The Truth About Alcatraz's First Inmates

Even though it only operated for a few decades, there is perhaps no federal prison more notorious in history than Alcatraz, the "escape-proof" fortified island in the middle of the San Francisco Bay. Opened in 1933, "The Rock" housed the most high-profile and dangerous criminals to come out of the Prohibition and Great Depression eras, who lived in rough, die-hard conditions to send a warning out to America's would-be gangsters (via the Federal Bureau of Prisons). Al Capone, Machine-Gun Kelly, Doc Barker, and more legendary criminals all became neighbors in the cramped, unforgiving environment. Yet these were not the first prisoners to be cooped up on Alcatraz Island. In fact, they were nearly a century too late to claim that title.

Alcatraz Island was initially the property of the United States military, who wished to fortify the San Francisco Bay after the settlement suddenly became a bustling city because of the Gold Rush. A fort was constructed on the island in the early 1850s, equipped with impressive structures and armed with over 100 cannons to deter any attacks on the bay. By the end of the decade, the fort also doubled as a holding cell for military prisoners, who were the first to serve time behind bars on the infamous island.

Civil War prisoners were among the first on Alcatraz

The island served for more than 80 years as a military prison. According to History, soldiers on both sides of the Civil War were kept within the walls of the famous prison, including those who sympathized with the Confederacy and those who deserted the Union. Desertion and dissent were common causes for incarceration, with the Spanish-American War, Boxer Rebellion, and Native American land disputes further filling the cells.

Military prisoners were responsible for building the prison that still stands today. The fortress had begun to decay from lack of use — the 100 cannons never fired a shot in defense — and in 1909 the army tore down everything but the fort's basement to begin construction of a new military prison. Over the next two years, prisoners began construction of their eventual cells, what became the infamous jail that stands today. The Federal Bureau of Prisons took over in 1933.

On a somewhat more cheerful note, the island's location in San Francisco Bay made it the ideal location for a lighthouse — the first of its kind on the West Coast of the United States, activated in 1954 and replaced in 1909.