As you explore the fort, imagine life here during the hectic 1860s. At its height nearly 2,000 people lived within this remote city on the sea. Crowded onto the island were long walkways flanked by lush trees, impressive brick buildings, large wooden storehouses, and numerous tents. Soldiers marched and trained in the broiling sun. Laborers and prisoners hauled bricks and supplies to the masons who continued their never ending task of building the fort. Women and children, though fewer in number, were a welcome sight here. Surrounded by disease, death, and suffering, one wife described Fort Jefferson as “a dark, mean place.”
The Yankee Freedom III is the official ferry for the Dry Tortugas ,aboard the Yankee Freedom guests will travel in air conditioned comfort, enjoy delicious breakfast and lunch, snorkel gear, showers and guided tours of this Civil War fort that has been called the eighth wonder of the world.
Discovered by Ponce de Leon in 1513, the Dry Tortugas were named after the large population of sea turtles living in the island’s surrounding waters. “Tortugas” means turtles in Spanish, and Ponce de Leon himself caught over 100 sea turtles during his time on the island. The name “Dry” Tortugas was later given to the island to indicate to other mariners that the land mass lacked fresh water, which was an extremely important detail for seafarers to know.
When Spanish explorer Ponce de Leon discovered the island in 1513 he was amazed by the amount of sea turtles he saw; they were everywhere! He decided to name the island after the magnificent animals and gave the island the name “Las Tortugas” which is Spanish for “the turtles.” Despite its beauty and abundance of nature, fresh water was scarce on the island, and the word “dry” was added to the name to warn sailors and visitors that they needed to bring their own fresh water to drink. But don’t worry, the Yankee Freedom will provide you with plenty of food, water and other beverages on your trip to the Dry Tortugas!
Dry Tortugas National Park encompasses the history and natural wonders that make this island at the Southern tip of the United States a truly remarkable place. It is home to a multitude of unique birds, and has the only regular U.S. nesting site of sooty terns on Bush key, adjacent to Fort Jefferson. With vibrant coral reefs, nesting sea turtles, unique tropical fish and underwater wonders, visiting the Dry Tortugas is an unforgettable experience.
The area is known for its treacherous reefs, and in 1825 a lighthouse was built on Garden Key to warn ships and guide them toward safety. At the time shipwrecks were common, and with underwater wrecks dating back to the 1600s, the Dry Tortugas currently possess one of the richest concentrations of shipwrecks in North America. It is also because of these large reefs surrounding the Tortugas that the U.S. was able to establish one of the most strategic harbors in U.S. history, and Fort Jefferson was born. Construction of the fort began in 1846, and although it was never officially finished, it remains a historic icon of the Dry Tortugas and receives thousands of visitors yearly. Using modern charting technology, you can now enjoy a safe and enjoyable trip aboard the Yankee Freedom and experience the adventures of the Dry Tortugas with your family and friends
THE BUILDING OF THE FORT
After the War of 1812 a group of forts from Maine to Texas was envisioned to provide defense for the United States of America. Fort Jefferson was built to protect the southern coastline of the United States and the lifeline of commerce to and from the Mississippi River. The fort was planned to be the greatest of these.
Fort Jefferson itself is a six-sided building constructed of 16 million handmade red bricks. In 1825 a lighthouse was built on Garden Key to provide warning to sailors about the dangers of reefs and shoals surrounding the Dry Tortugas.
In 1908 the area was designated as a bird reserve and transferred to the Department of Agriculture. On January 4, 1935, it was designated by President Franklin Roosevelt as Fort Jefferson National Monument, the first marine area to be so promoted. On October 26, 1992, the monument was upgraded to national park status in a bill signed by President George Bush.
Fort Jefferson was built to protect one of the most strategic deepwater anchorages in North America. By fortifying this spacious harbor, the United States maintained an important “advance post” for ships patrolling the Gulf of Mexico and the Straits of Florida. Nestled within the islands and shoals that make up the Dry Tortugas, the harbor offered ships the chance to re– supply, refit, or seek refuge from storms. The location of the Tortugas along one the world’s busiest shipping lanes was its greatest military asset. Though passing ships could easily avoid the largest of Fort Jefferson’s guns, they could not avoid the warships that used its harbor.
The design of the fort called for a three-tiered six-sided 420 heavy-gun fort, with two sides measuring 325 feet, and four sides measuring 477 feet. The walls met at corner bastions, which are large projections designed to allow defensive fire along the faces of the walls they joined. The heavy guns were mounted inside the walls in a string of open casemates, or gunrooms, facing outward toward the sea through large openings called embrasures. Fort Jefferson was designed to be a massive gun platform, impervious to assault, and able to destroy any enemy ships foolhardy enough to come within range of its powerful guns.
Living quarters for soldiers and officers, gunpowder magazines, storehouses, and otherbuildings required to maintain the fort were located on the parade ground inside the fort’s
massive brick walls. The Army employed civilian machinists, carpenters, blacksmiths, masons, general laborers, the resident prisoner population, and slaves to help construct the fort. By 1863, during the Civil War, the number of military convicts at Fort Jefferson had increased so significantly that slaves were no longer needed. At the time, there were 22 black slaves employed on the project.
THE SOLDIERS & THEIR FAMILIES
Fort Jefferson’s peak military population was 1,729. In addition, a number of officers brought their families, and a limited number of enlisted personnel brought wives who served as laundresses (typically four per company). There were also lighthouse keepers and their families, cooks, a civilian doctor and his family, and others. In all, there were close to 2,000 people at Fort Jefferson during its peak year
THE END OF MILITARY USE
The fort remained in Federal hands throughout the Civil War. With the end of hostilities in 1865, the fort’s population had declined to 1,013, consisting of 486 soldiers or civilians and 527 prisoners. The great majority of prisoners at Fort Jefferson were Army privates whose most common transgression was desertion. The most common transgression of civilian prisoners was robbery.
By 1888, the military usefulness of Fort Jefferson had waned, and the cost of maintaining the fort due to the effects of frequent hurricanes and the corrosive and debilitating tropical climate could no longer be justified.
In 1888, the Army turned the fort over to the Marine-Hospital Service to be operated as a quarantine station. On January 4, 1935, President Franklin D. Roosevelt, who visited the area by ship, designated the area as Fort Jefferson National Monument.
THE FORT PRISON
Fort Jefferson was also used as a prison for criminals and deserters during and after the Civil War. The most famous of these prisoners was Dr. Samuel Mudd, who was imprisoned for his involvement in the assassination of President Abraham Lincoln.
During its time, Fort Jefferson held over 2,500 prisoners. After its use as a prison, Fort Jefferson became a quarantine station for the Marine-Hospital Service from 1888-1900, during which the location was also used in the Spanish-American War*.
With its rich historical background, Fort Jefferson finally received its designation as a National Monument in 1935, and then upgraded to National Park status by President George Bush in 1992.
Fort Jefferson’s most famous prisoner, Dr. Samuel Alexander Mudd has left his historical mark on the Dry Tortugas. Samuel Alexander Mudd was born on December 20th, 1833 in Maryland, just 30 miles from Washington, DC. Dr. Mudd began practicing medicine in 1856 after graduating from Baltimore Medical College, currently known as the University of Maryland. After beginning his life as a practicing physician and farmer, Dr. Mudd married Sarah Francis Dyer, and fathered nine children.
ASSASINATION OF PRESIDENT ABRAHAM LINCOLN
Dr. Mudd is most infamously known for his involvement in the assassination of President Abraham Lincoln, who was shot by John Wilkes Booth in 1865. Mudd’s first encounter with Booth was less than a year before the assassination, during a discussion regarding the sale of a horse. A month later, Mudd, Booth, John Surratt and Louis Weichman shared drinks in a hotel room rented by Booth. During his assassination of the president, John Wilkes Booth broke his leg and sought the help of Dr. Mudd and stayed at Mudd’s residence until the next day.
Mudd was later arrested for conspiracy and for harboring Booth and David Harold after the crime was committed. After standing trial and a string of testimonies, Dr. Samuel Alexander Mudd was convicted and sentenced to life imprisonment at Fort Jefferson in the Dry Tortugas.
After a failed escape attempt in 1865, Dr. Mudd was assigned to the prison’s carpentry shop. Throughout this time, Mudd’s wife had been writing letters to President Andrew Johnson in efforts to have her husband released from prison. In the end Dr. Mudd’s stay at Fort Jefferson was short due to his heroic action and leadership during the yellow fever epidemic on the island in 1867. Due to his participation in efforts to help the sick, Dr. Mudd finally received a pardon on February 8, 1869, signed by Andrew Johnson himself in front of Mudd’s wife. He was officially released on March 8th, leaving his mark on the Dry Tortugas and on U.S. history for centuries to come.
Make sure to visit Dr. Mudd’s cell on the bottom level of Fort Jefferson, just past the Park Headquarters. Another area recently opened to the public is located just above the fort’s entrance. Climb the stairs of the lighthouse bastion to the second tier, then turn right. Dr. Mudd spent nearly three years in this dark, damp casemate. Watch out for holes in the floor. In a letter to his wife, Mudd explained the need for these unusual modifications, “We have a hole dug in the floor and little trenches cut. After every rain, our quarters leak terribly, and it’s not unusual to dip up from the floor ten and twelve large buckets of water daily.”*
ABOUT THE REEF
“The corals look like gigantic mushrooms gone wild,” said Jim Bohnsack of the National Deep Sea Coral Reef Marine Fisheries Service’s Science Center in Miami. “The structural complexity of the reef made it an ideal fish habitat. When we first descended it appeared that there were hardly any fish present, but after a few minutes they began popping out from all parts of the reef.”
The scientific team was surprised by the reef’s size and the fact that it is densely covered with coral.
“The abundance and cover of coral in this area is as high as any in the Keys, and it confirms the importance of coral reef habitats in the vicinity of the Dry Tortugas,” said G.P. Schmahl, manager of the lower region of the sanctuary and one of the researchers on the trip. “Due to its location, it has been protected from degradation by human influences, and it could serve as a control area to compare to other reefs in the Florida Keys.”
Schmahl pointed out that the reef, which lies in 60 to 100 feet of water, is similar to another coral reef located in the Gulf of Mexico: the Flower Gardens National Marine Sanctuary off the coast of Texas. “This is a spectacular, healthy resource of the sanctuary, and it needs to be studied and protected.”
THE REEF TODAY
The reef may have been overlooked in the past because it appears to be relatively flat on depth sounders and is too deep to be seen from the surface. The reef was previously known to only a handful of divers as “Sherwood Forest,” because during early morning dives the corals are mysterious looking and reminiscent of a forest canopy. Low light conditions at these depths causes corals to grow in a unique, flat, plate-like form. The reef profile is remarkably uniform, which at first gives a false impression of a flat bottom that is, in fact, five feet above the real bottom. The subsurface of the reef is a maze of valleys and intricate caves and tunnels between corals.
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