Citadel (Alcatraz Island, San Francisco, California)

Alcatraz Island, San Francisco, California
© 2017 J. G. Coleman

Alcatraz Island rises from the fog-laden waters of San Francisco Bay, its sundry array of towers and buildings illumined against the hazy silhouette of distant, coastal hills.

Hollywood films over the years have ensured that visions of a bleak and notorious federal prison are conjured in our imagination whenever we think of Alcatraz. But despite the vast amount of space that impression occupies in our memory, it actually comprises a fairly narrow slice of the island’s long and varied history. After all, Alcatraz Island was used as a federal penitentiary for less than three decades.

Relatively few recall that Alcatraz Island was the site of the first lighthouse on the West Coast or that as many as a hundred cannons were mounted on the island during the Civil War. Perhaps a more peculiar story though surrounds the origin of the island’s name. “Alcatraz” comes down from an old Spanish term for pelicans and was assigned to the island when early Spanish explorers found massive flocks of the seabirds roosting upon its cliffs in the late 1700s.

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