Dry Tortugas National Park


For our 48th national park out of the 59, we visited Dry Tortugas National Park in February. In the Gulf of Mexico, about 70 miles west of Key West, Florida, a bird and marine life sanctuary, the park includes seven small low-lying islands and 100 square miles of sea. Towering incongruously on Garden Key is Fort Jefferson, a relic of 19th century military strategy.


The only way to access Dry Tortugas is either by seaplane or boat so we booked a day-long trip on the Yankee Freedom III. Since there is only one boat a day, you must book well in advance to secure a space. The tour included breakfast, lunch and narration, as well as a guided tour of the fort. The boat ride each way was two hours so we were hoping it would all be worth it. We were not disappointed. In fact, we found Fort Jefferson really fascinating as we are both American history buffs.


Dry Tortugas National Park was established in 1992 but has a history dating back to 1513 when Spanish explorer Juan Ponce de León dropped anchor there. Upon arrival, he and his crew found the area teeming with wildlife. There were large numbers of birds and sea turtles, all of which were important sources of food for early mariners. Ponce de León named the islands “Las Islas de Tortugas” (The Islands of Turtles) for the hundreds of turtles found there. Later “Dry” was added to the name on charts to warn mariners that there was no fresh water on the islands.

Once discovered, the Dry Tortugas became a landmark for sailing ships passing through the Florida Straits. Treasure fleets from South and Central America discovered this route was the fastest way back to Europe. Shallow reefs, combined with strong currents and frequent storms proved the undoing of many vessels. There are over 250 documented shipwrecks in the Dry Tortugas, dating from the 16th century to the present. The first lighthouse was built on Garden Key in 1826 – a taller lighthouse was built in 1857 on Loggerhead Key.

Arriving at Garden Key, the first thought is that Fort Jefferson covers the entire island and maybe even a little bit more. We were told that the plan for the fort was a standard plan used in the 1800’s for coastal fortifications and that it did not actually fit the island so they “built more island” to accommodate. Surrounded by a moat and accessible only through a drawbridge, Fort Jefferson was intended to be defended well.


We took an hour-long guided tour of the fort which not only provided a lot of information but also roused our curiosity for even more. So, after having lunch back on the boat, we set off on our own self-guided tour. There are numerous explanatory exhibits. With more questions, we then cornered a ranger. He was most helpful and his knowledge, love of, and interest in this park were obvious. Of course, I also bought a book about the park – mandatory in my mind whenever we visit a park.


Possible disruption of the shipping lanes in the Gulf of Mexico by hostile nations was an initial motive for building a 450-gun, 2.000-man fort on this tiny remote island although there was never more than 200 guns and approximately 1,000 soldiers. The fort was also to provide a safe harbor for warships, facilities for repairs, and a station for water, supplies and munitions. The intimidation factor of this massive fort rising out of the sea was also important.

In 1845, President James K. Polk proclaimed Garden Key a military reservation. Begun in 1846, building on the fort continued for about 30 years and was never completed. The fort is an elongated hexagon, rising 45 feet above the sea, built of masonry and brick and surrounded by a 70-foot wide moat. Unfortunately, the enormous weight of the structure proved to be a problem and one can see where the fort has settled. We were told much of the upper portion was never finished because of the weight issue.


A half-mile walk on the moat seawall provides a perspective on the massiveness of the fort. There are two distinct colors of brick used in the fort. The lower orange brick was manufactured in Pensacola, Florida, but when Florida seceded from the Union in the Civil War this was no longer available for a Union fort and the upper red brick was shipped in from Maine. Materials and supplies for this fort always were somewhat of a logistical nightmare.


The elaborate architecture containing over 2000 arches and the superb workmanship of Fort Jefferson are captivating. Given the location, hot and humid climate, generally miserable working conditions, and lack of many amenities, it is impressive. At the same time, the fort was never finished and when we inquired about the overall cost of the thirty years’ worth of building the answer was that no one really knows as records were sketchy.


Given the fact that the fort was never actually involved in a battle, it seems that this massive government project never really fulfilled its purpose. However, the intimidation factor was important as was its value for other purposes.

The huge fort with massive Parrott rifled cannons that could fire a 250lb. cannonball over three miles gave pause to any passing ship. The fort also boasted 25-ton Rodman cannons. There are only 25 of these smoothbore civil war cannons known to still exist and six of them are at Fort Jefferson.

Fort Jefferson was built with over 100 cisterns to catch and store the rainfall with a total capacity of nearly two million gallons. Later water distilling plants were added to make fresh water from the sea to supplement the rainwater


During the Civil War, Fort Jefferson served as a military prison. One of the most famous prisoners was Dr. Samuel Mudd, the physician who set John Wilkes Booth’s broken leg after his assassination of President Abraham Lincoln. After serving selflessly during yellow fever outbreaks at the Fort, Mudd was later pardoned and released.


In 1889, the Army transferred the fort to the Marine-Hospital Service as a quarantine station. During the Spanish-American War, Fort Jefferson served as a disinfection station and supply depot, and a coaling station was constructed. It became part of the Naval Station of Key West in 1900. The fort was permanently abandoned in 1907.


In 1904, the Carnegie Institution established a marine research laboratory on Loggerhead Key, which continued until 1939. In 1908, President Theodore Roosevelt set aside the “Tortugas Keys Reservation” as a bird sanctuary. In 1935 President Franklin D. Roosevelt declared the park as Fort Jefferson National Monument under the National Park Service. In 1992 an act of Congress changed it to Dry Tortugas National Park, with the purpose being protection of marine animals and natural resources as well as protecting cultural resources and shipwrecks.


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