The Tortugas are small sand islands that were discovered by Ponce de Leon in 1513. He saw all the nesting turtles (tortugas) and lack of water and called the small island group the Dry Tortugas.
The Dry Tortugas National Park Ferry leaves Key West at 8AM daily. Its a fast catamaran that covers the seventy miles west to Fort Jefferson in a little over two hours. The trip includes breakfast, lunch and snorkeling gear. You pass the Marquesas island group on the way to the fort. That's where Mel Fisher recovered half a billion in treasure from the Atocha in the late 1970s.
The three level fort is surprising in its size. It is 45 feet tall with eight foot thick walls. There were an estimated 16 million bricks used in the fort's construction. The yellow bricks came from Pensacola before the Civil War. The red bricks were shipped from Maine during the war. It is the largest masonry fort in the Western hemisphere.
These flowers grow wild next to the fort's salt water moat.
You can also reach the fort by seaplane out of Key West. Both the boat and the plane offer the option of camping in the sand and returning at a later date. .
This is the "hot shot" oven where 15 inch iron cannonballs were heated to cherry red temperatures. They were fired by using wet packing and a light powder load. Even after skipping in the water a few times they were hot enough to start a serious fire on a wooden ship. The light powder load kept the shot from burrowing too deeply so that it would have access to air for the fire it was intended to create.
After the unfinished fort was abandoned in 1875, the Navy still used it for a coaling station. It was the last stop of the battleship "Maine" before it blew up in the harbour in Havana. The fort takes up most of the island. I went snorkeling in the ruins of the coaling dock. You can see these on the extreme left, next to a concrete pad, although they are partially cut off in this shot.
The fort was under construction from 1847 to 1875. It was never completed. Much of the work was done by slaves before the war. The two openings in the brick below lead to one of the many cisterns that were built into the fort and designed to hold 1.5 million gallons of fresh water. Most of these cisterns sprung leaks and filled with salt water.
The lower level gun ports were finished and furnished with 140 cannon, including Rodman guns, the largest and most modern available. You can see the unfinished 2nd and 3rd level gun ports above the umbrella.
There are six "bastions"jutting out from the walls of the fort. These had gun ports providing lines of fire directly along the moat. The bastion cannon were filled with small shot to kill anyone crouching in the water below the gun ports.
The water in August is very warm.
Guns were never fired in anger from the fort. During the war the Union used the fort as a prison for its own soldiers. About 2,000 of these were confined there for rape, robbery, murder, cowardice, sleeping on guard duty, desertion, desertion in the face of the enemy, abandonment of post and so on...
The most famous prisoner was Dr. Samuel Mudd, who set the broken leg of the assassin John Wilkes Booth. Mudd helped at the fort during a Yellow Fever outbreak and was eventually pardoned by President Andrew Johnson.