Fort Jefferson

(*Note—the outline for this travel log was drafted on July 26; it just took me a bit to finish it.)

I normally don’t get up at 6:00 a.m. on vacation, but I had to be checked in at that ferry terminal by 7:00 so I could board the Yankee Freedom III for a three hour cruise (one way) across 70 miles of water to Fort Jefferson on Garden Key in the Dry Tortugas.

The Dry Tortugas mark the end of the Florida Keys—the third largest barrier reef in the world.  The islands were found in 1513 by Juan Ponce de Leon and named “Las Tortugas” due to the abundance of sea turtles in the area.  Although today endangered species, 450 years ago turtles were plentiful and, for mariners who might be at sea for months, a terrific and efficient food source.  The “Dry” part of the name was added later by British chart makers to warn mariners there is no fresh water on the islands.

Fort Jefferson, all 16 million bricks of it, is the largest masonry structure in the Americas, the largest fort the U.S. ever built, and the most isolated fort the U.S. ever built.  It was built on Garden Key to secure the approaches to the Mississippi River and the economic heart of the fledgling United States.

So…we build the biggest fort we ever build on an isolated island…that enemy ships could easily sail past, staying outside the range of its guns, and still get into the Gulf of Mexico?  This begs the question of the planners of Fort Jefferson…what were they on?!

The strategic reality is that the Dry Tortugas creates a safe harbor:  a deep water anchorage and two shallower anchorages that are invaluable to mariners in the hurricane-prone Caribbean waters.  These safe harbors are used even today.  The only other safe harbor between the Dry Tortugas and Mexico is…Mexico.   American fortification of the Tortugas maintained control those harbors and enabled us to keep ships at sea in the Gulf by using the Tortugas as staging bases.  Thus a fort out there actually does make sense.

Fort Jefferson was never actually finished, but think about it.  16 million bricks—16 million bricks—were set in place one by one…by hand.  Soldiers and slaves built the thing in brutal heat.  The sun is relentless out there, even more so than in Key West.  The fort had to be able to sustain itself and fight for a whole year without relief.  The underground cisterns failed early when the fort’s weight caused the first floor to settle nearly 12 inches, cracking the cisterns and opening them to the sea.  Fresh water was always a problem.

The Union maintained possession of the fort when the Civil War started…through a bluff.  Key West was held by the Union due to the Army’s presence at Fort Zachary Taylor, but Fort Jefferson was still under construction.  Well, the artillery company had just arrived at Fort Jefferson when Florida seceded in 1861.  A ship from the Florida government sailed to the fort to assume control of it and, if Florida had succeeded, would have handed control of the Gulf of Mexico to the nascent Confederacy.

The fort’s Union commander came out and told the ship’s captain the only reason they hadn’t been sunk as traitors to the Union was so they could carry a message back to Florida that Fort Jefferson would henceforth sink all ships from secessionist states.  The ship left to carry the message back.

Except…the fort’s artillery hadn’t arrived yet.  The commander was bluffing!

Keeping possession of Fort Jefferson and Key West enabled the Union to blockade the Confederacy’s underbelly, thereby depriving the Confederacy of critical trade.

Today the fort is a scenic wonder.  The construction alone is enough to keep one amazed and prowling for hours on end.  The Dry Tortugas is still a haven for sea turtles, birds, and even dolphins.  The snorkeling is amazing…though I can’t speak from experience.  I spent my time prowling around the fort exploring ever corner I could find.  Water dripping through the lime-based mortar is creating tiny stalactites and stalagmites, just as one would find in a cave.

The views from the fort’s upper level are breathtaking and intimidating.  Even with the activity of tourists and campers, and the occasional seaplane flying in and out, Garden Key is eerily quiet.  There’s just way more “nothing” out there than people.  It’s easy to imagine how isolated being as soldier or prisoner out here must have felt.  Nothing but a few low keys (today several of them nothing but sandbars) and flat emerald sea to look at, cruel heat and relentless sunlight pounding on you in your woolen clothes…never knowing when a ship would bring a letter from a home you feared must have forgotten you.

It must have felt like the being marooned on the edge of the world.

You can fly out to the fort in about half an hour. But the trip on the Yankee Freedom III is worth the time.  The high-speed catamaran is stable, fast, modern, and fun.  You get to traverse the waters where the famous Spanish galleon Atocha was found by Mel Fisher.  If you are inclined to snorkel, your ferry fee covers the gear rental.  Otherwise you can avail yourself of a very in-depth guided tour of the fort.  You’ll get a real good idea of 19th century life out there if you do.  The Yankee Freedom III’s crew will cover everything from the hot boredom of Army service at the fort to the prisoners (such as Dr. Samuel Mudd) housed there to the horrible yellow fever epidemics that made tropical life so dangerous.  Seeing a few sea turtles in the wild makes the ferry ride more than worthwhile.

Fort Jefferson on Garden Key is well worth the time.  In a way, when you set foot on Garden Key, you really are standing on the edge of the world.

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