Few people know that Alcatraz was the location of the first light houses on the Pacific coast, set up long before the infamous prison was constructed. Alcatraz island was named for the birds that inhabited the island - pelicans (alcatraces in Spanish). It sits right in the middle of the San Francisco Bay shipping channel.
At the height of the Gold Rush many ships, large and small, arrived in the northern California bay and desperately needed a navigational aid on those all-too-frequent days when the weather became inclement. Construction on the Alcatraz Light, a Cape Cod-influenced cottage with a short tower was begun in 1852 and the beacon was first lit in 1854 to guide the ships through the bay. It was equipped with a third-order Fresnel lens from France and was the first operational U. S. lighthouse on the west coast.
The small tower remained the only real structure on the island for many years. Damaged in the 1906 earthquake, it was rebuilt in 1909 when the prison was constructed. An 84-foot-tall concrete tower next to the cell house replaced the original one. The light was automated in 1962 and in 1963, the island became part of the Golden Gate National Recreation area.