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 Alcatraz Island, CA    
Lighthouse best viewed by boat or plane.A hike of some distance required.Lighthouse appeared in movie.
Description: Prompted by the cry of "Gold!" at Sutter's Mill in 1848, thousands of fortune hunters set out from the East Coast and rounded Cape Horn on their way to San Francisco and the gold fields beyond. After several vessels experienced difficulty in the waters along the West Coast another cry was heard, this time for the construction of lighthouses to aid navigation. In response, Congress passed acts in 1850 and 1851 that provided funds for eight lighthouses to be built along the West Coast.

Original Alcatraz Island Lighthouse
The Baltimore firm of Gibbons and Kelly was awarded the contract to build seven lighthouses in California, at Alcatraz Island, Fort Point, Point Piños, Point Loma, Southeast Farallon Island, and Humboldt Bay, and one at Cape Disappointment in present-day Washington. Supplies for construction of the lighthouses were shipped around Cape Horn on the bark Oriole, which arrived in San Francisco on January 29, 1853. An advance party had already started work on the foundation of the Alcatraz Lighthouse, which would be the first lighthouse activated on the West Coast.

The plans for the eight lighthouses called for a one-and-a-half-story cottage, with a tower protruding through the center of the roof. The steps in the tower thus provided access to the top story of the dwelling as well as the lantern room. The Alcatraz Lighthouse was completed by July of 1853, but it would be almost a year before it would exhibit its light.

In 1852, the administration of lighthouses was transferred from the Fifth Auditor of the Treasury to a newly created Lighthouse Board. One of the first changes made by the board was to order the installation of Fresnel lenses in all lighthouses. The thought before this time was that the Fresnel lens, developed by Augustine Fresnel in France in 1822, was too expensive for deployment in American lighthouses. The new Lighthouse Board concluded that the superior performance of the Fresnel lens justified the added expense. Accordingly, a change order was sent to Gibbons and Kelly directing them to not install the intended Argand lamps and parabolic reflectors, but rather wait for a Fresnel lens to arrive. Light from a fixed, third-order Fresnel lens was first shown from the Alcatraz Lighthouse on June 1, 1854. The lens had been in use for just under fifty years, when in 1902 it was transferred to the Cape Saint Elias Station in Alaska and replaced by a revolving fourth-order Fresnel lens, producing a white flash every five seconds.

Aerial view of Alcatraz Island Lighthouse
Photograph courtesy Cliff Graham
Around the time the lighthouse was completed, military fortifications were also placed on the island. The Alcatraz Citadel, a multi-story fortified barracks, was finished in 1859 on the island's uppermost plateau just north of the lighthouse. Alcatraz was first used as a prison during the Civil War. After the report of the assassination of President Lincoln reached San Francisco, anyone found celebrating the news was arrested. As a result, thirty-nine civilians were arrested and served two-month sentences on the island.

In 1909, the Citadel was razed, and the present cell house was built in its place. With its 600 cells, the cell house was reportedly the largest reinforced concrete building in the world. As the new structure interfered with the operation of the lighthouse, a taller 84-foot, concrete tower was built just south of the original lighthouse. Attached to the base of the tower was a commodious dwelling designed for three keepers and their families. The original lighthouse, which had been damaged during the 1906 San Francisco earthquake, was eventually torn down.

Besides caring for the lighthouse, the keepers were also responsible for fog signals found on the northern and southern extremes of the island. Interestingly, the prison guards helped the keepers operate the fog horns. From their elevated lookouts in the watch towers, the guards could easily see when a bank of fog started to roll through the Golden Gate. The guards would then notify the keepers who would activate the fog horns.

Aerial view of Alcatraz Island Lighthouse
Photograph courtesy San Francisco Public Library
The island served as a military prison until it was acquired by the U.S. Justice Department in 1933 to serve as a federal penitentiary. The lighthouse keepers worked alongside the prison rather uneventfully until the light was automated on November 22, 1963. One dramatic event that was recorded by a keeper was a bloody escape attempt, known now as the Battle of Alcatraz. On the afternoon of May 2, 1946, an inmate, Bernard Coy, was able to pry apart some bars and squeeze his greased body into an elevated walkway patrolled by armed guards. After overwhelming an unsuspecting guard, Coy gained access to firearms and keys, and liberated his accomplices. Their plan met a snag, when they were unable to unlock the door leading to the recreation yard. Marines were called out to help in the battle to regain control of the cellblock. For nearly two days, gunfire was heard on the island. Grenades were dropped into the cell block through holes drilled in the roof to quell the uprising. Three of the six escapees were killed during the battle. Two of the three who did survive were later executed together in the gas chamber at San Quentin for their role in the killing of two guards during the escape attempt. The third survivor was given an additional life sentence. One of the lighthouse keepers at the time called the battle "44 hours of hell."

Following the closing of the penitentiary in 1963, Alcatraz was declared surplus property. In November of 1969, a group of about ninety Native Americans landed on the island and claimed it as Indian land. Over the next nineteen months, a varying number of Native Americans occupied the island. On June 1, 1970 a fire destroyed the warden's house, the keepers' quarters and other buildings on the island. Further damage was done to the island, when the occupants reportedly began stripping copper wiring and tubing from the buildings and selling it as scrap metal. The occupation was brought to an end on June 11, 1971, when a pre-dawn raid was made on the island and the small group of remaining occupants was removed.

Today, only the tall cement tower equipped with a modern beacon stands as a reminder of the keepers who served on the island for over a hundred years. The National Park Service administers Alcatraz Island as a unit of the Golden Gate National Recreation Area.

Head Keepers: Michael Cassin (1853 – 1855), John Sloan (1855 – 1856), Underwhill Van Wagner (1856 – 1862), Hartford Joy (1862 – 1872), Amasa Rushnell (1872 – 1874), William W. Scott (1874 – 1875), John A. F. McFarland (1875 – 1878), John T. Huie (1878 – 1882), John A. F. McFarland (1882 – 1888), Benjamin F. Leeds (1888 – 1905), Henry W. Young (1905 – 1909), James Anderson (1909 – at least 1915), Frederick Arthur Harrington (1919 – 1938), Harry Davis (1938 - at least 1940).

Photo Gallery: 1 2 3 4 5 6 7 8


  1. "Alcatraz and the First West Coast Lighthouses," Wayne Wheeler, The Keeper's Log, Winter 1985.

Location: Located on Alcatraz Island, included in the Golden Gate National Recreation Area, in San Francisco Bay.
Latitude: 37.8262
Longitude: -122.4222

For a larger map of Alcatraz Island Lighthouse, click the lighthouse in the above map or get a map from: Mapquest.

Travel Instructions: The Alcatraz Lighthouse is located atop the southern end of the island near the entrance to the prison. The interior of the tower is not typically open to visitors. A trip to Alcatraz can be arranged through Alcatraz Cruises either by using their website or by calling them at (415) 981-ROCK. It is strongly recommended that you purchase your tickets in advance.

The lighthouse is owned by the Coast Guard but is being transferred to the Golden Gate National Recreational Area. Grounds open, tower closed.

Find the closest hotels to Alcatraz Island Lighthouse

Notes from a friend:

Kraig writes:
Alcatraz attracts throngs of visitors each day, and with its history that spans the Lighthouse Service, Military, and Bureau of Prisons, it is a worthy destination. Be sure and take the cell house audio tour and go early in the day so you have ample time to view the movie in the museum and wander around the island. As of 2004, the Fresnel lens used in the lighthouse is NOT on display in the museum as some lighthouse books say. It is currently in storage, but will hopefully be made part of an exhibit in the future.

As you leave the pier bound for Alcatraz, look for the Forbes Island Lighthouse, near the colony of sea lions on Pier 39.

With at least ten cameos, Alcatraz Island Lighthouse has appeared in more movies than any other U.S. lighthouse. These movies include: Birdman of Alcatraz, Escape from Alcatraz, So I Married an Axe Murderer, The Rock, and X-Men: The Last Stand.

Marilyn writes:
There is an amazing view of the SF bay from the lantern room, but it is difficult to obtain permission to enter the lighthouse. We made several calls with no success and decided to go tour Alcatraz anyway. It was simply luck and timing that we were able to go up in it while we were visiting the island.

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Pictures on this page copyright Kraig Anderson, used by permission.