Oct 222013

Now that fall weather is firmly entrenched across the nation, it seemed like a good time to focus on our southern-most national treasure: Dry Tortugus National Park. The area which surrounds the park abounds with legends of sunken treasure, pirates behaving badly, and military battles. Spanish explorers and merchants sailed through the channels in the area before it became a part of our great nation. In the 1820’s, a lighthouse was placed on a one of the small islands in the chain, named “Garden Key Light,” to help ships navigate the area’s reefs. 

On another tiny island, which is actually closer to Cuba than the American mainland, sits Fort Jefferson. This is the most visible part of the park because it is actually above water. The island upon which it sits is approximately 70 miles west of Key West, Florida. The attached image is of Fort Jefferson. The fort, itself, is the largest masonry structure in our county! Fort Jefferson, named after Thomas Jefferson, was built at the southern-most tip of the Florida Keys in order to suppress piracy in the area. There was also a sheltered area nearby where large ships could safely anchor. This was of particular interest to our military during the time immediately preceding the Spanish-American war. Construction of the fort took place between 1846 and 1875. Construction on the building was halted after engineers realized that weight from the bricks and cannons being used to build the fort caused the entire island to settle. More than 16 million bricked were used in Fort Jefferson’s construction. The precarious positioning of Fort Jefferson can be seen in a NOAA photo at:http://www.bingoforpatriots.com/american-treasures/americas-national-parks/dry-tortugas/. Another picture on that page, taken by NASA, has a clear picture of Fort Jefferson sitting at the very tail of the Florida Keys. 

One of the unique features of Fort Jefferson’s structure was the cisterns placed within its walls to provide fresh water for members of the military, and their families, who lived inside. The fort also boasts more than 2000 arches within its structure. Fort Jefferson’s population reached close to 2000 in the mid-1800’s, but eventually dwindled to less than 1000. That number was fairly well divided between soldiers and prisoners who came to be housed in the fort. Many of the prisoners were enlisted men convicted of desertion, and the civilian prisoners had primarily been convicted of robbery. The most famous prisoners to be held in Fort Jefferson were Michael O’Laughlen, Samuel Arnold, Edmund Spangler, and Dr. Samuel Mudd. The four men were convicted of conspiracy in President Lincoln’s assignation. Dr. Mudd, who was convicted primarily for treating John Wilkes Booth after the assasination, was eventually pardoned and released after his care of many prisoners during an outbreak of yellow fever at the fort. In 1888, Fort Jefferson was transitioned a Marine Hospital Service quarantine station because of the frequency of hurricanes and other climate related issues. Although the fort fell out of service, it remained in use as a coaling station for warships. Most notably, the U.S.S. Marine, stopped for fuel before its journey to Havana, Cuba.

Fort Jefferson was designated a National Monument by Franklin D. Roosevelt on January 4, 1935. The Fort and the more than 47,000 acres surrounding he area of Dry Tortugas became a National Park on October 26, 1992 by President Bush. 

As you can imagine, the reefs in the park host an amazing display of nature at its best. Dense sea grass and coral reef are home to squid, turtles, lobsters, and a wide variety of fish. Close to 300 different migratory bird species inhabit the area at different times during the year. The National Park’s Service’s Dry Tortugas webcam is located at: http://teens4oceans.org/index.php/dry-tortugas-national-park-webcam/. Spend a few moments watching the webcam because it shifts to focus on fish and other animals that are passing by. To help your child learn more about this National Park, you can download the Dry Tortugas Junior Ranger Handbook here: 
http://www.nps.gov/drto/forkids/upload/DRTO%20Junior%20Ranger%20Handbook.pdf. Complete the handbook while exploring the National Park’s website at:http://www.nps.gov/drto/planyourvisit/index.htm.What a fun activity to take part in with your child on a cold, rainy, or snowy day! 

Please take a moment to be thankful for yet another jewel in our national park system. Learning more about, and enjoying, our rich national treasures and resources is just a small part of What IS Right With America! 


Susan C. Rempel, Ph.D.


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