It is hard to believe that our ancestors in the 1800s could build a fort on an island 70 miles west of Key West. The island had no fresh water. Not only did they build a fort they built the largest masonry structure in the western hemisphere. It took over 16 million bricks shipped in from Pensacola and over thirty years, but they built Fort Jefferson. Today the Fort is one of Florida’s most sought after historical sites.
Named after president Thomas Jefferson, the fort was started in 1846 with continuing construction until the Civil War. The fort had over 500 guns pointing all around the 15 acres it was situated on. When the Civil war started, 160 soldiers were sent there to protect against the fort falling into confederate hands. At the same time, the Army thought this impenetrable fort in the middle of the Gulf would make a perfect place for prisoners of the Civil War.
Fort Jefferson’s Most Famous Resident
When President Lincoln was assassinated, Fort Jefferson got its most famous prisoner. Dr. Samuel Mudd was convicted of conspiracy to assassinate Lincoln and sentenced to life in prison at the Fort.
During this period an outbreak of yellow fever killed many guards and prisoners. However, Dr. Mudd saved hundreds of lives by working tirelessly to fight the epidemic. He was subsequently pardoned and he went home to Maryland where he died in 1883 in Waldorf, Maryland.
Today, the Fort is a national park named Fort Jefferson, Dry Tortugas National Park. Tens of thousands of people visit the park annually as one of Florida’s top historical sites. Most come from Key West, but some come in their personal boats and dock near the park.
From Key West there are day trips from Key West Bite Marina daily. My favorite is taking a seaplane over to the Fort and snorkeling the waters surrounding the park. As a side note, I saw the largest tarpon I have ever seen on a snorkeling trip at Fort Jefferson. Some old pilings there attract many varieties of fish and this tarpon that weighed well over 200 pounds was hanging around looking for a meal.
Your visit to the park will amaze you. You will wind through spiral brick stairways to get to the old bastions where cannons guarded the pass to New Orleans and other Gulf ports. You will see the brick quarters of the soldiers in what must have been a very secluded life. It should be noted that even in the 1800’s they knew how to distill fresh water from sea water. They produced about 7000 gallons a day which was not near enough but kept supplies going until rainwater filled their cisterns and the occasional water ship would come into port. In the parade grounds that cover over 13 acres, there are remnants of their gardens where you can imagine the daily training. You can almost hear the bugle’s morning reveille mustering the soldiers!
When visiting Key West, you have many options for attractions, but this is one of Florida’s historical sites you will never forget.
We highly recommend Fort Jefferson for all ages. The kids love it as much as adults. The history, beauty and unspoiled tranquility make it one of your bucket list attractions. Fort Jefferson is one of our top historical sites to visit in Florida.
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