On Thanksgiving, we were off on an adventure unlike most families in the United States. We were off to board a ferry to Dry Tortugas National Park. This park is located approximately 80 miles west of Key West, Florida in the Gulf of Mexico. It is comprised of 7 islands and numerous coral reefs. It was originally established as a National Monument and covered 47,000 acres, when it became a national park, it was expanded to 64, 700 acres. Bush Key is a nesting site for seabird, specifically the sooty tern. Loggerhead Key has a lighthouse and sea turtles. Garden Key is home of Fort Jefferson, which is where we were headed. There are 3 ways to visit Dry Tortugas, 1) private boat 2) sea plane
or 3) by ferry, which is operated by Yankee Fredom Dry Tortugas National Park Ferry. Our boat was the Yankee Freedom III.
On a side note, while we were waiting for the check-in process to start, we watched a manatee come to the pier for a drink. How cool is that!!
After we checked in, we found a table and stowed our gear and we were on our way.
Once we were at sea, a light breakfast was served. This made our group very happy as we were up very early.
The trip to Dry Tortugas takes about 2 1/2 hours, so there was plenty of time to enjoy the beautiful day.
On our trip to the park, we learned that it was established as a monument in 1935 and in 1992 designated a national park. It averages around 63,000 visitors each year. The group of islands received its name from Ponce de Leon in 1513. His expedition caught 160 sea turtles in the area and referred to the islands as the Tortugas or turtles. In the 1700s, English map makers added Dry to the name due to the absence of fresh water on the islands. The area remained relatively unnoticed until the Louisiana Purchase in 1803 which created attention on the Mississippi River as a major commerce river and the need for protection of cargo ships but also for logistics. A ship sailing around the tip of Florida had to sail out and around Dry Tortugas, due to a series of impassable reefs that stretched from Biscayne, just south of Miami to the Dry Tortugas islands. The war of 1812, gave urgency for a fort but it was not until the acquisition of Florida in 1822, that Dry Tortugas became a major focus for the building of a fort. Construction on the original lighthouse was started in 1825 and was first lit in 1826. It was replaced in 1857 by the lighthouse that still stands today.
Construction of the fort on Garden Key was started in 1847. It was the intent that the fort would be like the Gibraltar of the West. It needed to be big and powerful so as to deter any enemy. As the fort came into view, it was massive.
The Yankee Ferry provides a historical tour of the fort. We decided to take the free tour and then to do some snorkeling.
The fort is surrounded by a moat. In the original planning, the moat was for sewage. The thought was, that the sewage would flow into the moat, the daily tides would then wash the sewage out to sea. However, the tides in this area are only 1-2 feet and not enough to wash the sewage away. This was one of a few design errors.
Our tour guide was a member of the Yankee Freedom III crew named Hollywood. He was a character but he knew the history of the fort.
Depending on weather conditions Fort Jefferson was a 10-20 hour sail from Key West. So the first thing was to establish a water collection system. The engineers planned for 1500 residents to live in the fort and they had to be self-sustaining for a year. 109 cisterns/tanks were placed under the fort. Rain water was collected and distributed through tubes. The water was filtered through the sand into the holding tanks. The tanks could hold 1.5 million gallons of water which was collected from the 30 inch of rain that the island receives each year. Do to movement in the sand, numerous cisterns cracked and were infiltrated with sea water and deemed unusable. However, the 92,000 gallon cistern in the center of the fort’s parade grounds did not crack and is still in use today.
To create a powerful fort, you need cannons. Over 300 cannons were planned to be used. Special flooring had to be brought in to withstand the pounding from the cannon blasts. Special self-closing metal doors were placed over the cannon openings to protect the soldiers.
The fort would have the capability to manually fire 125 cannon balls per minute. Due to the forts design, 125 cannons could be pointed in the same direction at any given time. The 8 inch cannons could fire a 65 lb ball 2 miles, the 10 inch cannon could fire a ball 3 miles. This would give a great sense of security to the fort,
The fort was built with 8 foot thick walls that were 45 feet tall. With construction starting in 1846, the bricks came from the upper part of Florida as well as Alabama. With the start of the Civil War, the bricks had to be shipped from New England. This gives the fort a different look from the bottom 15 feet to the remaining top 30 feet. There were 16 million bricks used to build the fort.
On January 5, 1861, Union Major Arnold Lewis and his artillery soldiers left Boston headed to Fort Jefferson to install and man the cannons. Their ship arrived on January 18th but the ship with the cannons was several days behind. On the morning of the 19th, a Confederate ship sails toward the fort and meets no resistance due to no cannons. It sails up to the fort, the Confederate captain meets Major Lewis on the shore and demands the fort surrender. Major Lewis had to think quickly…he tells the captain that he has 300 cannons inside the fort and the only reason he let the ship sail so close, is so the captain can go back to Florida and tell everyone to stay clear of the fort due to its weaponry. The ploy works, the Confederate captain gets back on his ship and sails away. This is as close as Fort Jefferson ever came to a battle. It’s reputation as a big bad fort, persuaded ships to steer clear and leave the shipping lanes open.
After our tour we walked around the top of the fort, wow what a view.
The top of Fort Jefferson gave us a great view of the parade grounds and inside of the fort.
After our awesome history lesson, our group turned in their completed Jr Ranger/Not so Jr Ranger books, recited their oath and received their pins.
As part of the ferry trip, they serve lunch on the boat. After a very quick sandwich, we headed to the beach to do a bit of snorkeling. The little kids had not snorkeled before so this would be a new experience.
We had a Brown Pelican landed right next to us in the water.
Everyone had a great time. The water was an insane blue color.
It was time for us to leave Dry Tortugas. We hope to get back sometime and stay overnight, as they allow a limited number of people in a beach campground. So it was back on the boat, for our return trip.
Whitney and Wyatt won ice cream bars for earning their Junior Ranger pin and Jodi won a certificate for a return visit to Dry Tortugas.
The day’s events finally caught up with part of our group and the gentle motion of the boat, made a nap a nice option.
The boat ride back to Key West was so beautiful…
And being Thanksgiving, there were not a lot of food options at 7:00pm. We were glad for burgers and hot dogs at Sonics.
A memorable way to end a memorable day.