Saturday, February 8, 2014

Dry Tortugas

On February 7th, Sue and I visited the Dry Tortugas. Because we didn't want to deal with the sea of crab and lobster pot floats, or the prevailing easterlies to return, we decided to take the Yankee Freedom.

The ferry is sitting at the dock on Garden Key in front of historic Fort Jefferson, a huge brick fort which literally takes up the entire island.

Fort Jefferson is part of the Dry Tortugas National Park, which includes 7 small, low islands 70 miles west of Key West.  The fort was built to protect the natural harbor here, so that pirates and potential enemy nations could not use it as a base of operations against the United States.  Begun in 1846, and abandoned unfinished by the army in 1874, Fort Jefferson is the nation's largest masonry fort.  The fort's only use was to serve as a prison for union civil war deserters, as well as for for conspirators in the Lincoln assassination.  Those lucky prisoners replaced the freed slaves as the labor force for construction of this massive fort.  They worked in the tropical sun with little water and sparse rations, with many dying of disease.

Today, one can visit on ones own boat, the ferry, or from a sea plane.

Once ashore, one is greeted by the front of the imposing structure.

The only entrance to Fort Jefferson was entered after crossing bridge over a moat.  Today the moat is well guarded by a 12 foot salt water crocodile which came ashore seven years ago during a storm.

The moat completely surrounds the fort, protecting it  from amphibious assault, and from the ravages of the sea.


Inside the walls are the ruins of barracks for the troops, as well as green areas and other military structures.

In this photo one can see the remains of the enlisted men's barracks.  In the background is the magazine, and an oven for heating shot.

Soldiers could heat the iron balls by placing them at the high end of the shot oven.  By the time they rolled out the other end, they were hot enough to set fire to the ships they struck.

The wood which formed the rooms of the fort disappeared during the time that the fort was abandoned, leaving only the brick structure.

Fort Jefferson is three stories high.  Steps to the second and third floor were located at the six corners of the fort.  The circular staircases were designed so that only one man could climb them at a time.  By circling clockwise, right handed invaders would not be able to point their rifles up the steps as they climbed them, but the defenders above would not have the same handicap, making the stairs easy to defend from above.

Of course, Fort Jefferson was never attacked, but did function as a prison.  Her most famous prisoner was Dr. Samuel Mudd, who made the mistake of setting John Wilkes Booth's broken leg after Booth shot President Lincoln.

As one can see by reading the plaque, Dr. Mudd was pardoned after serving only four years.  His work in trying to contain the yellow fever outbreak which killed the army doctor and commander of the fort, as well as many soldiers and prisoners, earned him his freedom.

The Dry Tortugas is so named because of the complete lack of fresh water on the islands, which is exemplified by some of the vegetation found on the islands.

There is a lighthouse on the fort, but it is no longer in service.  The coast guard does maintain a lighthouse on Loggerhead Key, which is the largest of the seven remaining islands.

The Dry Tortugas National Park is a breeding ground for many varieties of sea turtles, and also many bird species.  Bush Key was separated from Garden Key by a navigable deep water channel.  Photos used by the park service show this channel; but it is completely closed off, and now Bush Key is connected to Garden Key by the sand which filled in the channel.  Bush Key is currently closed to visitors because it is teeming with breeding birds like terns and boobies.

We really enjoyed our visit to Fort Jefferson, not only to soak up its historical significance, or even to behold the magnificent Frigate birds soaring overhead, but also because the waters of the Dry Tortugas National Park are incredibly beautiful.

We highly recommend that everyone make the trip to this wonderful national park.

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