Fort Jefferson, in the Dry Tortugas off Florida’s Keys, is (according to our amazing Tour guide) the largest masonry fort ever built by the United States. It contains over 16 Million bricks in its unfinished state, and encompasses the entire land area of Garden Key.
It. Is. Awesome.
That said, you look at where it’s located (67 miles west of Key West), consider that there is no fresh water out there (hence the name DRY Tortugas), and look around you at those vast miles of water to the west of the islands, and you have to wonder “Why?”
Why build a fort way out here where nobody needs to go?
Which was the first question answered by the guide. The reason, as always, is money. At the time the fort was being built, most of the goods shipped into and out of the new US interior (recently expanded by the Louisiana Purchase of the Mississippi River system) went by sea: Finished goods from the Northeast, down the coast, around Florida and up to New Orleans, and raw materials in the other direction. Huge volumes, huge money, the lifeblood of the country.
Now when the fort was begun in 1846, relations with certain world powers like Britain weren’t all that friendly, and the US had almost no navy. To protect that shipping route, something had to be done. If the US could control the corner around the end of the Keys, no navy could put an embargo on us (like we’d do to Cuba a century later).
And it worked. Even though the fort was abandoned in 1876 and never finished, it still served as the symbolic fortress it was intended to be. But perhaps even more to the point, it is beautiful.
An interesting side note here: Because the islands have no natural fresh water, something had to be done to provide water for the nearly 500 souls who inhabited the fort during its service as a prison and garrison. The answer was rain catchment. The entire roof structure was a catch basin, the water directed down through masonry plumbing, through a series of sand filters, and into cisterns built below the floors of the first level – cisterns with a capacity of 1.4 million gallons!
Sadly, though, the project engineers didn’t get everything quite right. The weight of the structure’s 8′ thick walls (literally cannon-proof in those days) was too great for the land beneath it, and settling began to compromise the cistern system’s integrity. Of 105 cisterns, only one was still intact within a few years of the start of building. That’s why the second level looks unfinished – it is. It was feared that the additional weight of completeing the second level would hasten the building’s degradation, so instead it was roughed in, and the third level – with its long-range (up to three miles!) cannons – was built instead.
Cool feature – this is a bird bath, for the song birds who wander off course on their migrations, and need water to survive.
The second level looks decidedly unfinished, especially from up close.
So that’s the basic story. The Dry Tortugas can be reached in three ways: Private boat, ferry from Key West, or seaplane from Key west. The seaplanes are a story for another day – they take off and land through the anchored boats in a manner that had this former commercial pilot decidedly on edge, but I have to admit, those pilots know their business!
Neat stop, and an item checked off our cruising bucket list, for sure.