Perhaps the most unusual national park in the national park system is Dry Tortugas. It’s one of the smallest, one of the most remote, and one of the least visited. But it’s nevertheless a wonderful park, comprising seven small islands, coral reefs and other undersea attractions, and nesting areas for a variety of wild birds. The park includes some 64,657 acres of land above and below the water line.
During and after the Civil War the fort began to be used as a prison for deserters and other criminals. In 1874 the army completely abandoned the fort after several hurricanes and a yellow fever epidemic, and it wasn’t until 1898 that the military returned in the form of the navy, which used the facilities during the Spanish-American War. The fort was also used from 1888 through 1900 as a quarantine station, and was garrisoned again briefly during World War I.
In 1908 the area was designated as a bird reserve and transferred to the Department of Agriculture. On January 4, 1935 it was designated as Fort Jefferson National Monument by President Franklin Roosevelt, the first marine area to be so protected. On October 26, 1992 the monument was upgraded to National Park status in a bill signed by President George Bush.
Journey to the Park
There’s no “easy” way to get to the Tortugas. The islands are located about 70 miles west of Key West in the waters of the Straights of Florida. A four hour boat ride is necessary to cross the waters of the straight which connects the Atlantic Ocean and the Gulf of Mexico. Excursions are available on ferries by operated by several concessionaires, one of which can be seen below as it appeared in the 1996-1997 season.
Little land is seen on the trip, except for a glimpse of the tiny Marquesas Islands not far from Key West, but the waters of Gulf are exceptionally beautiful. The imposing outline of the walls of Ft. Jefferson on Garden Key eventually comes into view, seeming so incredibly improbable in the middle of nowhere.
The boat swings around the island, and the southeast corner of the fort can be seen, along with the beach which is evident on the southern portion of the key. These first views of what was the 19th century’s largest coastal fort are particularly impressive.
For some visitors there is a faster way to reach the park–by seaplane. In the picture below a row of planes are parked on the beach outside the entrance to Fort Jefferson. In fact, the island was used as a seaplane base during World War II.
The walls are surrounded by a moat. Although it might seem strange that a moat would be necessary outside a fort surrounded by miles and miles of ocean, it was intended to provide protection against not only potential invaders but also the relentless pounding of the surf. The view below looks toward the east along the south wall.
The view below looks the opposite way and provides a clear view of the relationship of the moat to the walls of the fort. By any estimation the building of the fort was a remarkable engineering accomplishment. The foundation was laid 2 feet deep and 14 feet wide, underwater. The walls of the fort are 8 feet thick and about 50 feet high.
Another view of the entrance to the fort can be seen in a picture taken from on top of the walls. The bridge (seen in the center of the picture) replaces a drawbridge which used to furnish the path across the moat into the fort.
Fort Jefferson itself is six sided building constructed of 16 million hand-made red bricks. A closer view of the moat can be seen in this shot looking east toward the entrance of the fort. Construction of the moat was also an engineering challenge and was not completed in 1873.
This section of the wall lies on the southwest portion of the fort. A walk, which lies on the outer wall of the moat, can be seen in the upper left portion of the picture. The moat is filled with sea water and turtle grass, jellyfish, sea squirts, yellow stingray, queen conch, mangrove snapper, bristle worms, sea cucumber.
Although the walls are generally in good condition, in places considerable damage can be observed. Some of this damage has occurred as a result of a poor foundation which, by 1857, had already caused the walls to begin cracking as it settled. Other damage resulted from the accumulated effects of the powerful hurricanes which have periodically pounded the island.