All too soon, the day of our departure from Dry Tortugas National Park had arrived. It was the morning of November 16, 2016, and when we Chicagoans returned to camp from our walk to see the sunrise, the Detroiters were already up and seeing to breakfast. We began to load up our gear. Even though the ferry didn’t leave until 3pm, we were obliged to load our camping supplies onto the boat as soon as that morning’s passengers disembarked. We’d be transformed into day trippers for our remaining hours on Garden Key.
On November 15, 2016, evening approached the Dry Tortugas, and some of us made our way toward Bush Key, which we had dubbed “Bird Island,” for the sunset. Twenty-four hours after first wandering out onto Bush Key for the previous evening’s sunset, the island not only felt more expansive, but this short walk felt like a trek (in a good way), even though it was less than a mile.
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.
Just before dawn on Tuesday, November 15, 2016, a bit of light rain fell on Garden Key in Dry Tortugas National Park. It was barely enough to warrant putting the rainflies on our tents, but it caused us to stir a bit. By the time the sun rose just about 7am, most of us were awake and ready for a quiet, relaxing day on the island.
As late afternoon arrived on Garden Key on November 14, 2016, the vast majority of the island’s inhabitants outside of Fort Jefferson were lounging and relaxing.
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.
Dry Tortugas National Park protects almost 65,000 acres in the Gulf of Mexico seventy miles west of Key West, Florida. The National Park is surrounded by the Florida Keys National Marine Sanctuary and the Tortugas Ecological Reserve. While the surface area of the Park is mostly water, a handful of tiny islands rise above the waves for a total of 104 acres of land. Chief among these are Loggerhead Key, which boasts the 157-foot tall Dry Tortugas Lighthouse, and Garden Key, site of Fort Jefferson and the primary hub of visitation in the Park. Only one other island, Bush Key, of the remaining five is open to the public. President Franklin D. Roosevelt declared the Dry Tortugas island group a National Monument in 1935. The boundaries were expanded in 1983, and Congress upgraded the Monument to a National Park in 1992.