Marquesas, Dry Tortugas & Fort Jefferson
At the southernmost tip of the Continental United States lies the island paradise of Key West with its own unique charm and laid back lifestyle – Famous for Hemingway, sunset celebrations and much more. However the end of US 1 is just the beginning to America’s most inaccessible National Park – The Dry Tortugas – Fort Jefferson on Garden Key.
The Marquesas Keys, not to be confused with the Marquesas Islands in the Pacific Ocean, form an uninhabited island group about 30 miles west of Key West, 4 miles in diameter, and overgrown by mangrove. They are protected as part of the Key West National Wildlife Refuge. The Marquesas were used for target practice by the military as recent as 1980. The islands are part of the Florida Keys, separated from the rest of the Florida Keys, which are further east, by the Boca Grande Channel. Only the Dry Tortugas are further west, 36 miles (60 km) west of the Marquesas Keys.
The central lagoon is called Mooney Harbor. The northernmost key is the largest and has a strip of sandy beach free of mangrove. In the past it was known as “Entrance Key”. It surrounds the lagoon in the north and east. Adjoining in the south are smaller keys such as Gull Keys, Mooney Harbor Key, and finally about four unnamed keys in the southwest corner of the island.
Six miles (10 km) west of the Marquesas Keys is Rebecca Shoal. One of our favorite fishing grounds for over night trips.
Fort Jefferson is located on Garden Key. It was built in the mid 1800s with over 16 million bricks. It was originally built to protect the Gulf of Mexico shipping lanes where ships traveled from the Mississippi River to the Atlantic Ocean around the Florida peninsula. The fort’s location is perfectly situated at the edge of the loop current part of the Gulf Stream that curves up into the upper Gulf of Mexico. This current made for a natural navigation for sailing ships. Many ships would pass within a cannon’s range however the fort never fired a shot during its history. The lighthouse at Garden Key was constructed in 1825 and still operates today. While construction of Fort Jefferson began in 1846, the fort was never completed. When the rifle cannon was invented the eight foot thick walls were no longer impregnable. Thus, the fort was rendered obsolete before completion. Construction went on for 30 years to complete the outpost. It remains the largest masonry structure in the Western Hemisphere. Fort Jefferson was used as a military prison during the Civil War. During that time, it was home to Dr. Samuel Mudd, who was convicted of treating John Wilkes Booth after President Lincoln’s assassination. The harbor is also home to giant Goliath Grouper and numerous Tarpon.
The Dry Tortugas National Park located 70 miles west of Key West, Florida consists of seven tiny islands composed of coral reefs, white sandy beaches and the surrounding tropical waters. The area is known for its famous bird and marine life, and its legends of pirates and sunken gold, and sheer unspoiled beauty. Ft. Jefferson, the largest of the 19th century American coastal forts is a central feature. When Ponce De Leon originally discovered these islands (in 1513) he named them “Las Tortugas” (meaning “the turtles” in Spanish) because of the abundance of sea turtles that provisioned his ships with fresh meat, but there was no fresh water – the Tortugas were dry. Even though hunting drastically reduced their numbers, many varieties of the species are still present in the area. The Dry Tortugas National Park is dominated by its central feature, the majestic Fort Jefferson – the largest 19th century coastal fort.