Fort Jefferson, Dry Tortugas


Well, we were stuck.... but what a beautiful place to be stuck.  We had visited Fort Jefferson ten years earlier on our maiden voyage after we shipped Genesis south in 1997.  It really had not changed much.  It was still as beautiful and pristine as we remembered it.  After the passage, it was good to get our feet on dry land again and stretch our legs. 

Although Hurricane Paloma's winds continued to blow, it was still a beautiful sunny day.

Lying at the far western end of the Florida Keys, 68 miles from Key West, are seven coral isles called the Dry Tortugas, dominated by the massive brick fortress of Fort Jefferson.  It is the largest masonry structure in the Western Hemisphere, containing about 16 million bricks.


The Tortugas were first discovered by the Spanish explorer Ponce de Leon in 1513.  Abundant sea turtles provisioned his ship with meat, but there was no water.  Alas, the Tortugas were dry.  Since the days of Spanish exploration, the reefs and shoals of the Dry Tortugas have been a serious hazard to navigation and the site of hundreds of shipwrecks.


A little history......US military attention was drawn to the keys in the early 1800s due to their strategic location. Plans were made for a massive fortress and construction began in 1846, but the fort was never completed.  The invention of the rifled cannon made it obsolete. 

During the Civil War, the fort was a Union military prison for captured deserters.  In July 1865, four special civilian prisioners arrived.  These were Dr. Samuel Mudd, Edmund Spangler, Samuel Arnold, and Michael O'Laughlen, who had been convicted of conspiracy in President Abraham Lincoln's assassination.  Construction of Fort Jefferson was still underway when Dr. Mudd and his fellow prisoners arrived, and continued throughout the time they were imprisoned there.  Mudd provided much-praised medical care during a yellow fever epidemic at the fort in 1867 and was eventually pardoned by President Andrew Johnson and released.

The army abandoned Fort Jefferson in 1874, and in 1908 the area became a wildlife refuge to protect the sooty tern rookery from egg collectors.  As a military value, the value of Fort Jefferson waned, but its pristine reefs, abundant sea life, and impressive number of birds grew in value.  Recognizing its significance, President Franklin Roosevelt set aside Fort Jefferson and the surrounding waters as a national monument in 1935.  It was rededicated as Dry Tortugas National Park in 1992.  There are 64,700 acres in the park. 

 Dry Tortugas National Park is accessible only by boat or seaplane.

Although there are about 80,000 visitors a year, no water, food, fuel, supplies, or accommodations are available at the park.  Camping is available.  All supplies must be brought in.  Shipwrecks and historic artifacts are protected by law.  The Dry Tortugas are renowned for spring bird migrations and tropical bird species. 

The Research Natural Area was introduced in 2006.  The zone's purpose is to provide a baseline for measuring long-term ecological changes.  To maintain the RNA in its most natural state, fishing and anchoring (no kidding!) are prohibited within its boundaries.

Currently, the park is undergoing a restoration project.  Fort Jefferson was intended to hold 450 cannons and 1500 men.  The latest technologies were incorporated into its design to protect the soldiers.  Specialized iron shutters used to protect the cannon openings were placed between the mortar core of the fort and the brick facade. 

During use, the shutters were unlocked from the bronze strike plate below.  Upon firing the cannon, gases escaping from the muzzle would momentarily throw the shutters open.  The shutters were carefully balanced so that they would swing freely and rebound into the closed position.  Unfortunately, the very metal that provided valuable protection to the soldiers under fire proved devastating to the fort itself.  In a saltwater environment, the wrought-iron quickly began to rust and expand.  As the iron rusted, it pushed the brick apart, causing serious structural damage to Fort Jefferson's walls.  Large sections of the fort walls have collapsed into the moat.  Highly skilled contractors are now at work to insure that Fort Jefferson will be preserved for future generations.

Deteriorating Walls of Fort Jefferson


Scenes from the Fort