The Curious History of Dry Tortugas National Park

Article excerpt

His stories were what frightened people worst of all. Dreadful stories they were -- about hanging, and walking the plank, and storms at sea, and the Dry Tortugas ...

-- Robert Louis Stevenson, Treasure Island

We are standing on the bow of the Yankee Freedom II, a 100-foot catamaran, knifing through the aquamarine waters off Key West, Fla. Ahead of us, on the horizon, are the Marquesas Islands, where Ernest Hemingway often fished. Beyond them, 55 feet below the water's surface, sits the Nuestra Senora de Atocha, a sunken 17th-century Spanish galleon that only recently relinquished its $400 million treasure to modern-day pirates. Dolphins join us alongside for a few seconds, as do sea turtles and flying fish, but the catamaran's speed is a formidable 25 knots, and we soon leave everything, including the sight of land, behind us.

The sense of adventure is palpable. As the catamaran's twin hulls slice through the water, it feels as if we are racing into the past. Like ancient mariners, we scan the horizon, straining our eyes for the first sign of land. Two and one-half hours out of Key West, several forms gradually begin to take shape on the horizon.

"Can you see them?"

"No. Where? I can't see anything. Wait a minute. Yes, yes, I see them now! They must be the ones!"

The Dry Tortugas

In 1513, when Spanish explorer Ponce de Leon stumbled upon these very islands at the southernmost entrance to the Gulf of Mexico, he was struck by the abundance of sea turtles. He promptly named the islands Las Tortugas (the turtles). Years later the appellation "dry" was added to warn others of the islands' lack of fresh water. Enchanting as they were from a distance, once ashore it soon became apparent that the islands were unfit for human habitation.

Nonetheless, the strategic significance of the Dry Tortugas was recognized early in our nation's history. The shipping lane through the Gulf of Mexico was confined to a narrow stream of deep water passing within cannonshot of the islands. Whoever controlled the Dry Tortugas also controlled the passage to and from America's heartland. Sharpened by fresh memories of the War of 1812, the implications were of no small consequence to the federal government.

Orders were given to begin constructing Fort Jefferson in the Dry Tortugas in 1846. A hexagonal Union fort built using slave laborers, Fort Jefferson remains one of the largest masonry structures in the Western Hemisphere. Taking up the entire 16-acre Garden Key, one of seven islands constituting the Dry Tortugas, the fort was fashioned out of 16 million bricks imported from the continental United States. In the middle of construction, the Civil War broke out, and building materials were increasingly hard to come by. A visible line in the fort's wall, formed by the use of different-colored bricks from New England, marks the beginning of the Civil War.

Although the 1,500 troops garrisoned at Fort Jefferson never had to defend it in battle, the fort did gain fame during the Civil War as a prison for Union deserters and other undesirables. Dubbed "America's Devil's Island," its most notorious inmate was Dr. Samuel Mudd, exiled for life to the Dry Tortugas for setting the broken leg of John Wilkes Booth, the assassin of President Lincoln. Mudd was eventually pardoned by President Andrew Johnson for his heroic efforts in fighting an outbreak of yellow fever at the fort.

The military abandoned Fort Jefferson in 1874 and it was left to pirates, squatters, and others. In 1898 the U.S.S. Maine sailed from the Dry Tortugas on its ill-fated voyage to the bottom of Havana harbor, helping ignite the Spanish-American War. Ten years later the islands were designated a preserve and breeding ground for birds. Then, in 1935, Fort Jefferson was declared a national monument. President Truman stopped by, as did Queen Elizabeth II, but visitation was generally sparse. …

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