If you thought Key West was as far as you can go off the tip of Florida, think again. For if you hop on a boat and travel another 70 miles westwards you come to the Dry Tortugas National Park, at the true end of the Florida Keys.
To call the Dry Tortugas a cluster of seven islands is really pushing the definition of the term. Seven sand bars is closer to the truth, for my money. But those bumps in the sea, and the coral reefs that surround them, are a haven for lovers of birds and marine life. Yet for me, and many other visitors, they major draw of the Dry Tortugas is the monumental Fort Jefferson, which overspills the second largest island, Garden Key.
Constructed between 1845 and 1876 from 16 million bricks, Fort Jefferson is a marvel of 19th Century engineering. It remains the largest masonry structure in the Americas, although it was never officially completed. In fact, the original naval officer to evaluate the possibility of placing a fort in the Dry Tortugas, Commodore David Porter, concluded the islands were totally unsuitable. Five years later, however, his decision was overturned, although it was another 16 years until work began on the massive hexagonal fortress.
The Dry Tortugas come by their name honestly, since there’s no fresh water on the islands. Consequently, the design of Fort Jefferson included huge cisterns beneath the walls to collect captured rainwater. However, the weight of the walls themselves led to subsidence, which in turn cracked the cisterns, letting in contaminating salt water. Sounds to me like Commodore Porter was right after all. That being said, if the politicians and bureaucrats in Washington had listened to him, we would have been robbed of this marvellous structure.
With the islands of the Dry Tortugas being so low, arriving by ferry from Key West you see Fort Jefferson long before you spy any actual land. The effect is like watching a great red-brick wall rising out of the sea.
Despite never being finished, Fort Jefferson was nonetheless an active military base for several decades, with as many as 1729 soldiers being stationed there. It also acted as a prison during the American Civil War, with inmates including the notorious Dr. Samuel Mudd, who was accused of conspiring to assassinate President Abraham Lincoln. Despite being pardoned in 1869, Dr. Mudd’s infamy lives on when we say someone’s ‘name is mud’.
When the Army decided the expensive-to-run fort had outlived it military usefulness it was converted into a quarantine facility for the Marine Hospital Service. In 1935, Fort Jefferson was named a National Monument, and in 1992 it was included in the newly designated Dry Tortugas National Park.
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