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Fort Jefferson Key West – 70 miles to History

Fort Jefferson Key West Historical Attraction

what fort is in the dry Tortugas, Fort Jefferson National Park
Fort Jefferson National Park is in the Dry Tortugas.

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, very little cover from the heat and no inhabitants.

Not only did they build a fort, they built the largest masonry structure in the Western Hemisphere.

 So what fort is in the Dry Tortugas? Fort Jefferson Key West attraction in the Gulf, of course!

Fort Jefferson Key West Significance

Key West and Fort Jefferson have been intrinsically linked since the early 1800’s. Even before the 1850’s when Fort Jefferson was started, the Dry Tortugas, the islands that include Fort Jefferson, were fishing grounds for Key West fishermen.

Turtles (tortugas in Spanish) were the main harvest from the Tortuga islands. The turtle meat was used as a food source for many years until over fishing lead to a ban on harvesting most sea turtles.

Today, Fort Jefferson – Key West are linked by the popularity of trips to the Dry Tortugas to see the Fort, now a huge tourist attraction.


How Long Did it Take to Build Fort Jefferson in the Dry Tortugas?

It took over 16 million bricks shipped in from Pensacola and over thirty years, but they built Fort Jefferson in the Dry Tortugas as a monument to man’s ability to overcome even the worst scenarios. Today the Fort is one of Florida’s most sought-after historical sites.

The Fort was authorized by both the Lincoln and Johnson administrations prior to the Civil War.

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

Dr. Samuel Mudd
Dr. Samuel Mudd

When President Lincoln was assassinated in 1865, Fort Jefferson got its most famous prisoner. Dr. Samuel Mudd was convicted of conspiracy to assassinate Lincoln and sentenced to life in prison at Fort Jefferson in the Dry Tortugas.

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.

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Mudd was subsequently pardoned and he went home to Maryland where he died in 1883 in Waldorf, Maryland.

Fort Jefferson Key West

Today, Fort Jefferson Key West is a national park named Fort Jefferson in the 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. Boats take 2.25 hours. You spend the day and return by boat.

Our family’s favorite way to get to Fort Jefferson is taking a seaplane over to the Fort. We then tour Fort Jefferson and do some snorkeling in the waters surrounding the park.

As a side note, we saw the largest tarpon we have ever seen on a snorkeling trip at Fort Jefferson. Some old pilings there attract many varieties of fish and this tarpon weighed well over 200 pounds. He was hanging around looking for a meal.

Touring Fort Jefferson Key West

Seaplanes at Fort Jefferson
Seaplanes at Fort Jefferson

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 can do a self-guided tour or join one of the almost hourly tours by the Fort’s staff.

You will see the brick quarters of the soldiers and their lifestyle 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 seawater. It was never enough and ships had to bring more fresh water regularly.

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!

How to Get To Fort Jefferson Key West in the Dry Tortugas

Fort Jefferson Halls - what fort is in the dry tortugas
Touring the Fort, you begin to imagine how life must have been walking the Fort Jefferson halls.

You can stop by any booth along Duval Street selling tickets and tours. They can assist you in booking a Fort Jefferson day trip in Florida.

Reservations are important. They should be made well in advance to make certain you will be able to join the tour. Both seaplane trips and boat trips sell out regularly.

When visiting the Florida Keys and Key West, you have many options for attractions, but Key West’s Fort Jefferson is one of Florida’s most popular 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.

Now you know what fort is in the Dry Tortugas, Fort Jefferson Key West!

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