Good news! If you’ve been avoiding a vacation to Florida because you don’t want to get trapped in amongst the droves of other visitors to the countless number of theme parks, this could be the option for you. With a daily tourist count in the low hundreds, Fort Jefferson can offer a much more relaxed vacation option for your family. The abandoned military fort is nestled in the remote Dry Tortugas keys close to 70 miles west of popular Key West.
The fort is the largest example of masonry in the entire Western Hemisphere, built out of over 16 million bricks. It began construction in 1846, twenty years after the United States bought Florida from Spain. Investigators from the U.S. Navy found that the Dry Tortugas islands–first discovered by Juan Ponce de Leon–barely rose above sea level, contained no sources of fresh water, and were liable to completely disappear beneath the waves if hit by a large enough hurricane. Nonetheless, the 11 tiny islands were situated in just the right place; if fortified, they would be a perfect defense post and help ensure American control over the Gulf’s shipping routes. Naturally formed inner and outer harbors would provide shelter for friendly ships while being a deadly trap for enemies.
Fort Jefferson was designed as a six-sided, three-tiered defensive masterpiece, with a circumference of over 2500 feet. It was essentially a massive gun platform, impervious to enemy assault. The inner parade ground contained living quarters and storehouses for gunpowder; the area was inhabited and built up with the help of masons, carpenters, and blacksmiths, and eventually soldiers also began to serve there. Despite being incomplete fort and Union-operated during the Civil War it served as a handy military prison for deserters and civilian robbers. In fact, a great deal of the later construction phases were completed by these prisoners. In 1865, four famous civilians were interred there: Edmund Spangler, Michael O’Laughlen, Samuel Arnold, and Dr. Samuel Mudd, the men convicted of conspiracy to assassinate Abraham Lincoln.
Two thousand people inhabited Fort Jefferson at it’s peak. The water supply that was set up based on a cistern system, was prone to contamination, even though the rainwater was filtered, and it fell into disuse. Any supplies had to be ferried in. Construction continued through the 1860s despite an epidemic of yellow fever, but the structure was never fully finished. The maintenance cost of Fort Jefferson eventually proved too onerous and by 1888, it was deemed militarily; even the toughest of men found the tropical weather very trying and hazardous, and hurricanes were also a constant problem.. The Army withdrew, and for the next several decades the fort was used as a quarantine station by the Marine Hospital Service.
Franklin Roosevelt designated the fort as a National Monument in 1935, and in 1992 the entire Dry Tortugas became an official National Park–one of the most remote parks in the continental United States. The entire Dry Tortugas is visitable, but can only be reached by ferry or seaplane. Tourists can enjoy pristine coral reefs, view wildlife, and, of course, wander Fort Jefferson, which still stands today. It’s a unique traveling experience for those that are fans of adventure!