Explore These Haunting Abandoned Military Bases From Around The World

Armies spend millions of dollars on bases, bunkers, and forts. But when a station is abandoned, all that money goes down the drain. Often, these shelters remain abandoned as a haunting reminder of the wars they survived.

From America to Russia, these military bases were left to rot. Some were located in the midst of battles while others were used for training and/or weapons testing. Check out these haunting photos of forgotten army bases along with their stories.

Devil’s Slide Bunker, California, USA

Tourists visit the abandoned bunker at Devil's Slide, CA.
Reddit/u/benunfairchild
Reddit/u/benunfairchild

In San Mateo County, California, an abandoned military base sits on top of a dangerous cliff. The bunker, called Devil’s Peak, got its name from the 30 to 50-degree inclines of the coastal cliffs that surround it. Devil’s Peak was designed to shoot down enemy aircraft during World War II.

Soldiers assigned to Devil’s Peak kept a lookout for Japanese ships with their advanced radio tower. During the Cold War, a private owner bought Devil’s Peak, and he planned a project for it that wasn’t completed. Nobody inhabits the bunker today, as it is hard to even get to.

Greenbrier Bunker, West Virginia, USA

The West Tunnel of Greenbrier Bunker is seen.
Alex Wong/Getty Images
Twitter/@The_Greenbrier

In 2010, reporters revealed 33 government buildings that went undiscovered for decades. One of them was the Greenbrier Bunker in White Sulphur Springs, West Virginia. In the 1950s, Greenbrier was a nuclear shelter for members of the Senate and the House of Representatives.

Oddly, Greenbrier was converted into a luxury resort. The concrete add-on building had a complex air filter, 1,100 beds, and many restrooms (mostly men’s). Today, Greenbrier offers tours of the bunker that was likely never used throughout its history.

The Maginot Line, France

An abandoned building leftover from the Maginot Line is seen in France.
Andia/ Universal Images Group via Getty Images
Bernard Annebicque/Sygma via Getty Images

In the 1930s, the French military built a series of bunkers along the French-German line. If the Germans ever attacked, France’s Maginot Line would withstand troops, bombs, and tanks. But in 1940, the Germans didn’t attack the border; they invaded through Belgium, entirely surpassing the Maginot Line.

After World War II, the Maginot Line was abandoned because it was too expensive to maintain. Its tunnels, shelters, and forts still stand today. The Maginot Line stretches 450 miles (720 km) without a single soul inside.

Johnston Atoll Military Base, Pacific Ocean

An aerial views shows Johnston Atoll air base.
Pinterest/John “JP” Petralito
Pinterest/John “JP” Petralito

Johnston Island, 825 miles (1,328 km) southwest of Hawaii, stored deadly chemicals for over 30 years. The uninhabited island was taken over by the US Navy in 1934, and they built the station Johnston Atoll in 1941. It became a fuel station for aircraft, chemical weapons storage, and site to tests atomic bombs.

While the Army occupied Johnston Atoll, they created two artificial islands, which resulted in a ring of four small islands. The last soldier left in 2001, and only some contract civilians remain. Johnston Island is also a sanctuary for hundreds of native fish, coral, and migratory birds.

Maunsell Forts, North Sea

The sea Maunsell forts tower above the mouth of the river Thames.
Marzena Grabczynska Lorenc/Bar/Barcroft Media via Getty Images
Marzena Grabczynska Lorenc/Bar/Barcroft Media via Getty Images

Offshore of Kent, England, a group of Star Wars-looking buildings stand above the water. They are the Maunsell Army Sea Forts, and they were built to protect the shore in 1942. The buildings contained radio stations that warned London citizens of oncoming airstrikes.

After the Maunsell Forts were decommissioned in the ’50s, pirates took advantage of their radio to communicate with each other. Today, these buildings lay abandoned and decaying. Visitors can see them if they take an eight-mile (12 km) boat ride to the facilities.

Duga Radar, Russia

A visitor poses next to a sign with the radiation warning symbol in front of the construction of the Duga Radar.
SERGEI SUPINSKY/AFP via Getty Images
SERGEI SUPINSKY/AFP via Getty Images

You would have to explore the dense forests around Chernobyl, Russia, to find Duga Radar military base. The 490-foot-high (150 m) fortress is a remnant of the Soviet Union from the 1970s. Duga Radar acted as a warning system for missile strikes, and it was top-secret at the time. The government disguised it as a children’s camp.

Duga’s radio signals weakened during the 1980s, and in 1989, they disappeared altogether. To this day, the reasons behind Duga Rada’s closure have not been revealed to the public. It remains abandoned near the worst nuclear accident in history.

Teufelsberg Listening Station, Germany

Clouds pass by the radome of the former monitoring station on the Teufelberg Station.
Monika Skolimowska/picture alliance via Getty Images
Monika Skolimowska/picture alliance via Getty Images

In the forests outside of Berlin, Germany, a former NSA spy station remains abandoned. Teufelsberg Listening Station sits on top of a 260-foot (80 m) hill called “Devil’s Mountain”. The site was originally a Nazi military-technical college, but during the Cold War, the US repurposed it to spy on the Soviets.

Teufelsberg wasn’t chosen randomly. Every year, a local festival would set-up a Ferris wheel that improved what the NSA heard through radio waves. After the fall of the Berlin Wall, Teufelsberg Listening Station was abandoned. All that’s left are wild boars and graffiti-covered walls.

Switzerland’s Secret Military Bunkers

The Salvenach Bunker in Switzerland lies buried in snow amidst a forest.
Illustrè/RDB/ullstein bild via Getty Images
Walo Von Büren/RDB/ullstein bild via Getty Images

Switzerland hasn’t participated in a war for almost 200 years, but this country still has military bunkers. If you know where to look along the Alps, you can find several camouflaged bunkers. Many buildings look like giant rocks, but if you look inside, you’ll discover nuclear shelters, cannons, tunnels, and railway systems.

At least 20,000 military bunkers have been discovered throughout Switzerland, although the exact amount is not known. The Swiss army began building these bunkers in the 1880s, and construction continued through the twentieth century. Some look like cabins, while others were built into the side of a mountain.

Plokštinė Missile Base, Lithuania

An abandaned corridor is seen in the Plokštinė Missile Base.
Flickr/Charlie Phillips
Flickr/Charlie Phillips

If you want to visit Plokštinė Missile Base in Lithuania, you’ll have to head underground. During the Cold War, the Soviet Union discovered that the US was constructing underground bases. To catch up, they began rapidly building their own hidden base in Plokščiai.

Plokštinė Missile Base was the first nuclear missile site in the Soviet Union. However, the US never learned about it until 1978. No missiles were ever launched there, even for tests. After the Cold War, Plokštinė Missile Base became obsolete and was abandoned. A history museum opened there in 2012.

Wolf’s Lair, Poland

Wolf's Lair, one of Hitler's hideouts during World War II, is concealed behind trees.
Michal Fludra/NurPhoto via Getty Images
Michal Fludra/NurPhoto via Getty Images

The abandoned bunker in Ketrzyn, Poland, holds disturbing memories of the Nazi regime. Wolf’s Lair, as it’s called, was one of Adolf Hitler’s headquarters during World War II. Hitler spent around 800 hours there and even survived assassination attempts.

In 1944, one of Hitler’s colonels brought a suitcase with a bomb inside to a meeting. Miraculously, Hitler survived the blast with few injuries. When the war ended, Wolf’s Lair was forgotten. It is now covered in moss and plants from the surrounding Polish forest.

Kaunas Fortress, Lithuania

Visitors sled by Kaunas Fortress in the snow.
Benas Gerdziunas/SOPA Images/LightRocket via Getty Images
Benas Gerdziunas/SOPA Images/LightRocket via Getty Images

In 1882, the Russian Empire aimed to build nine fortresses across Lithuania. The final base, Kaunas Fortress, was finished just before World War I. Kaunas entered the war when the German forces attacked in 1915. After World War I ended, Kaunas Fortress was abandoned.

However, the fort received attention when Nazi Germany overtook Lithuania during World War II. They used Kaunas Fortress to detain, interrogate, and execute tens of thousands of Holocaust victims. The fort remains as an eerie, grass-covered reminder of the tragedy.

The Nekoma Pyramid, North Dakota, USA

The Nekoma Pyramid is seen at the top of a hill.
Reddit/u/Maximus
Reddit/u/Maximus

If you head to Nekoma, North Dakota, which has a population of 24 people, you’d see a futuristic-looking pyramid in the distance. This is the Nekoma Pyramid that was built during the height of the Cold War. The pyramid shape functioned as a radar system and missile silo.

Because the fort risked setting off bombs over Canada, the government left the Nekoma Pyramid in the ’60s. Today, the base still stands in the middle of nowhere and is the subject of several conspiracy theories.

Imari Kawanami Shipyard, Japan

Plants grow inside the abandoned Imari Kawanami Shipyard.
Pinterest/D Pfeiffer
Pinterest/D Pfeiffer

Imari Kawanami Shipyard is one of the most famous abandoned sites in Japan. Located on the desolate Kyushu Island, the shipyard was built in 1851 to store boats and torpedos. During World War II, Imari Kawanami contained the infamous kaiten, also known as “human torpedos.”

Human torpedos were secret naval weapons in which pilots rammed the vehicle directly into their target. During the war, Imari Kawanami housed around 2,500 soldiers, but it closed down in 1952. The shipyard was demolished in 2011, but photos of the old structure remain online.

Barnton Quarry Nuclear Bunker, Scotland

Barton Quarry Bunker in Scotland is flooding slowly.
Reddit/u/WendyRunningMouth
Reddit/u/WendyRunningMouth

Barnton Quarry once produced stones for building near Edinburgh, Scotland. In 1952, the Scottish government transformed the quarry into a top-secret military bunker. There, they prepared for a nuclear bombing that never came.

Barnton Quarry was built to shelter the Queen should a nuclear war break out. The battle never happened and thus, the bunker was abandoned. In 2005, a private owner bought Barnton Quarry and converted it into a museum. The bunker’s broadcast room, tunnels, and stone walls are still intact.

RAF Stenigot, England

A drone sees four radar dishes from the military base RAF Stenigot.
YouTube/Bob Riach
Flickr/http://underclassrising.net/

Between 1938 and 1955, the British Army constructed the Royal Air Force Radar Station (or RAF Stenigot.) At first, the fort was created to detect and intercept German air raids during World War II. After the war ended, NATO took over the base and redesigned it to warn against Soviet attacks.

During this time, NATO built 60-foot-wide (18 m) dishes to detect Soviet frequencies. After it was abandoned, three of the four dishes were scrapped. You can still visit the remaining dish in Stenigot, near Lancashire.

Željava Air Base, Bosnia

A person stands at the entrance of the Željava Air Base in Bosnia.
Pinterest/Xiao Yang
Pinterest/Xiao Yang

In the 1940s, communist Yugoslavia launched the project Objekat 505 to increase the country’s defense. Over two decades, they spent $6 billion on Objekat 505, more than Croatia’s and Serbia’s budgets combined. The result? A massive underground airport.

The Željava Air Base could survive a nuclear airhead and house over 1,000 soldiers. In the 1990s, pilots began defecting from the military there. To prevent further uprisings, the government bombed part of Željava. Today, the base survives, but it lies in ruins. It’s also tricky to find along the border of Croatia and Bosnia.

Saint Nazaire Submarine Base, France

A tunnel that stretches through Saint Nazaire Base is seen.
GEORGES GOBET/AFP via Getty Images
Herve CHAMPOLLION/Gamma-Rapho via Getty Images

While the Germans occupied France in World War II, they built four military bases. The largest was the Saint Nazaire Submarine Base off the coast of Brittany. The concrete base is 985 feet long (300 m), 426 feet wide (130 m), and 60 feet tall (18 m).

Saint Nazaire was built to protect submarines and “Unterseeboots,” Germany’s most threatening weapon at the time. When the Allies liberated France in 1945, Saint Nazaire was abandoned. The government restored the base in 1994 for tourists and history buffs.

Cape May Bunker, New Jersey, USA

Beach-goers explore the bunker at Cape May, New Jersey.
Flickr/sneakerdog
Flickr/sneakerdog

Beach-goers who walk along Cape May, New Jersey, could run into a giant moss-covered fortress. This bunker was built during World War II with turrets of heavy artillery. It became useless after the war and was abandoned.

During the bunker’s construction in 1942, it was 900 feet (275 m) from the water. Over time, the tide has risen so that visitors can’t walk around it without stepping in the ocean. Because the bunker hasn’t functioned in many battles, it has remained relatively intact.

Humboldthain Flak Tower, Germany

The Humboldthain Flak Tower is partially covered by trees.
Flickr/Chris Alban Hansen
Flickr/Chris Alban Hansen

During World War II, Nazi Germany built eight flak towers, which were military towers designed to shoot down fighter planes. The Humboldthain Flak Tower in Berlin also sheltered civilians during air raids, but today, it only houses bats in the winter.

The army destroyed part of a large park in northern Berlin to make room for Humboldthain. After the war ended, the military had no need for these flaks anymore. Today, visitors can explore Humboldthain Flak Tower if they’re willing to climb the five stories to the top.

Olavsvern Naval Base, Norway

The seaside entrance to Olavsvern is seen.
Pinterest/Forbes
Pinterest/Forbes

The US and Russia weren’t the only countries building secret bases during the Cold War. In Tromsø, Norway, the Norweigan army built their own secret naval base in the Arctic Circle. Olavsvern Base cost over four billion Kroner to build, but it was never needed to counter nuclear war.

In 2008, the Norweigan government decided to commission Olavsvern by selling it. Ironically, the new owners rented the site to Russian research vessels. Many people suspect that Russian military activity still occurs there in secret, but we don’t know for sure.

Balaklava Submarine Base, Russia

A dark tunnel serves as the entrance to the abandoned Balaklava Base.
SERGEI SUPINSKY/AFP via Getty Images
SERGEI SUPINSKY/AFP via Getty Images

Today, you can board a white yacht to travel to an abandoned base in Balaklava Bay, Russia. During the Cold War, it was a top-secret submarine base built to repair submarines and the Soviet’s Black Sea Fleet. Secretly, it could also withstand nuclear bombs… and retaliate.

In theory, the base could withstand a bomb ten times stronger than the one that dropped on Hiroshima. It also held nuclear warheads that were ready to fire at any time. By the early 2000s, Balaklava Base fell into disrepair. The abandoned structure now functions as a museum.

Wünsdorf Soviet Camp, Germany

Abandoned buildings are seen of a former military compound, Wünsdorf.
Patrick Pleul/picture alliance via Getty Images
Patrick Pleul/picture alliance via Getty Images

What was once known as “Little Moscow” now lies in ruins. Wünsdorf Soviet Camp was a small town south of Berlin that housed Soviet soldiers and their families. With 75,000 people living there, Wünsdorf was the largest Soviet camp at the time. Along with storing ammunition, the town had schools, trains, and hospitals.

After the Berlin Wall fell in 1989, residents were forced to leave. Thousands of people rushed to return to Russia, leaving many belongings behind. Today, Wünsdorf Soviet Camp remains abandoned as a grim reminder of the Soviet Union.

Askold Island, Sea Of Japan

An abandoned military base is seen on Askold Island.
Pinterest/Ayushi Agarwal
Pinterest/Ayushi Agarwal

At one time, Askold Island held valuable goldmines. In the nineteenth century, the Japanese and Russians competed over ownership of the island, and Russia eventually won. By the early 20th century, Russia had integrated Askold Island into a vast system of fortresses.

The military base on Askold allowed the Russians to spy on the Japanese and build mines that would protect their maritime routes. Today, nobody lives on the island, although it is open for tourists. According to rumors, dozens of gold deposits still lay undiscovered on Askold.

Monte Moro Bunker, Italy

YouTubers film the entrance to the abandoned Monte Moro Bunker in Italy.
YouTube/Prenzo
YouTube/Prenzo

The history behind Monte Moro Bunker in Genova, Italy, is shrouded in mystery. Like many abandoned bunkers, Monte Moro was leftover from World War II. When Italy declared war on France, Genova received the first hit. This fort provided ammunition for the soldiers stationed there.

It’s unknown when the army abandoned Monte Moro Bunker. But today, nobody uses the fort. It has three batteries, one of which can be reached by car, and the rest has been built into the hillside. Graffiti covers the concrete walls that once held ammunition.

Forward Operating Base Shank, Afghanistan

Abandoned tents are partially torn down at the Forward Operating Base Shank in Afghanistan.
Scott Olson/Getty Images
Scott Olson/Getty Images

In the late 2000s and early 2010s, the United States government spent millions of dollars strengthening Forward Operating Base Shank in Logar, Afghanistan. Now, it’s called “Zombieland.” The American forces initially used the fort as a strategic hub while fighting the Taliban.

In 2014, soldiers were ordered to rush out of Afghanistan. In their haste, they tore apart over 500 bases, one of which was Forward Operating Base Shank. Today, the base is unrecognizable, and its only residents are feral dogs who use the wasteland as shelter.

RAF Hethel, England

A wall mural of WW2 bombers crossing the sky is at the former RAF Hethel base.
In Pictures Ltd./Corbis via Getty Images
In Pictures Ltd./Corbis via Getty Images

The Royal Air Force Hethel (often called the RAF Hethel) lies forgotten north of London, England. During the Second World War, the British and Americans used the airfield as a base. After the war ended, Polish citizens used the base as a camp. As a result, there are several gravestones outside the airfield.

In the 1960s, a British racecar manufacturer called Lotus Cars used the airfield for test runs. The base now has a combination of older and newer buildings. Although few full buildings remain, the gym, chapel, and engineering sites still remain.

Pointe Du Hoc, France

An aerial view shows visitors at Pointe du Hoc.
Sean Gallup/Getty Images
Sean Gallup/Getty Images

Pointe du Hoc Base, which lies on a cliff overlooking the English Channel, was a turning point during the Battle of D-Day. The Germans fortified Pointe du Hoc in 1943, but in June 1944, American forces scaled the 100-foot-tall (30 m) cliffs to reclaim the base.

Today, the Pointe du Honte Base is an American battle monument. A tablet, with inscriptions in French and English, was installed on a German bunker in 1979. Visitors can still visit the abandoned concrete bunkers today.

Palmerston Forts, Portsea Island, England

Tourists sale by Spitbank Fort, one of the Palmerston Forts.
Andrew Matthews/PA Images via Getty Images
Andrew Matthews/PA Images via Getty Images

In 1859, England believed that the French would invade at any moment. To prepare, the Royal Commission built several forts along Portsea Island called the Palmerston Forts. These bases stretched 200 feet (60 m) across and held 49 cannons.

Although the Palmerston Forts never fought the French, they did see some action in both world wars. In the 1950s, the forts were decommissioned. One of the forts, called No Man’s Land, opened as a luxury hotel in the 1960s before it closed once again. Now, the Palmerston Forts remain abandoned.

Fort Terry, New York, USA

The modern Fort Terry hospital on Plum Island sits abandoned.
Twitter/@SavePlumIsland
Twitter/@SavePlumIsland

In 1897, Fort Terry was built on Plum Island outside of New York. It was initially made to monitor trade, but when the Spanish-American War broke out in 1898, Fort Terry quickly turned into a military base. It worked as an ammunition supplier throughout both world wars.

In 1952, the US Army Chemical Corps had another idea for Fort Terry. The fort became a center of animal disease research and biological warfare. During the 2000s, Fort Terry transferred ownership a few times before finally being abandoned. The building still stands on that forgotten island.

RAF Upper Heyford, England

An exterior of disused hanger is seen at the RAF Upper Heyford Base.
Universal History Archive/Universal Images Group via Getty Images
Universal History Archive/Universal Images Group via Getty Images

Five miles (eight km) north of Bicester, England, an old air force base is slowly consumed by nature. The Royal Air Force Upper Heyford Base sheltered aircraft from both the US and Britain during the Cold War. Strategic bombers and strike aircraft were stored there.

When the Cold War ended, the Royal Air Force had no more use for Upper Heyford. It gradually decayed into the abandoned base it is today. Native birds build nests in the buildings, which make the area an ideal site for bird watchers.

Hashima Island, Japan

Tourists see abandoned buildings of Hashima Island.
Richard Atrero de Guzman/NurPhoto via Getty Images
Richard Atrero de Guzman/NurPhoto via Getty Images

If you sail nine miles from Nagasaki, Japan, you may find an eerie coal mining town that has been abandoned since 1974. Hashima Island, also called Battleship Island, because a popular city after coal was discovered there in the nineteenth century. During the 1930s, however, the Japanese army used the island for forced labor.

Under Japanese wartime policies, thousands of Korean and Chinese prisoners were forced to work on army supplies. Around 1,300 died during their labor. With the rise in petroleum, workers on Hashima Island gradually left, and the city remains as a solemn reminder of Japan’s dark history.

Fort Tilden, New York, USA

Vegetation covered the abandoned Fort Tilden in New York.
Flickr/David Trawin
Flickr/LunchboxLarry

On the outskirts of Queens, New York, there’s a hundred-year-old army base. Built in 1917, Fort Tilden protected the entrance to New York Harbor. A few new buildings were added in the 1930s. During both world wars, soldiers tracked enemies, stored supplies, and defended the shore in Fort Tilden.

After World War II ended, the Coast Artillery Corps–who ran Fort Tilden–was abolished. The Army converted the fort into apartments for veterans and their families. However, the Army reclaimed Fort Tilden during America’s war with Korea. Afterward, it was abandoned.

Fort Ord, California, USA

An abandoned pool is seen at Fort Ord Military base in CA.
Getty Images
Charles Ommanney/Getty Images

Fort Ord, near Monterey Bay, California, was once considered America’s most beautiful military base. The coastal site was founded in 1917 as a target range for field artillery. However, it wasn’t designated as a fort until 1940. During the Korean and Vietnam Wars, over 50,000 soldiers were stationed at Fort Ord.

Many soldiers wanted to stay at Ford Ord for its beautiful and well-provided facilities. However, the base closed in 1994 after several training areas deactivated. Fort Ord has become a protected environmental site for the rare native species living there.

Fuchū Air Base, Japan

Disks of the abandoned Fuchu Air Base are seen above the treeline.
John S Lander/LightRocket via Getty Images
John S Lander/LightRocket via Getty Images

Fuchū Air Base in Tokyo began as a Japanese Airbase in 1940. After Japan surrendered in 1945, the United States came in and took over Fuchū Air Base. From 1957 to 1974, American operated the base as its first and main headquarters in post-war Japan.

Fuchū hosted Air Weather Service and Air Traffic Control service groups. Although soldiers left the base in the ’70s, you can still see the giant eroding disks and communication towers. Two jet fighters, a Lockheed F-104 Starfighter and Mitsubishi F-1, are on display at the entrance.

Vieques Island Bunkers, Puerto Rico

Bunkers built into a hill are seen on Vieques Island.
Flickr/davidsancar
Flickr/davidsancar

In 1941, the American Navy overtook the small Puerto Rican island of Vieques. They built a series of secret concrete bunkers that stored ammunition during World War II. The Vieques Bunkers also became a testing ground for weapons, since hills completely obscured the structure.

By 2003, residents had, had enough of the military occupation. Repeated protests forced the Army to withdraw from Vieques, leaving the bunkers untouched. Today, the US Fish & Wildlife Services are working to clean up the remaining ammunition. But otherwise, the buildings remain abandoned.

Carlstrom Field, Florida, USA

An old photo shows Carlstrom Field in Arcadia, Florida.
Pinterest/Sheila Russell Thurber
Pinterest/Sheila Russell Thurber

Six miles (ten km) south of Arcadia, Florida, there’s an airfield that survived World War I. Carlstrom Field was built in 1917 to house several Air Force squadrons. After the war, Carlstrom Field became a testing area for aircraft. It closed in 1926 but reopened in 1941 to train the Allied Forces.

After World War II, Carlstrom Field turned into the G. Pierce Wood Memorial Hospital. The psychiatric hospital closed in 2002, and the buildings remain untouched. The site still has several wells, runways, hangars, and hospital machinery.

The Discovery Of The Island

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Universal History Archive/Universal Images Group via Getty Images
Universal History Archive/Universal Images Group via Getty Images

Before revealing what the team from Binghamton University found, let’s travel back to 1775 when Alcatraz Island was first discovered. It was Spaniard Juan Manuel de Ayala who laid claim to finding it first and naming it “La Isla de los Alcatraces,” which translates to “Island of the Pelicans.”

It is through this writing that we get the name Alcatraz. The island is 22 acres with two high points, one 135 feet above sea level and the other 138 feet. It is between these high points that Alcatraz Penitentiary can be seen from shore.

The First Owner

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Robert Alexander/Getty Images
Robert Alexander/Getty Images

Before becoming a world-famous penitentiary, Alcatraz Island was owned by Julian Workman. He was a ranch owner in 1846 when Alta California governor Pio Pico gave him the island. As part of their arrangement, Workman agreed to build a lighthouse.

Workman was never able to follow through on his promise. It’s not that he couldn’t, it’s that he was never given a chance. Less than one year into his ownership California’s military governor John C. Fremont bought Alcatraz for $5,000.

Handed Over To The Military

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Universal History Archive/Getty Images
Universal History Archive/Getty Images

In 1850, two years after California was sold to the United States, President Millard Fillmore ordered that Alcatraz Island be handed over to the military. This act turned the island into a military base, where it could be used as a defense to protect the bay.

The rightful owner of the land, John C. Fremont, expected the United States to pay him a hefty fee for the island. His investment was about to pay huge dividends. Or was it?

A Failed Fight

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MPI/Getty Images
MPI/Getty Images

Unfortunately for Fremont, the United States took the land from him, arguing that the deal he made to buy it was invalid. Fremont lost the island, and he was given no money in exchange.

To try and get compensated for his loss, Fremont began a long legal battle. Along with his fellow ranchers, he fought the ruling in a case that ran through the system until the 1890s. When a final decision was made, it was declared that Fremont had no right to the land.

A Three-Year Wait

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Wikimedia Commons
Wikimedia Commons

With Alcatraz Island firmly in the grasp of the United States, it took another three years for anything to happen. In 1853, construction finally began on a new fort under the watch of Zealous B. Tower.

Although it took a few years for construction to begin, once it did, the building process needed to be fast. In 1848 the Gold Rush began, and people were flocking to San Francisco in the thousands! In just a few years, the population boomed from 300 to 30,000.

Defending The Bay

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Hulton Archive/Getty Images
Hulton Archive/Getty Images

With so many people coming in so fast, building a defensive stronghold was a major priority. Not only did the military plan to fortify Alcatraz, but they also intended to build a stronghold on Fort Point, a nearby island.

The Alcatraz project was finished first, which was a good thing. It wound up being given the strongest fortifications. At the time, no one knew it would eventually become one of the world’s most notorious prisons.

The Perfect Location

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MBPROJEKT_Maciej_Bledowski, iStock
MBPROJEKT_Maciej_Bledowski, iStock

As if blessed from above, the San Francisco Bay gave away the perfect island to build a defensive stronghold on. Engineers couldn’t believe their incredible luck. In 1852, the Pacific Coast Board of Engineers reported:

“Nature seems to have provided a redoubt for this [military] purpose in the shape of Alcatraz Island. Situated abreast the entrance directly in the middle of the inner harbor, it covers with its fire the whole of the interior space lying between Angel Island to the north, San Francisco to the south and the outer batteries to the west.”

Using What Nature Provided

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National Park Service, Golden Gate National Recreation Area
National Park Service, Golden Gate National Recreation Area

Tasked with building Fort Alcatraz as quickly as possible, Zealous B. Tower used what nature gave him. With his men, the crew took rocks from the island to build up the walls of the fort along its coast.

Once the walls were placed, weapons could be positioned behind them around the island perimeter. These weapons were placed on the west, south, and north of the naturally-built walls. There were also 111 armed cannons on the island, making it ready for anything.

Armed To The Teeth

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Staff/Mirrorpix/Getty Images
Staff/Mirrorpix/Getty Images

As if cannons, which were called columbiads, weren’t enough, Fort Alcatraz was also outfitted with caponiers, stone towers that projected from the shore. Anyone looking to take control of Fort Alcatraz would have been met with a degree of difficulty unmatched at the time.

One year after construction began, the citadel was finished. There were barracks located next to the fort’s lighthouse. The lighthouse was also the first navigational light ever placed on the Pacific Coast of the United States.

Defending The Lighthouse

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Dave Etheridge-Barnes/Getty Images
Dave Etheridge-Barnes/Getty Images

The citadel was tasked with not only defending the island but defending the lighthouse as well. To ensure success against attack, it was built to accommodate 100 soldiers, and expand to 200 when needed. The windows of the barracks were designed for soldiers to fire through.

And if the fort was taken over, there were enough supplies in the citadel for those trapped inside to survive for four months. In that time, it can be assumed, backup would arrive, or the citadel would be breached and overtaken.

The End Of The Process

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Camerique/ClassicStock/Getty Images
Camerique/ClassicStock/Getty Images

Although it was intended to be a quick process, the fortification of Alcatraz Island was not finished until 1859. There were many reasons that led to this, but the biggest one was a shortage of skilled labor workers.

At the time the fort was being built, people were flocking to San Francisco in droves, but not to build a fort. They wanted to find gold and get rich quick. This meant finding people to actually work on the island was much easier said than actually done.

An Opportunity Never Used

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MPI/Hulton Archive/Getty Images
MPI/Hulton Archive/Getty Images

During the Civil War, 350 men were positioned at Fort Alcatraz. Their time there ended up being unproductive. The fort was never attacked during the war. There was one recorded plot by the Confederate army, but the assault never came.

In 1863, three men were detained and arrested in the plot to assault Fort Alcatraz. They were sentenced to ten years in prison – sentences they did not serve. Abraham Lincoln pardoned all three men when the war ended.

First Prisoners

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Paolo KOCH/Gamma-Rapho via Getty Images
Paolo KOCH/Gamma-Rapho via Getty Images

In modern times, of course, Alcatraz Island is best known for its penitentiary, and less for its military background. Interestingly enough, the two histories overlap. The first prisoners at Alcatraz were incarcerated soldiers in 1859.

During the Civil War, the stronghold was also used to imprison Confederate soldiers. Even though Fort Alcatraz wasn’t built to be a prison, the future of the island was clearly never in doubt. It was only a matter of time before that future became the present.

The “Perfect” Prison

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US Army Air Corps/PhotoQuest/Getty Images
US Army Air Corps/PhotoQuest/Getty Images

Alcatraz Penitentiary first began holding civilian prisoners in 1934. Thanks to the topography of the island and its distance from the shore, it was the perfect place for a prison. Anyone who tried to escape would find that freedom outside the walls was impossible to come by.

The waters surrounding Alcatraz are near freezing and the strong currents are backbreaking to swim against. Overall, there have been 14 escape attempts from the prison. No one involved successfully made it to the mainland.

A Soaring Population

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PhotoQuest/Getty Images
PhotoQuest/Getty Images

Before holding civilian prisoners, Alcatraz held prisoners of war. In 1867, a jailhouse was built on the fort. Thirty years later, during the Spanish-American War of 1898, the prison had a population of 450.

Over the next 15 years, the prison expanded with the addition of large concrete prison cells. That block of cells is largest structure still intact on the island. Finally, in 1933, the military portion of the fort was decommissioned and the entire operation was handed over to the Prisons Bureau.

James A. Johnston Was A Tough Warden

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Getty Images
Getty Images

Alcatraz Penitentiary welcomed its first group of prisoners on August 11, 1934. This group was “special” and had been hand-picked by authorities to make the journey to the island. They had disrupted life at their previous penitentiaries and needed a change of location.

Watching over these men was Alcatraz’s first warden, James A. Johnston. He was known as a strict disciplinarian and was the perfect man for the job. Life wouldn’t be easy for him, but he had a crew of 155 guards to help keep the peace.

Some Famous Faces

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Donaldson Collection/Michael Ochs Archives/Getty Images
Donaldson Collection/Michael Ochs Archives/Getty Images

Once Alcatraz Penitentiary was fully up and running, it became the home of some of the country’s most notorious criminals. Al Capone and George Kelly are two of the most recognizable names, as well as one man labeled “Public Enemy Number One” by the FBI.

That man was Alvin “Creepy” Karpis, and he is one of four criminals to ever be given the title. He is also the only one of those four to be taken alive by authorities.

Any Survivors?

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Warner Brothers/Getty Images
Warner Brothers/Getty Images

As we said, there were a total of 14 escape attempts from 36 prisoners on the island. Of those, none officially made it to shore. Six were taken to the grave, 23 were captured alive, and two drowned. As for the other five, they are listed as “missing and presumed drowned.”

That means that while there is no proof that anyone successfully escaped Alcatraz, it is possible. Considering the conditions surrounding the island, though, it is unlikely they ever made it to the shore.

An Escape Attempt Immortalized

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Bettmann/Getty Images
Bettmann/Getty Images

Of all the escape attempts, the 13th is the most interesting one. It involved three men: John Anglin, Clarence Anglin, and Frank Morris. They planned an elaborate escape and successfully made it into the ocean.

The attempt was immortalized on the silver screen in 1979’s Escape from Alcatraz, starring Clint Eastwood. The story doesn’t end there, though. In 2013, a letter “written by John Anglin” was delivered to the police. Is it possible these three men survived the freezing currents of the San Francisco Bay?

What Does It All Mean?

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Robert Alexander/Getty Images
Robert Alexander/Getty Images

Once Alcatraz Penitentiary shut down, it became a major tourist attraction. Tourism, of course, is not what interested the Binghamton University team led by Timothy de Smet to the island. They wanted to know what was beneath the surface.

To look beneath the surface, the archaeological team used lasers to pierce the layers of concrete. With this incredible technology, they could see underground without causing any actual damage to the highly profitable and heavily-visited location.

Bomb-Proof

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Binghamton University/YouTube
Binghamton University/YouTube

Thanks to their laser technology, the team was able to see structures from the island’s military days that were still intact. Going beneath the structures revealed even more; it showed what the team described as “a bombproof earthwork traverse.”

This tunnel was still in nearly perfect condition in 2019 and included ventilation shafts to keep anyone traveling through comfortable. These structures were part of the military stronghold and had been lost in time until de Smet and his team “uncovered” them.

Importance Of The Discovery

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Binghamton University/YouTube
Binghamton University/YouTube

Timothy de Smet had no idea what to expect when his team began using lasers to search under the island. He had hoped to find lost structures, but nothing in a condition so well preserved.

“We sought non-invasive, non-destructive means to ascertain if any historic archaeological remains lay beneath several parts of the island, like the recreation yard of the infamous penitentiary. We did not know what to expect,” he admitted. That’s not the only reason de Smet’s discovery was so important.

The Future Of Archaeology

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Gili Yaari/NurPhoto via Getty Images
Gili Yaari/NurPhoto via Getty Images

Making such a momentous discovery could pave the way for an entirely new kind of archaeological surveying — non-invasive. This, maybe more than anything, was the greatest discovery that de Smut and his team made.

The future of archaeology is now looking as bright as ever according to de Smut. “With modern remote-sensing methods like these, we can answer fundamental archaeological research questions about human behavior, social organization and cultural change through time without costly and destructive excavation.”