Welcome to Day # 33 of our "365 Parks in 365 Days" adventure! Today we visit the Dry Tortugas National Park off the coast of Florida, one of the most exotic parks in the system, where enslaved Africans made a huge contribution.
Aerial view of Fort Jefferson. NPS Photo.
Here's how I describe it in Legacy on the Land and Our True Nature:
"The Dry Tortugas National Park is one of the most unique national parks in the world. It consists of a chain of seven small islands near the mouth of the Caribbean Sea, the Gulf of Mexico and the Atlantic Ocean. Closer to Cuba than the American mainland, the islands feature a wide diversity of marine life resulting from the confluence of the surrounding waters. Because of its location, the Dry Tortugas area was considered vital to America's coastal defense system and the defense of our shipping channels. Consequently, the largest brick fortification in the western hemisphere was proposed for that site in the mid 1830s, and work progressed on Fort Jefferson from 1846 to 1875.
"The fort of 16 million bricks and 2000 arches was built with the labor of enslaved Africans, many of whom were leased to the government by their "owners," and who were skilled in masonry and brickwork. The workforce included members of the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers and prisoners at the fort.
Crossing the moat into Fort Jefferson.
"The islands of the Dry Tortugas have no fresh water at all. The workers who built the fort ingeniously rigged up a water cistern system that caught rainwater, stored it and distributed it as needed.
"A visit to the Dry Tortugas is like stepping through a window back in time. Approaching the park, you can see the fort shimmering like a mirage on the horizon, eventually resolving itself into the huge red-brick structure straddling Garden Key. The raucous calls of a million shore birds greet you as you coast past Bush Key, and magnificent frigate birds float over the fort. The females' raven black bodies are accented by the white of their head, making them easily distinguishable from the males, whose red throat pouches inflate in breeding season. The birds hover over the boat, seeming just as curious as the visitors are about them. John J. Audubon, the world's most famous ornithologist, conducted many of his bird studies on Bush Key in the 1830s. It's like being in a scene straight out of the Discovery Channel.
Frank got close enough to snap this photo of a male and female Magnificent Frigate bird on the nest.
"There's a moat surrounding the fort that has a wall wide enough to walk on and enjoy the marine life up close and personal. Marine life inside the moat is ever changing, as creatures swim in and out of the ocean, creating the effect of a giant aquarium.
"The entire scene is like an implausible mix of placid nature with the instruments of war superimposed on it, as cannons still loom forbiddingly from the top of the fort. The most amazing thing is that the fort was never used for its original purpose. In 1862, before it was finished, the British developed ammunition that could pierce eight-foot walls, thereby making masonry forts obsolete. However, life and work continued at Fort Jefferson until 1875.
Female Magnificent Frigate Birds on the wing.
"The fort was subsequently used as a prison, its most famous prisoner being Dr. Samuel Mudd who was implicated in the assassination of President Abraham Lincoln because he set John Wilkes Boothe's broken leg.
"The park has a wealth of cultural resources, including a lighthouse on Loggerhead Key, and a reef system that's considered second only to the Great Barrier Reef in Australia for its abundant marine life. In 1908, President Theodore Roosevelt declared the area a wildlife refuge. In 1935, President Franklin D. Roosevelt declared it a national monument to protect Fort Jefferson, and in 1992, Congress designated the area as a national park.
"As we skimmed across the water with our guide and friend Ranger Alan Scott to visit Loggerhead Key, another of the seven islands in the park, a huge, green-speckled loggerhead turtle popped up close to our boat. It looked at us in panic and swiftly submerged. This prompted Ranger Scott to tell us how relieved Ponce de Leon and his men were when they landed on the island in 1513, and found loggerhead turtles in abundance. They had been running short of meat on their trip, and they killed and ate many of the turtles, as well as curing the meat to take on their voyage. Ponce de Leon named the islands for the turtles that saved him.
"The dominant feature of Loggerhead Key is an old lighthouse that survived from the days when the island was a Coast Guard base. As we trooped up the trail we came to a gravesite with a memorial for a dog named "Wally." Apparently, Wally considered himself one of the team of Coast Guardsmen, so he did not appreciate it whenever they went over to Fort Jefferson for frivolities and left him behind. Legend has it that once he jumped into the water and braved the currents, the sharks and other threats, arriving at Port Jefferson tired but satisfied.
"Back at Fort Jefferson, we went for a tour under the full moon. Walking on the ledge of the moat, we saw sea anemones and a huge Queen Conch on the bottom, moving very slowly. Blue-and-green-streaked parrotfish slept in a slimy cocoon they had spun around themselves. We even saw a baby octopus turn itself inside out!
"Frank and I set up our tent on the beach, and went to sleep with the flap open to the sky. The sound of the waves lapping gently nearby, and occasional peals of laughter from the boats anchored nearby, lulled us into a peaceful sleep. When Frank came out of the tent next morning, he saw large animal tracks passing right by the tent. We told the young researcher who was on the island studying the loggerhead turtles, and when she measured the tracks, she told us they were made by a loggerhead turtle weighing between 200 and 250 pounds. Everything was so wild and natural that the line seemed to blur between humans and animals, the past and the present. Everything was in harmony."
Note: If you buy a copy of Our True Nature from my website today (www.legacyontheland.com) you will be helping me buy more copies to use in schools this Black History Month. Your books will be autographed with a personal message of appreciation.)
Publication of "Our True Nature" is supported by Delaware North Parks & Resorts, Forever Resorts and Guest Services.
If you've missed any of our "365 Parks in 365 Days" adventure, find them here (Archive)