Mere mention of the Dry Tortugas evokes exotic images — a powder blue sky above a turquoise sea, old sailing ships anchored beside low-lying tropical islands, balmy trade winds, a massive stone fort guarding sea lanes, sandy sun-baked beaches, and sea life crawling ashore and colorfully flirtatious amidst the swirling fans of coral reefs.
On a recent trip to Key West, Fla., all those images became realized. Dry Tortugas is one of several islands among a grouping of seven coral rubble isles 68 miles west of Key West, approximately half way between the southern tip of Florida and Cuba, the ideal location to base U.S. warships to guard the two entrances to the Gulf of Mexico.
The United States realized that when it commenced construction of Fort Jefferson on Dry Tortugas in 1846. The idea was not to defend the island, but to defend an ideal coral reef-ringed anchorage beside Dry Tortugas in which U.S. Navy warships could be based.
The resulting edifice is the second largest U.S. fort ever to be built. It is so large that Yankee Stadium could fit inside it. Conceived to contain 550 cannons, the fort was designed to spew red-hot, 300-pound, iron balls from 15-inch Rodman Smoothbore and, later, rifled shells from breech-loading Parrot guns mounted along its trapezoidal perimeter, to sink any warship attempting to prevent use of the anchorage. The angled fort walls provided supporting fire to lay a terrible toll on any ship attempting to come within three miles of the fort. Who would attempt such a thing? The British Navy.
In the early 1800s, America’s greatest foe was Great Britain. The USA had fought the British twice and British colonial expansion across the world was at its height. “Just leave us alone,” was the message the fort and others like it along U.S. coastlines were supposed to communicate. The concept of isolationism was articulated by President James Monroe in 1823 within the Monroe Doctrine which sought to discourage European powers from further colonizing states in the Western Hemisphere. Fort Jefferson was to provide our country a means of enforcing that policy, and from 1846 until 1875 the huge fortress was built.
During the American Civil War, U.S. prisoners – not Confederate soldiers – were brought to Dry Tortugas to work on the fort. These were U.S. Army deserters, malingerers and other U.S. soldiers whose usefulness to the Army was limited. Once confined in Fort Jefferson, they were forced to work in intolerable conditions (high summer temperatures, high humidity and miserable quarters that reeked of sewage), discouraging other soldiers from deserting or avoiding their soldierly responsibilities. Yellow fever and poor sanitation made life short lived for many of these recalcitrant warriors.
At the end of the Civil War, convicted conspirators of the Lincoln Assassination, including Dr. Samuel Mudd — the physician who gave medical care to President Lincoln’s assassin, John Wilkes Booth — were confined there. Although known to be a Confederate sympathizer, Dr. Mudd set Booth’s broken leg not knowing that his patient had just shot the president. In tours of Fort Jefferson at Dry Tortugas National Park (now celebrating its 75th anniversary) provided by the ferry operator and amplified by park interpreters, Dr. Mudd’s story is told with emphasis on how well liked Dr. Mudd was during his incarceration at the fort, how he helped care for the fort’s inhabitants during an outbreak of yellow fever, which led to the doctor’s early release from his sentence, and that it’s now believed Booth did not break his leg jumping from Lincoln’s theater box to the stage, but later when falling from his horse when escaping from Washington, DC.
Construction on the fort stopped only after the increasing weight of brick and stone added to the fort’s walls began to crack the structure as it settled into the island, and after bullet-shaped, armor-piercing shells began replacing cannon balls on warships, making forts vulnerable and obsolete. Today, the fort’s gun ports remain unfinished, as they were when construction stopped. What remains is a remarkable reminder of that era and a fascinating place to visit when touring South Florida.
Dry Tortugas National Park is reached by taking the Yankee Freedom II, a ferry from the harbor at Key West Bight ($165/adult; $155/seniors, students and military; $120/child, 4-16; includes $5 park admission; yankeefreedom.com). A new interpretive center will be developed on Key West’s docks by the ferry operator, Historic Tours of America. The ride to Dry Tortugas is a rollicking adventure, flying across the ocean on a high-speed catamaran, passing crab and lobster beds near outlying keys (islands) beyond Key West. The ferry ride takes about 2.5 hours out, the same back. Four hours is spent at the island. Limited tent camping is available on the island. Most visitors go out for the day to tour the fort and snorkel inside the reef surrounding Dry Tortugas. Breakfast, lunch, snorkeling equipment and a guided tour of the fort are provided by the ferry operator.
The name Dry Tortugas reflects both that the island has little fresh water and that it was originally identified as a good place to harvest sea turtles (in Spanish, “tortugas”). Sea life abounds surrounding the island. The best locations for snorkeling are along the west side of the island among old Navy coaling station pilings which are overgrown with coral sea fans and elk horn, and in other areas at the shoal’s edge identified on park maps. There, you’ll find yellow, pink, purple, blue, black, white, orange and red butterfly fish, angelfish, parrot fish, groupers, damsel fish, grunts, trigger fish, drums, wrasse and schools of silversides that turn in unison as you snorkel toward them. The 46-square-mile area comprising Dry Tortugas National Park is considered to be one of the best places in South Florida to see such displays of coral sea life with an ecological preserve that provides sanctuary for species affected by fishing and loss of habitat.
While sunning oneself on the coral sand shore of Dry Tortugas National Park, it’s hard to imagine that these islands were once dreaded for their isolation and confinement. Today, their beauty and history are what attract people to this exotic, aquatic corner of the United States.
John Poimiroo of El Dorado Hills is a travel writer who specializes in California destinations.