Dry Tortugas and Ft. Jefferson


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Since we have been visiting a lot of national parks and we are all the way down here we could not miss the Dry Tortugas National Park. I must say it was a little pricy for us (with the annual pass NPs have been basically free or less than $1 per day) but there is this little problem of getting there. The Dry Tortugas are a group of seven keys at the very westerly end of the Continental US’s only coral reef. They are 70 miles west of Key West and are only accessible via sea plane, private boat or the Yankee Freedom III ferry out of Key West. We choose the ferry and had a nice 2 ½ hour trip each way. They also provided breakfast and lunch.

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Las Tortugas, as they were first named by Ponce de Leon in 1513, refer to the abundance of sea turtles he found in the area (Tortuga=turtle in Spanish). It is said that he caught at least 100 turtles on his first visit. Sea turtles are not only delicious, but can keep for a long time. You can turn them upside down and splash salt water on them a couple of times a day and they will live for over a month. Sea turtles are now endangered so I have never eaten one, but they are a delicacy which is one reason for their endangerment. “Dry” was later added to the name to warn sailors that there was no fresh water on the islands. Fresh water is rare in the keys anyway, although most have a shallow lens of fresh water all drinking water is piped in from the mainland.

As I mentioned these keys are way out in the middle of nothing but mark the end of a very long coral reef, approximately 200 miles long. For early explorers and more recent travelers, reefs are very dangerous. There are hundreds of ship wrecks dotted along this reef and it is believed that the Dry Tortugas have one of the richest concentration of ship wrecks in North America. So, in 1825 a light house was built on Garden Key to warn passing ships of the danger.   This picture is of Loggerhead Lighthouse built in 1858, the original light had issues and had to be replaced.

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As commerce picked up from the Mississippi River to the east coast and Europe, the Dry Tortugas became strategically important. The gateway to the Gulf of Mexico is between Cuba and the Dry Tortugas and needed to be protected/regulated. So, after the war of 1812, the US envisioned building forts down the east coast from Maine to the Dry Tortugas and Fort Jefferson was to be the best of all US forts.

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Fort Jefferson (named after Pres Thomas Jefferson) was built six sided and three leveled with multiple cannon windows on each side and level. The canons were to be capable of shooting a 300 lb. cannonballs at least three miles; and the fort in total would be capable of shooting 125 cannonballs every three minutes at a single target. These cannonballs would punch right thru a sailing vessel of the time and with the ship rocking and rolling in the sea and being bombarded with cannonballs, it didn’t stand a chance!!! The fort is very symmetrical and quite beautiful in its own right.

The fort had its challenges. Understand that there is not a road there now, and back then there was not a road to Key West. They had to transport all building materials, food, supplies and fresh water via ship. Building materials included over 16 million bricks from as far away as Maine. They also had the issue of finding a sustainable supply of fresh water. Their plan was quite innovative, they had dirt/plants on the upper most level of the fort to collect the maximum amount of water from rain fall. The roof had drains which drained down pillars for two stories and emptied in to cisterns under the fort. With substantial rain in the area it seemed like a perfect plan. Except the fort began settling (sinking) and the cisterns cracked and were contaminated daily with salt water. Third challenge was sewage. Mom would appreciate this challenge. They surrounded the fort with a moat. One of the moats duties was flushing the toilets. In more northern states, the tide rises and falls a number of feet and served other moated fort with a flushing twice a day. But down here, the tide is 1.5 ft or less and did not provide great flushing action.

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Finally, the civil war was over, and building the fort was becoming cost prohibitive and engineering issues continued (sinking) so building was stopped and the fort was never finished.  They never fired or received hostel fire at the fort. It was later used as a high security prison and one of its most famous residents as Doc Mudd. The guy that fixed the guy that shot Pres Lincoln, when Booth jumped from the balcony he broke his leg and Mudd helped him. The prison experienced yellow fever like many other places and began quarantining patients on a separate key – hospital key as it looks now… You can hardly call it an island today, not sure how large it was back then.  Doc Mudd was instrumental in learning to control yellow fever at the fort and he was granted an early release.

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You can tell how long it has sat here with leaking going on see the stalagmites and stalactites.

The scenery and wildlife were just as impressive. Frigate birds above and we saw from the fort what looked like barracudas??? Walking the moat wall we also saw some angel fish, blue tang etc. The moat wall and the old dock pilings are suppose to be the best snorkeling, sorry we didn’t have time to do that also.

We really enjoyed learning about the history and exploring the fort so did not find time to snorkel, but did take a quick dip in the time remaining on a beautiful beach which is mostly closed for bird nesting, but was open for us.

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Peace and love

The FL Keys

Trip down the keys was quite eventful. The wind was blowing so hard that the awning on the right side of the bus was opening and closing in the wind as we drove!!! Quite scary, we have driven in a lot of wind before, but that has never happened. Luckily it did not get torn or damaged in any way, thank goodness. The wind was kicking up waves in the sounds and rain was spitting but we journeyed on. Even with the rough weather the beautiful color of the water was mesmerizing. We arrived safely on Cudjoe Key at Venture Out.

Cudjoe Key is about 20 miles northeast of Key West and is where the eye of hurricane Irma crossed the keys last September. Irma made land fall on Cudjoe as a Cat 4 storm with 130 MPH winds.   The “dirty” side of the storm hit the keys north and east of here causing the most damage on Big Pine Key and Marathon Key, but the damage is evident all the way from Key Largo to Key West. For us it is very reminiscent of the F – ing (Fran, Floyd etc.) hurricanes we endured while living on Topsail Island. Piles of debris on the roadsides, blue tarps on roofs and sides of houses, houses/buildings only half standing, seaweed littered beaches and the never ending cleanup efforts. One of the most notable key icons missing were the famous mile markers counting down to 0 in Key West some were there but a lot were missing. A lot of the Keys are filled with neighborhoods of small old mobile homes (again much like Topsail was in the day) which took a severe beating and will not be allow to be replaced with similar structures. These are the people most effected as they most probably can not afford to rebuild with current building standards.


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All the doom and gloom aside, they are rebuilding and the cleanup effort is making progress every day!!! Cudjoe and the “lower keys” from Stock Island to Little Duck Key is mostly residential flanked on each end by the commercial hubs of Key West and Marathon. Big Pine Key has a grocery store and some other commercial businesses, and is also home to the endangered Key Deer.  We were not sure if we would have the opportunity to see any, but while checking out some kayak launches on the gulf side of the key we were surprised to see quite a number of them. They seem unfazed by humans or cars and simply wander around crossing the back streets at will. I am sure that they are also trying to recover from the storm as much of the woods are filled with debris and downed trees, they have lost a lot too.   These deer are very small approximately 2-3 feet tall and full grown only weigh about 90 lbs. They have the cutest little antlers too.

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Big Pine Key is also home to the largest body of fresh water in the keys. They call it the “Blue Hole” but it is not natural like the blue holes we visited on Andros in the Bahamas, nor is it as large and blue as those. It is an abandoned limestone quarry which was used by the Henry Flagler Overseas Railroad Co back in the early 1900s. Today it is an important refuge for various wild life including the key deer, alligators, iguanas and birds to name a few.

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We are looking forward to spending a month down here, even with the damage, little commerce and NO TV, we look forward to enjoying the simple low key life for a while. As Jimmy Buffet says, changes in latitude changes in attitude nothing remains quite the same. Through all of the islands and all of the highlands if we couldn’t laugh we would all go insane. Here is to some changes in attitude and some laughing, cause we all know that nothing remains the same. Peace and Love.