more useful in protecting the bay from Confederate raiders during the Civil War.

Alcatraz later became a military prison for officers and civilians suspected of treason during the Civil War, and disputes with the federal government during westward expansion landed American Indians there. A century later, American Indians would return to the island--but this time under completely different circumstances.

In 1969, six years after the prison closed, a group called "Indians of All Tribes" came on chartered boats to occupy and symbolically claim Alcatraz. The group wanted the island to use for educational purposes. Their occupation, opposed by the government, lasted until 1971, when armed officers removed them.

Although the attempt to control the island failed, the occupation did help to raise the public's awareness of the plight of American Indians; soon, Indian self-determination became the official national policy.

RYAN DOUGHERTY is news editor.
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Title Annotation:Historic Highlights
Author:Dougherty, Ryan
Publication:National Parks
Date:Nov 1, 2003
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