A Jewel in the Dry Tortugas

Barren, birdy and beautiful, Florida’s remote Fort Jefferson has tales, terns and not much fresh water

Dry Tortugas National Park
Fort Jefferson is no longer in use as a military facility and is currently part of the Dry Tortugas National Park. Wikimedia Commons

Dominating Dry Tortugas National Park is the massive, moldering brick hulk of Fort Jefferson. Built on Garden Key, about 70 miles west of Key West, Florida, the fort never saw military action; today its crumbling ramparts overlook one of America's most beautiful wild remnants.

The seven little keys making up the Dry Tortugas provide nesting grounds for sooty terns and brown noddies, for loggerhead and Atlantic green turtles, as well as stopovers for migratory birds. Annually, more than 70,000 human visitors arrive, some by float plane but most by daily ferry from Key West. In 1513, Ponce de León named these sandy keys after their legions of turtles, but he found no drinking water. Possession passed from Spain to the United States in 1821.

Obsolete before it was finished, Fort Jefferson was built with bricks (ultimately 16 million of them). During and after the Civil War, it was a military prison for, among others, Dr. Samuel Mudd, implicated in the assassination of President Abraham Lincoln because he treated assassin John Wilkes Booth's broken leg. Later abandoned by the military, the fort was made a national monument in 1935 and the Dry Tortugas a national park in 1992. In 1997, the Florida Keys National Marine Sanctuary proposed a Tortugas Ecological Reserve, to be established adjacent to the park. Dubbed Tortugas 2000, the effort is moving ahead despite controversy.

Meanwhile, visitors continue to come in ever greater numbers, straining the remote park's limited facilities. Congress has recently appropriated $250,000 for stabilizing the fort's crumbling walls, and a challenge grant has been offered that could provide another $2 million. But the park will need much loving care and wise management if it is to continue to delight new generations of visitors.