Fort Jefferson

Fort Jefferson is visited every day by a large, fast ferry from Key West. It travels roughly 2.5 hours to get here, and brings daily tourists as well as those who wish to camp on the island. Visitors can tour and explore the fort, walk the beaches, and snorkel the waters. While the ferry is here it is part of the fort, so all who are here (boater, park rangers, etc.) have use of it (restrooms, etc., in place of the composting ones by the campsites). You are also welcome to pay for lunch aboard, sandwiches, salads, chips, cookies, etc. We have also heard that you can purchase bags of ice from the ferry…a handy perk!

Scott and I have spent several days ashore, touring and learning about the fort. National Park ranger Mike is very, very knowledgeable and informative on many subjects related to the fort. Here are a few highlights that we learned from him:

The US government built Fort Jefferson on Garden Key because of its natural deep water harbor, protected by the surrounding shoals. They knew that controlling navigation to the Gulf of Mexico, and protecting Atlantic-bound Mississippi River trade would be possible by fortifying the tortugas. It was the most remote, but still a vital link in a chain of coastal forts that stretched from Maine to California.

Construction of the fort started in 1846, and went on for 30 years but was never finished. Supply problems and the Civil War delayed construction, and it became obsolete before it was completed. Still, it is the largest all-masonry fort in the United States and features 2,000 arches. The lower two tiers are made up of tan bricks that came from brickyards near Pensacola. After Florida left the Union, red bricks for the fort’s top wall were shipped 2,000 miles from Maine. In all, over 16 million bricks were used in construction of the fort. Scott can’t stop commenting on how many bricks there are, and the sheer size of it all. He says that if he were a brick layer here, he’d kill himself!

Twenty percent of the workers constructing the fort were enslaved African Americans, hired from owners in Key West. Owners were typically paid 20.00 a month per slave. The slaves were given some of the more difficult tasks, including collecting and transporting coral rock from nearby islands. The rock was the main ingredient in making coral concrete for construction of the fort.

At its fullest, the fort was home to nearly 2,000 people, made up of soldiers and some of their families; prisoners, who also worked on the ongoing construction of the fort; slaves, who worked along with the prisoners and some of their families, who worked at cooking or doing laundry. There were also shops that sold goods that were shipped in from Key West, as well as those who provided services.

The fort was set up to support 1,500 people for a year. Food consisted of mostly salted meats (including salt pork that often still had hairs on it…bleh!) and dry biscuits. Cisterns were built to collect rainwater, that was filtered through sand. However, the weight of the fort caused it to settle, producing cracks in the bricks along the walls and in the cisterns, contaminating the water. Sections of the fort were intentionally never finished, for fear that additional weight would cause further settling and cracking.

During the Civil War, the fort served as a Union military prison for captured deserters. Some of the reasons for their arrest are quite amusing. One man received a sentence for being a straggler, and another for the charge of “worthlessness!”

Among the prisoners were four men who were convicted of being involved in the assassination of President Lincoln, one of whom was Dr. Samuel Mudd (Dr. Mudd set the broken leg of John Wilks booth, who shot Lincoln). When yellow fever spread through the fort, the doctor on site fell ill and died. Dr. Mudd stepped in, and treated the sick. Afterward, he remained the fort doctor, and was eventually pardoned and released.

In the 60s, the park rangers took it upon themselves to blow up the enlisted men’s barracks, which had fallen into disrepair. When the government questioned why they would do this, the answer was: “There’s nothing that says we can’t.” As a result of this, the national preservation for historic places was enacted, requiring that those who wish to restore or remodel historic houses/sites to adhere to guidelines.

Today, the rangers work for 10 days, and then have four days off, if they choose, they can catch a ride to Key West on the ferry or the sea plane that makes several trips here a day. There are modern apartments here for them to live in, that have been built into the wall of the fort. They have a water maker on site, and water is stored in a cistern. Electricity is supplied by generator, and gas, food, mail and other supplies come by boat from Key West every few weeks.

Here are more photos of the fort, and tidbits that we learned from Ranger Mike!

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