The Americas travel blog

Fort Jefferson

Up at 6am and off to catch the National Park ferry called the Yankee Freedom to Dry Tortugas, a collection of 7 islands, 70 miles off the coast of Key West, in the Gulf of Mexico. The boat is quite large, holding 175 on board. It is a 2 1/2 hour cruise out to Garden Key so we make ourselves comfortable on the back deck, under the shade, and sit back and enjoy the ride. Breakfast is provided and then we are given some information in the days activities ahead. It's about 90 F but it's so pleasant out on the water.

The first glimpse we have of Garden Key clearly shows Fort Jefferson which was built during 1846-1875 (but it was never completed) to protect the route of the sailing ships and give them a safe deep harbour to anchor if there was a storm. Ships travelling down the east coast of America would have to sail around Dry Tortugas to then use the trade winds to sail further up the west coast or even to Europe. There were no materials to construct the fort on the island so everything was brought by ship. There are 16M bricks used in the construction of the 3 levels with the walls 8 feet thick. It was fortified with 420 cannons, of which 125 could be trained on a target at sea at any one time and had a moat and drawbridge to ensure it could not be taken. Dry is included in the name because there was no fresh water. A system of tanks was set up at the fort to supply water to the 1,800 inhabitants. And tortugas because of the abundance of turtles which were used to feed the troops.

The fort was used again in the Civil War as Union warships used the harbour in their campaign to blockade Southern shipping. Post Civil War it was used as a prison with its most famous prisoner being, Dr Samuel Mudd, who was implicated in the shooting of Abraham Lincoln. He was sentanced to life on Dry Tortugas. However, he was pardoned for putting his life at risk to treat prisoners and staff during an outbreak of yellow fever. The fort has had a very interesting history and actually never fired their cannons in anger, as no one ever challenged its might.

After the tour of the fort we go snorkelling. We can enter the water at south beach and snorkel around the base of the fort all the way to the north beach. The water is a bit murky and the coral is sparse but there are quite a lot of fish and in fact there are big schools of 1,000's of fish that swim all around us, which is fun, as they scatter everywhere when you move through them. We leave Garden Key at 3pm and see a couple of turtles on the journey back and quite a few of the 'flying' fish that skim across the water like when you skim a flat stone.

A quick shower and change because we are off to Mallory Square tonight where there is a nightly Sunset Celebration. There are lots of street performers, live music, stalls and people gather to watch the sun go down at the end of a good day. We settle for a hot dog for dinner as we were fed well on the Yankee Freedom today.

Key West is a bit of a party town, with lots of bars and restaurants. There are a lot of young people here and with the weather being so hot they tend to drink a lot. It also has a bit of a hippy/arty vibe. Good fun though and the nicest of the keys.

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