Our Trip to Dry Tortugas National Park

2014-01-27 10.31.56I never thought I would love a place as much I loved the inter-mountain West. In fact, the exploration and settling of the West is my favorite time period in American History.

And then I visited the Florida Keys. And that jewel at Mile Marker 0 they call Key West.

And just like that, Key West became my Favorite Place Ever.

There’s something for everyone in Key West, no matter what your lifestyle. But that’s another post for another day.

Today, I want to tell you about Dry Tortugas National Park.

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Originally discovered by Ponce de Leon and his Spanish crew, they named it Las Tortugas (the Turtles) because of the vast amount of wildlife found there. Later, much later, it was renamed Dry Tortugas because of the lack of fresh water available.

Wayne Landrum, a former park service ranger who  lived there for six years, describes it this way:

There is a special place, at the end of nowhere, but on the way to everywhere, a place of explorers, pirates, smugglers, soldiers, prisoners and scientists. This is a place where some men lost all hope, and many died in despair. Though pain and suffering contributed to its fascinating history, it is also a place of beauty, vivid colors, peace, solitude and happiness. Abundant wildlife live in the clear turquise sea, rainbow-colored coral reefs, and on the white sandy islands and beaches. This is a place where sea birds rule, sea turtles thrive, and coral reefs and sea grasses provide for a rich diversity of ocean plant and animal life. This is Dry Tortugas National Park.”

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Although the information for this post came from a variety of sources and my own experience there, much of my descriptive and historical information is excerpted from his book, Fort Jefferson and The Dry Tortugas National Park. It contains far more fascinating and detailed information than I have space to post here. 

For instance, did you know that over a period of 5,000 years, the sea has risen about 350 feet as the climate has warmed and the polar ice cap melts? The rate of rise has slowed over time; during the last 2,000 years, the sea level has only risen about 6 feet.

Food for thought, isn’t it? 😉

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So anyway…

Dry Tortugas National Park is 70 miles from Key West in the Gulf of Mexico, 90 miles north of Cuba and 70 miles north of the Tropic of Cancer. It consists of seven small sandy coral islands which together only encompass about 97 acres of dry land.

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This is the lighthouse on Loggerhead Key, about 3.5 miles from Garden Key, which is the home of Ft. Jefferson.

Rising and falling sea levels during the last 100,000 years have caused major changes in the size and shape of the Florida Peninsula. As the seas began to rise due to melting ice about 15,000 years ago, coral reefs began to form as the sea reclaimed the land. (Before the seas began to rise, you could have walked from Florida to the Dry Tortugas!)

The islands of the Dry Tortugas have been an important landmark for passing ships from the time of discovery until the present. To this day, they remain the only safe harbor within 70 miles. Prior to a big storm moving in, it’s harbor is often filled with boats.

According to our tour guide when we were there, “You know it’s going to be bad when all the shrimp boats come in.”

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These were the first lands sighted when arriving from the west. Spain and Portugal begun running great galleons loaded with gold, silver and precious gems from Central and South America. They discovered the fastest way back to Europe was by sailing through the Gulf of Mexico, by Cuba and east through the Florida Straits. By going this way, they could take advantage of the Gulf Stream, which allowed them to sail significantly faster.

The additional speed of the Gulf Stream did not come without a price, however. The Dry Tortugas and other islands in the Florida Keys are surrounded by shallow water with coral reefs and rocks. Combined with strong currents, frequent storms, poor charts and crude navigational instruments made this area a graveyard of wrecked and grounded vessels.

The most famous of them is the Atocha. There’s a special on either Discovery or the History channel about Mel Fisher’s search, and subsequent discovery of, the Atocha. There is a museum in Key West where you can also purchase coins and jewelry which came from the Atocha.

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During the War of 1812, the British pillaged and burned Washington D.C. This made the United States painfully aware of a need to improve its defense from a seaward attack. Due to the Dry Tortugas location directly in the path of all vessels going between the Mississippi River, west Florida, and all the eastern coastal states, it was ideal. Settlers along the Mississippi River began to ship trade goods down the River and ultimately on to Europe. It became important to establish a defensive position in the Dry Tortugas to protect shipping vessels.

The plan for the fort was to provide a safe storage depot for enough materials capable of sustaining the land and naval forces charged with the defense of the Florida Reef for one year. The fortification was also to provide a safe harbor for warships, and facilities for repair of the naval squadron.

Ft. Jefferson was designed as an elongated hexagon, capable of mounting 420 heavy guns. Congress appropriated funding for the first time for construction in 1844.

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With the beginning of the Civil War, it changed direction in history: it became a military prison.

And it was not a happy place.

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It is a hallowed place.

Peaceful and quiet, you can almost feel the souls of the thousands of people who preceded you.

Only one other place have I felt this: Rhyolite, Nevada. It is a ghostly mining town which 10,000 people used to call home. (But once again, another story for another day.)

It’s most well-known prisoner was Dr. Samuel Mudd. He was sentenced to a life sentence on Ft. Jefferson for setting the leg of John Wilkes Booth, President Abraham Lincoln’s assassin.

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Booth broke his leg when he jumped from the presidential box to the stage. He managed to escape on horseback, stopping early the next morning at Dr. Mudd’s farmhouse seeking medical treatment.

And, that is how the kind doctor’s name became mud. (Do you suppose?)

Today, you can camp at Ft. Jefferson, and many do, taking advantage of the beautifully clear and colorful water to snorkel.

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A catamaran brings you the 70-miles from Key West to the island, giving you the opportunity to observe sea life such as flying fish, dolphins and more.

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Ft. Jefferson is massive, almost reminiscent of a college campus. It’s an engineering marvel built by human hands which has withstood 150 years of nature’s fury.

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The stairs were built wider on the left than on the right. Because most men were right handed and carrying weapons,  it forced potential invaders to climb the stairs on their weaker, more exposed side, thus giving them a disadvantage.

Some parts of it were an epic fail that were never finished.

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For instance, the plan for making fresh water was to build cisterns underneath the fort. The purpose of the sandy roof was to filter the water as it moved down into the cistern.

But the only sand available was on the beaches. Salt water beaches…

And eventually, the cisterns became contaminated with salt water.

The soldiers who were stationed here were forced to wear the same wool uniforms as their brothers up north.

An epidemic of yellow fever swept through the fort.

Lives ended here, and lives began here.

Just like the Magnificent Frigate Birds who live here and no where else, Ft. Jefferson is magnificent.

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It’s a testimony to man’s ability to overcome the odds in spite of himself.

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We were able to spend about 4 hours at Ft. Jefferson that day.

It wasn’t enough.

There’s something about it that speaks to you. A magic that makes you want to come back.

2014-01-27 14.25.03 A magic so strong it almost makes you want to camp there, to see the black, starry sky as our predecessors did centuries ago, to fall asleep with no noise other than the waves crashing against the sand to lull you to sleep.

Almost. 😉

Many park service staff and tour guides visit Ft. Jefferson on their off-time. If the draw is so strong when people are there, I can only imagine what it must be like when it’s hushed and quiet.

To absorb the beauty and the melancholy of this hulking place built on the backs of mankind.

There’s no wonder they keep going back. We plan to.