Thursday, March 21, 2013

Thursday in History: The Rock
It sounds cool. It looks mysterious. It has a dark past. It has been the setting of many movies and television shows. It is a 22 acre island in the middle of the San Francisco bay. It was acquired by the government of the United States of America for five thousand dollars in 1846. It was first used as a military base, an arsenal, and a fortress to protect the Bay, and held prisoners starting from the Civil War up until 1963.
A is for Alcatraz.
(Taken from google maps)
On this day in history, Alcatraz Federal Penitentiary was closed. During its time, there were fourteen escape attempts, including the 1946 “Battle of Alcatraz” in which a correctional officer lost his life.
Officially, no one ever escaped from Alcatraz. Escape, says, is all in how you define it. “Is it getting out of the cellhouse, reaching the water, making it to land, or reaching land and not getting caught?” Although there are five men on record who are “missing and presumed drowned,” it’s very possible that there could be Alcatraz escapees living among us. During the seventh escape, two of the four men who made it to the water and began to swim away were captured. The third was shot and disappeared beneath the waves, and the fourth was just as gone, so it was assumed that he was just as dead. It turned out he wasn’t when he was caught by corrections officers two days later. Who can say how many of the “missing and presumed” aren’t actually “drowned?”
Pelicans over Alcatraz
photo by Tom Hardin

As intimidating as Alcatraz is, with its prisoners and political protests and daunting landscape, the most interesting thing about it is that its name is so not intimidating. Alcatraz has come to be synonymous with words like “stronghold,” and brings to mind images of lonely, craggy peaks and wind whipping over miles of waves. It was named by Spaniard explorer Juan Manuel de Ayala who was in the Bay Area in 1775, who called it “La Isla de las Alcatraces” because it was covered in alcatraces, an archaic Spanish word for
No wonder they gave it a nickname. “The Rock” is so much more à propos.

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