About the Site
Dry Tortugas National Park  


Park History


Outside Walls

Inside Walls

Garden Key

Other Islands




Perhaps the most unusual national park in the national park system is Dry Tortugas. It's one of the smallest, one of the most remote, and one of the least visited. But it's nevertheless a wonderful park, comprising seven small islands, coral reefs and other undersea attractions, and nesting areas for a variety of wild birds. The park includes some 64,657 acres of land above and below the water line.

The most noteworthy attraction is the striking brick behemoth known as Ft. Jefferson. Built to protect the southern coastline of the United States, due to flaws in the foundation and obsolescence brought on by improvements in weapon technology, the fort never fulfilled its intended purpose.

Park History

The first European to see the islands was Ponce de Leon, who visited in 1513. de Leon caught 160 sea turtles there and subsequently referred to the islands as the "Tortugas" (turtles). During the 1600's and 1700's the area around the was used by pirates as a base for attacking merchant shipping in the Gulf, although this activity was largely eliminated when the United Sates acquired Florida in 1821. In 1825 a lighthouse was built on Garden Key to provide warning to shipping about the dangers of reefs in and around the Tortugas chain.

In the aftermath of the War of 1812 a set of forts stretching from Maine to Texas was envisioned to provide defense for the young country. Fort Jefferson on the remote Tortugas was planned as the greatest of these forts. In 1845 the islands became a military reservation and construction on the fort began in 1846. In 1850 the officer's quarters were completed, and the fort was officially named for Thomas Jefferson. The walls didn't reach their final height of 45 feet until 1862.

Construction on the fort dragged on for more than 30 years, and it was never really finished. In addition to the inconsistency of funding provided by Congress, the task was made difficult by the difficulty of shipping workers and supplies, as well as by the vagaries of weather in the Gulf. The invention of the rifled cannon during the Civil War rendered the walls of the fort vulnerable to destruction and made the fort itself somewhat obsolete.

During and after the Civil War the fort began to be used as a prison for deserters and other criminals. In 1874 the army completely abandoned the fort after several hurricanes and a yellow fever epidemic, and it wasn't until 1898 that the military returned in the form of the navy, which used the facilities during the Spanish-American War. The fort was also used from 1888 through 1900 as a quarantine station, and was garrisoned again briefly during World War I.

In 1908 the area was designated as a bird reserve and transferred to the Department of Agriculture. On January 4, 1935 it was designated as Fort Jefferson National Monument by President Franklin Roosevelt, the first marine area to be so protected. On October 26, 1992 the monument was upgraded to National Park status in a bill signed by President George Bush.


Journey to the Park

There's no "easy" way to get to the Tortugas. The islands are located about 70 miles west of Key West in the waters of the Straights of Florida. A four hour boat ride is necessary to cross the waters of the straight which connects the Atlantic Ocean and the Gulf of Mexico. Excursions are available on ferries by operated by several concessionaires, one of which can be seen below as it appeared in the 1996-1997 season.

Little land is seen on the trip, except for a glimpse of the tiny Marquesas Islands not far from Key West, but the waters of Gulf are exceptionally beautiful. The imposing outline of the walls of Ft. Jefferson on Garden Key eventually comes into view, seeming so incredibly improbable in the middle of nowhere.

The boat swings around the island, and the southeast corner of the fort can be seen, along with the beach which is evident on the southern portion of the key. These first views of what was the 19th century's largest coastal fort are particularly impressive.

Garden Key is almost completely covered by the fort. The red brick walls of the fort contrast strikingly with the blue-green waters of the Gulf which surround it, as can be seen in the picture below.

Another view of the fort, and the lighthouse, is shown here.

For some visitors there is a faster way to reach the park--by seaplane. In the picture below a row of planes are parked on the beach outside the entrance to Fort Jefferson. In fact, the island was used as a seaplane base during World War II.

Outside Walls of Fort Jefferson

The walls of Fort Jefferson rising from Garden Key are a really spectacular sight. Sometimes called the "Gibralter of the Gulf", the sight might surely have been an intimidating sight for an enemy mounting an assault. There is only a single entrance to the fort, along the south wall, shown below.

The walls are surrounded by a moat. Although it might seem strange that a moat would be necessary outside a fort surrounded by miles and miles of ocean, it was intended to provide protection against not only potential invaders but also the relentless pounding of the surf. The view below looks toward the east along the south wall.

The view below looks the opposite way and provides a clear view of the relationship of the moat to the walls of the fort. By any estimation the building of the fort was a remarkable engineering accomplishment. The foundation was laid 2 feet deep and 14 feet wide, underwater. The walls of the fort are 8 feet thick and about 50 feet high.

Another view of the entrance to the fort can be seen in a picture taken from on top of the walls. The bridge (seen in the center of the picture) replaces a drawbridge which used to furnish the path across the moat into the fort.

Fort Jefferson itself is six sided building constructed of 16 million hand-made red bricks. A closer view of the moat can be seen in this shot looking east toward the entrance of the fort. Construction of the moat was also an engineering challenge and was not completed in 1873.

A view of a corner turret land a eastern wall is shown below.

This section of the wall lies on the southwest portion of the fort. A walk, which lies on the outer wall of the moat, can be seen in the upper left portion of the picture. The moat is filled with sea water and turtle grass, jellyfish, sea squirts, yellow stingray, queen conch, mangrove snapper, bristle worms, sea cucumber.

Although the walls are generally in good condition, in places considerable damage can be observed. Some of this damage has occurred as a result of a poor foundation which, by 1857, had already caused the walls to begin cracking as it settled. Other damage resulted from the accumulated effects of the powerful hurricanes which have periodically pounded the island.

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