Fort Jefferson on Garden Key in Dry Tortugas National Park in the Gulf of Mexico is built out of sixteen million bricks, some from the Pensacola area, but most from the North, particularly New England, particularly Maine. In the early years of construction, the fort was built by hired laborers (often Irish), engineers, craftsman, and slaves on loan from their owners in Key West. During and after the Civil War, prisoners at the fort, hired laborers, and freed slaves comprised the construction crew.
Construction on the fort began in 1846, the same year that the United States went to war with Mexico, and its location was seen as being key to controlling the Gulf of Mexico. While the fort was being constructed, however, military technology developed for the Crimean War in the mid-1850s called into question the durability of masonry armaments. Then in April 1862, during the Civil War, the United States successfully bombarded and breached Confederate-held Fort Pulaski near Savannah, Georgia, rendering masonry fortifications obsolete. Construction on Fort Jefferson, though, continued until 1875, but the fort remains unfinished.
Now the fort is administered and cared for by the National Park Service. It is a monument to the first half of the nineteenth century, when the Monroe Doctrine of hemispheric hegemony (not to mention the lust of southern slavers to annex Caribbean islands and turn them into slave states) dictated strong U.S. military presence in the Gulf of Mexico.
During the Civil War, the United States held the fort, ensuring that it never fell into traitorous hands, and it became both part of the naval blockade of the South and a military prison. In 1935, Franklin Delano Roosevelt declared it Fort Jefferson National Monument. By 1992, military history had given way to ecology in assessing the Monument’s importance, and Fort Jefferson National Monument became Dry Tortugas National Park. The fort and destroyed Garden Key served as a place to absorb visitors while the other tiny islands and the waters around them healed.
It was the afternoon of November 15, 2016, and with the island drained of its day trippers, our little gang of eight ventured into Fort Jefferson to explore, learn, take in history, and be generally irreverent.
We explored the fort in two groups, Detroiters (above) and Chicagoans (below).
Inside the fort, we turned left and entered the small magazine for storing ammunitions on the parade grounds.
Video: Sean M. Santos
Then we ventured up to the top of the ramparts.
The Detroiters were enjoying a late lunch/early dinner picnic near the southern corner of the fort. Beyond this point, the southwestern and western walls, where Park Service staff were housed, were off-limits to visitors. The rest of the fort, however, was entirely open for exploration.
Before the Civil War, as the walls rose slowly but steadily higher, the amazing ecology and natural history of the Dry Tortugas were already recognized. John James Audubon had visited in 1832. And when the fort needed a permanent physician, Joseph Basset Holder, a Massachusetts doctor and scholar of natural history, was chosen for the job at the recommendation of famed biologist and geologist Louis Agassiz. Holder, his wife Emily, and their young son Charles, arrived at Garden Key in 1859 and remained through the Civil War. At the Tortugas, they were profoundly isolated from civilian society, even from Key West, which they would visit occasionally since the Florida Keys were controlled by the United States throughout the Civil War.
During the Civil War, Abraham Lincoln altered the punishment for deserters from the American military. The sentence had previously been death, but now it would be imprisonment with hard labor at Dry Tortugas.
Fort Jefferson never saw action during the Civil War save for one instance when a Confederate vessel approached Garden Key and a messenger rowed ashore with a message demanding surrender of the fort. The fort fired on the vessel, which promptly retreated.
In addition to its primary function as protection, the moat was used as a sewer. The plan had been that the tides and waves at the underwater holes in the moat wall would filter the sewage into the sea. But it never really worked properly, leading to backups of raw sewage in the moat, immediately beneath the windows of the cells and living quarters.
Bush Key was known as Hog Island and housed a small herd of swine and a small herd of cattle for occasional fresh meat. At one point while the fort was in use, a hurricane swept the pigs and cows away.
At the fort’s population zenith, there were some 850 prisoners and 600 soldiers stationed at Fort Jefferson. Add to that hired laborers, slaves and free African-Americas, and other civilians like Doctor Holder and Emily, and the population easily topped 1,500 people, which just feels unimaginable given how small a place Garden Key is.
While the officers’ quarters and the magazines remain, other buildings that had been on the parade grounds, such as the soldiers’ barracks, are lost to time.
Once during the Civil War, someone managed to catch a “man-eating” shark and put it in the moat. They starved it for a number of days and then prepared to feed it, expecting a predatory frenzy. A soldier dropped a live cat from the top of the fort into the moat right in front of the swimming shark, which was so startled that it quickly turned and swam in the other direction. Soldiers down below rescued the cat from the moat, which was not again used for shark food.
Multiple prisoners and slaves attempted, both successfully and unsuccessfully, to escape imprisonment at Dry Tortugas. Most tried the stowaway route, which ultimately led to the practice of all prisoners and soldiers assembling on the parade grounds to be counted before a vessel could depart Garden Key. Others stole boats or made make-shift rafts. Some of the most brazen made first for Loggerhead Key to pilfer supplies from the lighthouse keeper before continuing on their way.
The soil that has built up on the top of the fort walls has led to grasses and flowers growing on the roof along well-worn paths created by visitors.
Down below, we noticed a ranger being filmed, presumably talking about the fort.
Depending on the company stationed at Fort Jefferson at any given time, the troops could be somewhat rowdy. Often members of the company charged with guarding the fort had to be disciplined with such punishments as carrying a cannonball around the parade grounds for hours in the hot sun or being locked in a shed or being strung up to a wall by the thumbs.
Once, a few soldiers got blackout drunk on pilfered whiskey and holed themselves up in a shed with some firearms, threatening to shoot anyone who approached. Undeterred, the commanding officer, unarmed, marched into the shed and ordered them all out. They complied.
Video: Sean M. Santos
Letters from those who lived at Garden Key, including Emily Holder who was one of the only women, reflect the isolation of the islands, the oppressive heat, the storms, and the boredom. Only occasionally do they touch on the natural beauty of place. Unlike most other military outposts, there was no nearby town or civilian community, contributing to the isolation.
Restoration work was ongoing while we were there. We could hear the workers on the scaffolding below us. The topic of conversation was that someone had just dropped a pallet into the moat and so someone had to tell the foreman and get permission to enter the moat to retrieve the pallet.
Sean, Nick, and Noah began to have photo shoots as we explored the fort. Later, Noah gave the best shots title treatments.
Having gone all the way around the top of the fort (or at least as far as was open to the public), we descended to the second floor.
Areas on this level too were off-limits due to restoration construction.
Seeping moisture, percolating through the lime used in the fort’s construction left tiny stalactites, not unlike those that would form in a limestone cave, on the arches.
On the floor below, deposits were building up, not unlike stalagmites.
The Detroiters were exploring the parade grounds below.
By 1875, construction ceased on Fort Jefferson. Hurricanes and Yellow Fever epidemics convinced the army that it wasn’t worth continuing. The fort became a coaling station, used by, among many others, the U.S.S. Maine on its way to Havana harbor, where it exploded in 1898, touching off the Spanish American War.
Most of the sections of the fort proper were not originally intended to be cells, and bars had to be added to the windows above the moat in order to function as such.
Back on the ground floor, we crossed to the large magazine and went inside. Like the fort itself, neither of the magazines on the parade grounds had ever been finished, but construction on all the masonry structures had doggedly continued throughout the Civil War.
During the First World War, Garden Key was a wireless station and seaplane outpost.
We’d switched places with the Detroiters, who were now up on the second floor while we were on the parade grounds.
Video: Brandon Hayes
Then in 1935, Garden Key and the surrounding waters and islands were transferred to the National Park Service.
Before leaving the parade grounds, we noticed some open air NPS living quarters on the second floor. What an adventure that would be to be stationed as a ranger at Dry Tortugas National Park.
Noah: The location photo shoot was expensive, and we only got one shot, but we think the client will be pleased.