A cluster of islands in the Florida Straits were discovered by Ponce de Leon in 1513 who named them tortugas, Spanish for turtles. On charts they became known as the "dry tortugas" due to a lack of fresh water. On Garden Key in 1825, a lighthouse was built to warn sailors of the rocky shoals. Ft. Jefferson, the largest man-made masonry structure in the Western Hemisphere was constructed on Garden Key from 1846 until 1889, but was never completed because of structural issues, U.S. Naval growth, maritime technological and artillery advancements as well as being hindered by extreme heat, a remote location, disease and hurricanes. The fort was seen as essential in controlling navigation in the Gulf of Mexico.
Ft. Jefferson - view from the ferry
By the end of the Civil War, the fort's population has grown to nearly 2,000 people - soldiers, laborers, slaves, women, children and members of the lighthouse board.
Rotten food and a lack of fresh vegetables made disease like scurvy common. The moat (as seen in the photo above) was used as a sewer. By today's standards, these conditions would be intolerable but they were similar to battlefields of that era.
- 1880's - the Army abandoned Ft. Jefferson.
- 1908 - the area became a wildlife refuge.
- 1935 - the area was proclaimed Ft. Jefferson National Monument.
- 1992 - the area was designated Dry Tortugas National Park to protect the wildlife and preserve the history.
People come to the park for the beach, go snorkeling and/or take the tour like I did or go fishing like Hubby. Some camp here but they must bring enough water for their stay. Like the Civil War soldiers assigned here decades ago, the park rangers live at the fort with much improved living conditions - electricity, air-conditioned apartments with television and internet, but fresh drinking water still comes from rain supplemented by desalinized water.
The photo below was taken from the top level of the fort. The view was spectacular.
View the slideshow below this photo.