Fort Jefferson

Beez Neez
Skipper and First Mate Millard (Big Bear and Pepe)
Fri 11 May 2012 19:18

Fort Jefferson, Florida




Fort Jefferson 

 Fort Jefferson is a massive unfinished coastal fortress. It is the largest masonry structure in the Western Hemisphere, and is composed of over 16 million bricks brought in from New England.


Geography: Elevation 0 feet.



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History: In late December 1824 and early January 1825, about five years after Spain sold Florida to the United States for $5 million, U.S. Navy Commodore David Porter inspected the Dry Tortugas islands. He was on the lookout for a site for a naval station that would help suppress piracy in the Caribbean. Unimpressed with what he saw, he notified the Secretary of the Navy that the Dry Tortugas were unfit for any kind of naval establishment. He reported that they consist of small sand islands a little above the surface of the ocean, have no fresh water, scarcely enough land to place a fortification, and in any case are probably not solid enough to bear one.

While Commodore Porter thought the Dry Tortugas were unfit for a naval station, others in the U.S. government thought the islands were a good location for a lighthouse to guide ships around the area's reefs and islands. A small island called Bush Key, later called Garden Key, was selected as the site for the lighthouse, which became known as Garden Key Light. Construction began in 1825 and was completed in 1826. The 65-foot lighthouse was constructed of brick with a whitewashed exterior. A small white cottage for the lighthouse keeper was built beside the lighthouse.



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In May 1829, Commodore John Rodgers stopped at the Dry Tortugas to evaluate the anchorage. Contrary to Commodore Porter's experience, Rogers was delighted with what he found. The Dry Tortugas, he reported, consisted of eleven small keys and surrounding reefs and banks, over which the sea broke. There was an outer and an inner harbour. The former afforded a safe anchorage at all seasons, and was large enough to let a large number of ships ride at anchor. Of more importance, the inner harbour combined a sufficient depth of water for ships-of-the-line, with a narrow entrance of not more than 120 yards. Rogers said that if a hostile power should occupy the Dry Tortugas, U.S. shipping in the Gulf would be in deadly peril, and "nothing but absolute naval superiority" could prevail. However, if occupied and fortified by the U.S., the Dry Tortugas would constitute the "advance post" for a defense of the Gulf Coast.

A series of engineering studies and bureaucratic delays consumed the next 17 years, but the construction of Fort Jefferson (named after the third President, Thomas Jefferson) was finally begun on Garden Key in 1846. The new fort would be built so that the existing Garden Key lighthouse and the lighthouse keeper's cottage would be contained within the walls of the fort. The lighthouse would continue to serve a vital function in guiding ships through the waters of the Dry Tortugas Islands until the current metal light tower was installed atop an adjacent wall of the fort in 1876. The original brick lighthouse tower was taken down in 1877.


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Design: The design called for a three-tiered six-sided 410 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 other buildings 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.

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 years.

In order to support such a large population in an area lacking fresh water, an innovative system of cisterns were built into the walls of the fort. Sand-filled columns were placed at regular intervals in the inner walls, spanning their height from the roof to the foundation. The columns were intended to filter rainwater from the rooftop for long-term storage in a series of underground chambers. However, the system was never used in practice, as the enormous weight of the outer walls caused them to subside; this created cracks in the cisterns, allowing seawater to contaminate the fresh water supply, of the 109 cisterns built only 6 functioned but the design did not consider the fact that the salt contained in the bricks and cement would leach salt into the water supply. The heat, lack of water and isolation quickly got the fort the reputation of being a grim posting.



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Another design fault was the moat. It was thought that the occupants ‘waste’ was used as a giant toilet, the contents would be flushed at each tide. In reality the ebb and flow was not big enough so the moat became a stinking pit full of sewage.



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Yet another design fault was the use of the automatic ‘firing door’. The gases expelled by the cannon opened the doors before the cannonball was discharged, after firing the doors closed. However, they were made of iron, as as they have rusted away, they have done an enormous amount of damage to the brickwork. A major and on going restoration.



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Some of the buttonwood trees inside the fort are original.


Active Use: 1860’s – 1930’s: The fort remained in Federal hands throughout the Civil War. With the end of hostilities in 1865, the fort's population 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 had been desertion, while the most common act for the civilian prisoners was robbery. However, in July 1865 four special “life” prisoners arrived. These were Dr. Samuel Mudd, Edmund Spangler, Samuel Arnold, and Michael O'Laughlen, who had been convicted of conspiracy in the assassination of President Abraham Lincoln.


Dr Samuel Mudd



The son of a large plantation owner, Samuel Mudd attended Georgetown College, then graduated from the University of Maryland, where he studied medicine. Mudd married and set up practice on a farm five miles from Bryantown, Maryland. Mudd, an advocate of slavery, supported the Confederacy during the Civil War. He often expressed his dislike - even hatred - for Lincoln and his policies. Some say when William Booth (Lincoln’s assassinator) arrived at Dr Mudd’s to have his broken leg set, that he was just following his Hippocratic Oath.  At his trail much was made by the prosecution that the two knew each other beforehand. To this day his descendants are still trying to prove his innocence.

Construction of Fort Jefferson was still under way when Dr. Mudd and his fellow prisoners arrived and continued throughout the time they were imprisoned there and for several years thereafter, but was never completely finished. Mudd provided much-praised medical care during a yellow fever epidemic at the fort in 1867, and was eventually pardoned by President Andrew Johnson and released.


By 1888, the military usefulness of Fort Jefferson had waned, 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, also with the development of the rifled cannon barrel that could easily destroy a fort, such fortifications became obsolete. In 1888, the Army turned the fort over to the Marine Hospital Service to be operated as a quarantine station.


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Bear upstairs, Max our knowledgeable guide and the stalactites slowly forming.



Park Designation: On the 4th of January 1935, President Franklin D. Roosevelt, who visited the area by ship, designated the area as Fort Jefferson National Monument. It was listed on the National Register of Historic Places on the 10th of November 1970. On the 26th of October 1992 the Dry Tortugas, including Fort Jefferson, was established as a National Park. The islands still do not exhibit any standing fresh water or even seasonal streams, hence the "dry" name. Owing to the potential difficulties of survival in such conditions, one of these islands was used as the location for filming a military survival film used to train aircraft personnel.



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Use in Film and Literature: Flashback by Nevada Barr (2003) takes place entirely on Fort Jefferson. The mystery shifts between the site as a contemporary national park and as Fort Jefferson during the post-Civil War era. Some scenes for the 1997 made for TV movie, Assault on Devil's Island, were shot at Fort Jefferson.



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The Rangers live here quite comfortably on a two week shift, with wi-fi, TV and water, but still the isolation.


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After our tour we wandered around taking in the sheer size of the place before heading back to the boat for lunch.