Dry Tortugas – at last!

View of Garden Key Light from inside the hexagonal fortress with Great Frigatebirds overhead

Dry Tortugas at Last

I’d been wanting to travel to the Dry Tortugas to complete my series on the Lighthouses of Florida and capture images of the lights at Fort Jefferson and Loggerhead Key nearby. Weather forced us to abort our mission to travel there in our 19′ Rib Inflatable last summer.  This week we were able to break away from our normal work-a-day activities in order to explore this most remote  and historic of our National Parks. We did so as a day excursion aboard the Yankee Freedom II Ferry out of Key West on Friday (4.16.10).   

Impressed by the abundance of turtles,  Ponce de Leon in 1513, named the islands  ‘Las Tortugas’ – Spanish for  ‘The Turtles.’  Later the islands appeared on nautical charts as the’ Dry’ Tortugas to warn of the absence of fresh water. This small, pristine collection of seven coral and sand islands has had many roles since then and includes Loggerhead Key, Bush Key, Garden Key, Middle Key, Hospital Key, Long Key, and East Key.  This National Park ,designated in 1992, is located 70 miles west of Key West. The main and most central island is Garden Key where the magnificent, hexagonal, brick ramparts  of Fort Jefferson are  located. The historic structure, once considered the “Guardian of the Gulf” or the “Gibraltar of the Gulf” was built to protect North America’s most strategic deepwater anchorage.  It would have made an excellent springboard for attacks along the Gulf as well as endangering shipping traffic in unfriendly hands.

 During the Civil War the fort served as a Union military prison. One of its most famous occupants was Dr. Samuel  Mudd complicit in Abraham Lincoln’s assassination by harboring Booth and splinting his leg.   An outbreak of yellow fever struck the fort in 1867.  When the fort’s physician perished, Dr.  Mudd  assumed a role of leadership  in caring for the sick though he also contracted the disease.  Soldiers at the fort later signed a petition on Mudd’s behalf which led to a pardon in 1869.

 The Garden Key Lighthouse is a three story structure built on Bastion C on the upper structure of the fort in 1875 and was made of boiler plate iron to make it less vulnerable to attack. It replaced an earlier 1825 lighthouse structure badly damaged by a hurricane in October 1873. Ultimately though, there was a need for a better lighthouse and in 1858 a 150′ tower was built on the neighboring Loggerhead Key. Garden Key Light was reduced to a 4th order harbor light and renamed Tortugas Harbor Light.  Just three miles west of Garden Key, it was within  view from Ft. Jefferson,  tantalizingly close but out of reach for me for a good photographic capture and shall remain the objective of another trip.

Though this amazing fort was under construction from 1846 until 1875, it was never fully completed; ultimately the Army abandoned it in 1874. It was used as a coaling station for many years and in 1908 it became a wildlife refuge as an important stopping point for migratory birds. Today it is a wonderful destination for historians, naturalists, and snorkelers alike.  As a person who loves the Florida birdlife and the Florida lights, it made a perfect visit.  The sight of the elegant Great Frigatebirds coasting the air currents above the lighthouse  through beautiful  cloud swept skies  over  the most brilliant blue waters was truly thrilling!!  It was another world!

Visit and support the park…..enjoy something truly remarkable!!

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~ by Judy on April 18, 2010.

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