By late Monday morning, November 14, 2016, our group of eight was settled into our campsites in the small campground on Garden Key at Dry Tortugas National Park. Garden Key is about 1.8 million square feet, although its size was hugely expanded (from an estimated 350,000 square feet) during the construction of Fort Jefferson in the nineteenth century. Regardless, it is a very small desert island with the remains of a huge masonry fort. There was nothing claustrophobic about being on Garden Key, but for a few days our world would contract from the bigness of living in major cities and being constantly connected. We would be living on a tiny bit of land barely rising out of the sea and largely cut off from the outside world.
Some of us walked over to the small visitor center just inside Fort Jefferson to stamp our National Parks passports. One of the stamps was for Underground Railroad Freedom Network. A previous visitor had cheekily changed the stamp’s date to January 2020.
History too felt like it was contracting as someone used this National Park site, integral to the Underground Railroad to make a point about our current political moment, so vivid that week. We wryly called each other’s attention to it before leaving the fort.
We had plenty of time to explore the fort later though. Now it was time to go to the beach.
While the day trippers were still on the island (the ferry departed at 3pm daily) we took to the swimming beach adjacent to the campground.
The ferry offered complimentary fin, snorkel, and mask rentals, which we took full advantage of (and as campers were able to keep the entire time, even when the ferry wasn’t docked at Garden Key).
I locked my iPhone into an underwater case and began snapping photos of marine life under the surface near the beach.
Even in the largely sand and sea grass-bottomed area near the beach there were fun creatures to see.
While we all gave snorkeling a go at least for a bit that afternoon…including, successfully, Sean…some of us were more avid about exploring and some were more resolved toward relaxing.
By 2:30pm, the beach had cleared as the day trippers boarded the ferry.
It was truly an amazing moment as the ferry departed and we waved at the people on the deck. A seaplane departed too. There were only a handful of other campers on the island. Even though there would be Park staff and some construction workers inside the fort that night, our group of eight was more than half the total people spending the night outside the fort.
The island was ours.
Some of us swam around the helicopter pad to the pylons left from the south coaling dock.
After we were done snorkeling, Sean and I decided to walk around Fort Jefferson’s moat. The hexagonal fort is entirely surrounded by a defensive moat. Since the area needed for it was so much larger than the original key it was built on, there is dry land on only two of the six sides. On the other four sides, a narrow wall rising only a few feet above the surface of the Gulf of Mexico separates the moat from the sea. The walk circumnavigating the moat is about 0.6 miles. Sean and I headed out walking clockwise from the campground area.
The first section of the moat wall, the southwest side, is adjacent to the swimming beach. Part of this section is still topped in the original brickwork, while the other sections are topped with poured concrete.
To the our left, Juan and Nick were the only people left at the swimming beach.
Swimming in the moat is prohibited, in no small part because during the nineteenth century, the moat was used as part of the sewer system for the fort. Immediately, it gave the impression of being unhealthy. But part of that could have been that the moat water was still compared to the moving, flowing seawater on the other side of the wall.
On the west side of the moat, the wall led almost directly north. This section of the fort is used as NPS housing and is off limits to the public. We noticed that most of the second-floor rooms of the fort had been converted to little apartments with balconies overlooking the moat.
The fort’s northwestern bastion was undergoing restoration while we were there.
The northwestern corner of the moat wall was open to allow water to flow in and out and freshen the moat. There were a couple other points where there were tunnels through the moat wall to the sea, but this was the only cut that went entirely through the moat wall.
The northwestern side of the moat wall felt like it was the most dramatic, far from the land on the other side of the fort and without the obvious human presence of the adjacent western side.
The Northeastern side was short and led directly to the north swim beach and the north coaling dock ruins.
The north swim beach, removed from the relative hubbub of the campground, fort entrance, and docks, felt more isolated. It had a caution sign indicating dangers such as drowning or being eaten by sharks or by Cleatus, the island’s lone crocodile (who has since been relocated to Everglades National Park after spending fourteen lonely years at Dry Tortugas National Park).
Off to the east as we rounded the southeast corner of the fort were Bush Key and Long Key. Even from here we could see the black specks of Magnificent Frigatebirds swirling over Long Key.
In all, our circumnavigation of Garden Key took just about twenty minutes. This was indeed a tiny place.
Back at the campground, I wandered onto the helipad to have a look at the seabirds vying for perches on the pylons of the remains of the south coaling dock. We’d seen them from below while we were snorkeling, but I wanted to get some photos and start doing some IDs.
With everyone relaxing, the swimming beach was completely abandoned. Some dark sky was coming in to the north, but it was still warm and sunny on Garden Key so we paid it no heed.
It was now about four, and folks were reading or napping or painting their toenails. One of the things that the contraction of available space for our three days on the island made possible for me was relaxation. This two-night duration in a National Park was the same amount of time we’d had at multiple other Parks: Badlands, Wind Cave, Pinnacles, Shenandoah, Bryce Canyon. And it was more time than we’d had in some of the Parks: Joshua Tree, Olympic, Channel Islands, Kenai Fjords. Even though we usually spent more time than the average visitor in any given National Park, there was always so much to see and so much to experience, that we kept a pretty steady pace. Here, as Nick and Sean and I had talked about before the trip, I would be forced to relax in a National Park.
But not just yet. Used to gobbling up as much as possible as soon as we arrived at a Park, I was antsy. So I wandered off to have a quick first look at the interior of Fort Jefferson.
Construction on the fort began in 1846, continued throughout the Civil War, and was never completed. Technological advances in firearms and large-scale guns during the Crimean War and the Civil War rendered masonry forts useless as a fortification.
During the Civil War, the U.S. Navy maintained control of Fort Jefferson and Fort Taylor on Key West, and thereby of all the Florida Keys, which never fell into traitorous hands. They became part of the naval blockade of the South. Fort Jefferson was used as a coaling station for vessels participating in the blockade.
The fort was astronomically expensive to construct since all construction materials and laborers and supplies to support the enterprise had to be shipped in. Many of the bricks came all the way from Maine. The fort was built by hired laborers, prisoners, and slaves (loaned from their masters on Key West). When news of the Emancipation Proclamation arrived, the former slaves continued to work, but now they were paid wages for their labor.
The fort’s primary function during the Civil War was as a prison, often for Union troops convicted of military crimes such as desertion. It also functioned as a maximum security prison for those convicted of federal crimes.
The top of the wall of the eastern side of the fort provided a great view of Bush Key and Long Key. Currently, Garden Key and Bush Key are solidly connected by a substantial sand bar…so much so that they are one island. But as recently as 2007 a deep channel separated them. In the image above you can see the darker water of the channel in the foreground. But even though they were separated in 2007, in 2003 they had been connected. The sea is constantly rearranging the tiny islands of the Dry Tortugas.
I passed the former cell of Fort Jefferson’s most famous inmate, Dr. Samuel Mudd, convicted with three others of conspiring in the plot to assassinate President Abraham Lincoln. Dr. Mudd set John Wilkes Booth’s leg, which he had broken jumping from Lincoln’s box at Ford’s Theater after shooting him.
Dr. Mudd and the other three were pardoned by President Andrew Johnson before he left office. While a century and a half has largely restored Dr. Mudd’s name, characterizing him as simply a doctor performing his duty under the Hippocratic Oath, there is a not-insubstantial amount of evidence that Dr. Mudd was party to, at least, a conspiracy let by Booth to kidnap Lincoln if not the assassination itself.
I didn’t linger too long inside the fort. I knew that we would have plenty of time to explore it in depth. I had wanted to get some impressions of it, get a sense of its spaces and shapes and colors as part of this remote, small place we would call home for a few days.