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Dry Tortugas Dispatch: Fortification, Visitation, and Bliss

This is the second dispatch in a two-part exploration of Dry Tortugas National Park. The first post can be found here.

Sleeping in a fort adds importance to dreams. As the dust from the 150-year-old brick occasionally sprinkles down on the sheets, you are allowed to imagine yourself as a Civil War-era Union soldier, contentedly walking the grounds and staring over the vast tropical vista of the Dry Tortugas. As a non-military man at Fort Jefferson, it was OK for me to wake up a little late.

In the morning, my guide, Melissa Memory, Chief of Cultural Resources for the Everglades and Dry Tortugas took me on a tour of Fort Jefferson’s grounds. The fort encapsulates nearly the entire island, with only a couple hundred yards of docks, one helipad, and two beaches outside the front walls. In total, it takes an able-bodied adult about 10 minutes to walk the entire circumference of the island. I did this seven times.

Surrounding the island is a moat, which functions as a defacto trail for the outer ramparts. Memory spoke of a crocodile that has bizarrely taken up residence in the moat. Much like the famed ghost of Fort Jefferson, I never saw the crocodile in or around the moat, though I did put up a joking and futile search. It appears to be yet another Dry Tortugas mystery that floated past me.

The outside of the fort, at certain parts, is crumbling, falling from the walls into the moat. The masonry failing is understandable after 150 years of standing strong amongst the sea breeze. Though some repair work has been done on the facade, it is a difficult process, and incomplete. Given the structure’s historic status, it takes a great deal of time for permitting, and new bricks can only come from a highly specialized Civil War-era mason in New Orleans. And there are 16 million bricks that make up the fort.

In my macabre imagination, it’s nice to envision the moat filled with sharks acting as defacto natural prison guards, non-discriminatory man-eaters policing the shallow waters. But that was never the case. A Union deserter named “Fat Charley” imprisoned at Fort Jefferson once lured a shark into the moat, and it died after two days. In reality, the moat was a soup of filthy muck, detritus, and garbage that had been hauled over the side and out the windows. The poor shark suffered quickly, and died, which I am sure many of the wallowing prisoners empathized with.

The most famous prisoner, of course, was Dr. Samuel Mudd physician to the assassin John Wilkes Booth, and accused co-conspirator in the plot against President Abraham Lincoln. Though widely believed, his legacy today is not the common idiom declaring a villain’s “name is mud.” The phrase was in use before the Civil War, yet his name is symbolically fitting now because the role he played in those events is still somewhat inconclusive, and though his legacy was tarnished, it ultimately remains murky and muddled.

What is clear is the dungeon he spent his days in seems a despairing pit. Initially, it is hard to imagine suffering, with a window’s view of paradise and a nice breeze. But logic takes hold and a more sobering vision creeps in, one of shackled men overcrowded and festering with disease, fending off rats and putrefaction. Amongst the 1,200 men that lived at the fort, the Dry Tortugas in the 19th century summertime must have felt like a brick furnace on Mercury.

And they have a brick furnace. The bakery is in one of the six bastions – where the walls of the fort meet –now in a state of dilapidated disrepair. It shows us there is much work to be done on preserving the physical fort and it’s heritage. Then, it served the occupants a loaf of bread described by one prisoner as, “a mixture of flour, bugs, sticks, and dirt.”

The bastions have various landmarks, including a chapel, which the mason expertly crafted with flourishes of lighter colored brick. Constant throughout the fort are the portholes for cannons, though most are no longer there, having been scrapped long ago. There were 400 cannons at one point, and the cutting edge architectural design of the structure meant that 125 of them could be pointed at the same place at any given time. This is combined with the "hot shot furnace," which would heat up cannonballs for greater damage, because sinking a ship isn’t nearly as fun as blowing it up first.

On the top of the fort the largest of the cannons remain, because during the World Wars, scrapping them was too much of a bother. The National Parks Service has restored one of them to its full glory, and a mount was built according to historical records from the time. It weighs a colossal 49,644 pounds.

Today, the only foreign vessels that approach Fort Jefferson unannounced are Cuban. The Dry Tortugas are the same distance from Cuba as Key West is, and in recent years, a spate of refugees have made their way to the islands using GPS as a safer alternative to invoke the "wet foot, dry foot" policy.  A refugee boat sits on the grounds, having been hauled from the beach. Melissa explains it will be interpreted for the guests and left as a museum exhibit.

As for citizens of the United States, there are a million reasons to visit Dry Tortugas National Park. Over wine at dinner, Melissa and I went through a Dry Tortugas visitor cross-section list, which includes but not limited to: birders, lighthouse fanatics, Civil War history buffs, National Parks Passport devotees (people who want to go to every national park), brick/masonry enthusiasts, Fort admirers, and people who just want a better beach than the rocky and murky offerings in Key West. It is this patchwork of people you may find on your trip, and whose respectful admiration make up the current history of the park.

Why was I there? I went for a snorkel at one point, but that didn’t seem decisive. I soaked in the salt and admired the coral accumulated on the moat wall. I got caught in a beautiful swarm of fish but decided somewhat sheepishly to tail it back after an intimate face to face with a barracuda.

I suppose I was there to write. And these notes I have scribbled will stand as a record of my trip. But what I truly learned in the middle of nowhere was found at the front doorstep of the bizarre apartment carved into Fort Jefferson for park employees.

I put a chair at the door frame-shaped window onto the harbor. The bricks were loose, and a hard shove would have sank me in the moat. So I sat and watched. The fishing boats and an occasional seaplane puttered by. I read a book, or didn’t. It was blissful.

This frame, this view. It made me realize, though it was a small slice of what the island had to offer, it was a microcosm. And the island itself is a microcosm. There is history, beauty, relaxation, and adventure. 

For hours at a time, day or night, this blissful view was a perspective I chose. And when I wasn’t staring through that portal – when I was walking the grounds, snorkeling, climbing the lighthouse, imagining the history, or breathing the sea air – it was bliss. 

This is why I was at the Dry Tortugas. And why you should go too.