By Debi Lander
“You’re standing in front of Dr. Mudd’s cell,” said the park ranger at Dry Tortugas National Park. “He was an inmate for four years.” During the Civil War, Fort Jefferson served as a prison and physician Samuel Mudd, found guilty of conspiracy in President Lincoln’s assassination (he claimed innocence), was its most famous prisoner. He’s the doctor who set John Wilkes Booth’s broken leg.
Today, the fort, an immense structure of repetitive brick columns and arches, lies within Dry Tortugas National Park, pretty much in the middle of nowhere. Not surprisingly, it’s one of the least visited National Parks.
I boarded an early morning National Park ferry in Key West, already the southernmost tip of the U.S., for the 70-nautical mile ride farther out. The day trip includes breakfast and lunch, as no food or water is available on the island. No sooner had I finished my cup of coffee when the boat crossed into a flatness of water. I felt like a shrunken sailor, minimized by the surrounding gray skies and a watery abyss. I could see nothing in any direction except for the fog and the sea.
About two and a half hours later, the captain announced our impending arrival. Ahead, the skeletal remains of the fort rose from the Gulf like a ghost town set within tropical terrain — the bizarre ruins of Fort Jefferson encompassing nearly all of the small island.
I joined the others leaving the ferry and unpacked my camera despite the dark clouds and drizzling rain. I’d come to investigate a National Park few are fortunate enough to see. And fortunate I was; soon the clouds cleared and the sun began to shine.
As I wandered around the grounds, the walls of this behemoth six-sided structure began to speak. They moaned with pain and hardship from those who died here due to the lack of freshwater and rampant yellow fever. Dr. Mudd helped out during the yellow fever epidemic and was later pardoned; however, he was never accepted back into society, which many believe is the origin of the phrase “your name is mud.” A quick check reveals the falsehood.
Today, the National Park in the Gulf of Mexico protects 64,000 acres, but only 93 of those acres float above water. It’s the farthest offshore National Park in the U.S. system. Transport by ferry boat or seaplane is the only way to arrive.
The park survives mainly as a bird and marine sanctuary, drawing birders to the migration of terns. Snorkelers and scuba divers like to explore the shipwrecks and some of the most pristine coral reefs in North America. The islands sport more loggerhead and green sea turtle nests than anywhere else in North America. Unobstructed dark starry nights attract some astronomy enthusiasts who camp out with park permits. Historians love the site, too, but most are day-trippers.
The park ranger’s guided tour tells the story of 16 million bricks. “The structure is a 45-foot-high, three-level hexagon, whose 2,000 archways run half a mile around. Still unfinished after nearly 30 years of on-and-off construction, the nicknamed ‘Gibraltar of the Gulf’ succumbed in 1874 to yellow fever, hurricane damage, and the new rifled cannon, which rendered its eight-foot-thick walls obsolete.”
The fort was revived in 1898 as a Navy coaling station and then permanently abandoned in 1907. In 1935, President Franklin D. Roosevelt named it a national monument, and it became a U.S. National Park in 1992. A visit makes a great escape.
Check for park opening/closing information: https://www.nps.gov/drto
Florida Keys information: https://fla-keys.com
Visit www.bylandersea.com to read more of local travel writer Debi Lander’s stories and travel tips.
Photo courtesy Debi Lander