The Fort That Time Forgot

Seventy miles off the coast of Key West you’ll find a 19th-century wonder to explore. But time and tide are eroding the walls of historic Fort Jefferson.

Fort
Begun in 1846, gargantuan Fort Jefferson dominates the seven tiny islands that make up Dry Tortugas National Park.

Credit: Jeffery Salter

When you first see it shimmering on the horizon, Fort Jefferson seems like a fairy-tale castle floating majestically on the aquamarine sea—a secluded home for Neptune's throne.

Drawing closer, you discover what's truly there: a squat, six-sided, imposing fortification surrounded by a moat. It hunkers at the mouth of the Gulf of Mexico, as menacing as a blocking guard, perpetually poised against anything foolhardy enough to present a challenge. The fort's massive walls stand eight feet thick and 45 feet high. They're about a half-mile around, made of more than 16 million bricks, composing the largest brick stronghold in the Western Hemisphere.

But it's not just size that makes Fort Jefferson special. The fortress was the Stealth Bomber of its day, a marvel of engineering bristling with artillery that could put a 400-pound ball through the ironclad hull of a running ship three miles away. It was designed to accommodate 420 cannon, set in such a way that 75 could simultaneously zero in on a single target. And if that doesn't sound nasty enough, smaller cannonballs were to be heated in a furnace before firing so that the red-hot projectiles would set a wooden deck ablaze and ignite an enemy's gunpowder magazine.

For all its terrifying promise, Fort Jefferson never saw battle. It was 30 years in the making but never completed. It became better known as a notorious prison where Dr. Samuel Mudd and three other conspirators in Abraham Lincoln's assassination served their sentences.

I first began visiting this isolated spot miles off the coast of Key West when it was known as the Fort Jefferson National Monument. In 1992 the name changed to Dry Tortugas National Park. On my first visits, I flew out on a seaplane over water so clear I could spot a sea turtle swimming near the surface and its shadow dancing on the sandy bottom 20 feet below. I saw hatchling terns nesting by the thousands on the surrounding isles, packed so thick that their feathers made the islands appear blanketed with snow. And I envied the swimmers who had time to enjoy some of the finest snorkeling waters on earth—protected and practically pristine, a rich submarine environment of coral and tropical fish in brilliant, Technicolor splendor.

How you can Help…

The scope of the restoration work at Fort Jefferson is enormous. Despite an infusion of $2.2 million in federal stimulus monies in April, only a portion of the total needed for a complete restoration is covered. You can contribute to the restoration effort by donating to the South Florida National Parks Trust (southfloridaparks.org). Specify that your contribution is for Fort Jefferson.

At the center of it all, for me, has always been the fort; in many ways, it seemed an old and faithful friend, valued for its unchanging nature. Over the years I noticed only slight cosmetic differences, the equivalent of a wrinkle here or a touch of gray. But the fort stood steadfast, seeming ageless against time.

Now, though, its decline is striking and rapid. My friend is gravely sick. Last summer, a chunk of an outer wall broke away. Then, last November, a section more than 20 feet wide separated and collapsed with a crash into the moat below. The only enemies the fort has ever encountered—waves, wind, and salt air—are winning.

"It's an extreme marine environment," says Kelly Clark, the exhibits specialist at Dry Tortugas National Park. "Every June to November, we have the added bonus of hurricanes. And now, sonic booms from military jets."

The National Park Service is fighting back. Clark oversees crews of expert masons who have been working inch by painstaking inch since 2007 in a snail-paced race to reverse the damage. They are expected to conclude their efforts next year.

Correction: The full article in the print magazine incorrectly describes a key restoration technique. Crews do not grind up original bricks to make new ones. Instead, they remove original mortar with angle grinders, and reuse the newly cleaned bricks. We regret the error.


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