Part three in a series. Photo gallery below article.
The DeHavilland Otter seemed to travel only a few yards down the runway before the nose abruptly lifted and we were in the air. And with that, just as the pilot had promised, the small plane began to buffet in the high winds. A few minutes later, also as promised, the aircraft made peace with its environment and settled down as we banked around the island of Key West and headed out over the sea.
It was a… sporting takeoff… and I was surprised that none of the 10 passengers aboard threw up.
For the next 40 minutes, the craft flew west, low over “The Flats” and the Marquesas Keys, to a lost city, one never fully completed but with a rich history; one of unparalleled beauty, a place like no other in America. The Dry Tortugas National Park, with Fort Jefferson as the centerpiece, is the least visited of the national parks. It is accessible only by boat or by seaplane.
The wind that had blown hard for days churned up the water on the shallow flats below into an unusual but beautiful milky white and turquoise, soft-looking, almost heavenly and cloud-like. The pilot flew low, pointing out various points of interest: a handful of small, mysterious islands with homes built out into the aquatic wilderness, the remains of a U.S. Navy destroyer that had been sunk and used for bombing practice decades ago, a sunken research ship with the mast still standing tall out of the emerald water.
There is no runway on the Dry Tortugas, the “landing strip” is the open water just off Garden Key and Fort Jefferson. When your landing strip is effectively the Florida Straits, wind and waves are not your friends. The early morning flight with Key West Seaplane Adventures had been cancelled due to rough conditions. A later flight was added in hopes the water would be more accommodating for landing.
Approaching Garden Key, the plane banked low over massive Fort Jefferson, the largest masonry structure in the Western Hemisphere. Construction began in 1846, with concrete largely made from nearby coral and 16 million bricks shipped onto the island. Construction ended by 1876, with the fort still unfinished. With the exception of some of the concrete, everything used to build the fort came from somewhere else, from places as far away as Maine. The circular granite stairways located in the six defensive bastions of the fort were shipped entirely intact from New England.
Upon landing, the DeHavilland Otter suddenly became a boat and we taxied through the water towards the beach. Within minutes of our arrival, the last ferry of the day departed, leaving the island empty save for the National Park Service personnel and a handful of people camping in tents near the beach.
Although a small store with limited hours containing books, trinkets and memorabilia is located in the visitor center, there is nothing available on the island — no food nor water. That generally isn’t a problem for the day visitors, but those camping must bring in everything they would need to survive for the duration of their stay.
The campers were an eclectic mix: a cheerful elderly mother with her beautiful middle-age daughter and a half dozen mostly young men and women. They came to find peace and solitude and there are few places with a greater opportunity for that than Garden Key. Nearly 70 miles from Key West, there is no cell service, no email, no text messages — just beach, water, a massive fort from a distant era and beauty that defies description. My visit was only three hours and I found myself longing for the peace that nightfall would bring to the island.
But throughout history, not everyone shared such romantic and idealistic thoughts. At its peak, nearly 2,000 people lived at Fort Jefferson, the majority of who were soldiers. The fort was intended to be impervious to a naval attack, complete with a moat that served not only as a defensive barrier but also as a component to a tidal flushing sewage system. The latter didn’t always work as planned. Lacking water and fresh food, few of those residents luxuriated themselves in the beauty and instead found themselves mired in misery.
The fort never endured an attack, although there was one close call. At the beginning of the Civil War, shortly after Florida seceded from the Union, the state sent a ship to Fort Jefferson to demand its surrender to Florida. The Union commander of the fort told the ship’s captain in no uncertain terms that the fort would not be surrendered and the ship must leave immediately or it would be destroyed. The ship left.
The commander’s threat was a bluff. It would be another six days before the cannons and artillery would arrive at the fort, thus when Florida demanded its surrender the fort was effectively defenseless but was nonetheless an imposing sight, even from the deck of a warship. Although it held a significant strategic position during the war, it was a less than pleasant post for those stationed there. Disease and chronic shortages of fresh food and water coupled with the heat and an ineffective sewage system made the island less idyllic and more hellish.
Samuel had carved channels into the hard rock that was his floor in an effort to keep the occasional rainwater from soaking his bed. It is unknown whether he tried to save the water for himself. Water was everywhere, dominating the view outside of the window of his cell, but there were few drops to drink. The only thing less scarce than fresh water on this island was freedom.
Dr. Samuel Mudd had been convicted by a military tribunal in 1865 as one of the conspirators in the assassination of President Lincoln and was sentenced to life imprisonment at Fort Jefferson. One woman and three men tried with him were hanged. He spent nearly four years on the island before being pardoned by President Andrew Johnson in 1869. His pardon was no doubt influenced by his assistance during an outbreak of Yellow Fever at the fort. Federal soldiers wrote letters of testimony to his devotion, courage and skill in saving lives during the outbreak. Despite continuing efforts by his family to have his conviction overturned, requests that were reportedly received sympathetically by both presidents Carter and Reagan, his conviction has remained and Mudd’s name remains mud through the casual eyes of history. Fifteen years after his pardon, he died of pneumonia at the age of 49, yet his presence is still felt on the island. He is a part of its history, as much as the channels carved into the floor of a cell.
I stood atop the fort and looked for ghosts — not those of Samuel Mudd or soldiers, but of my own. Fifteen years ago, Michelle and I were at anchor off the fort in our sailboat. The morning before, we had set sail out of Havana after Cuban officials tore apart our boat looking, they said, for guns that we may have forgotten to declare on the stack of papers we signed upon arrival a few days prior. They said it was for our own protection as they pulled up the mattress to our bed in the boat’s forepeak to search the odd-shaped recesses beneath.
The German Shepherd they brought aboard to sniff around our small boat enjoyed the Milk Bone dog treats we kept in the galley.
The night was rough, fighting contrary currents and confused waves, sometimes fighting for inches rather than miles. By daybreak, we were approaching Garden Key, and the sight of the American Flag flying high over Fort Jefferson nearly brought tears to my eyes. Two dolphins swam and leapt in our bow wake to welcome us home.
Unlike Samuel Mudd, my recollections of the place are fond, softened by the passing of time, marking a simpler time in life. From the top of the fort, I squinted my eyes, hoping to see even a shadow of that time, when things seemed clearer, when life itself felt more assured.
The only thing that is assured in life is history, and time soon passed by Fort Jefferson. Before long, advances in being able to blow things up made the once impervious fort much less so. Fort Jefferson, which had never surrendered to any man, was slowly surrendering to the relentless assault of the sea and the weather.
For a time, the island served as a coaling station for naval ships and it was the last port of the USS Maine before it arrived in Havana in 1898, ending with an explosion that sparked the Spanish American War. In 1910, a powerful hurricane damaged the installation and two years later the Navy abandoned the fort, turning it over for use as a quarantine hospital. In 1935, Fort Jefferson was declared a National Monument and was named a National Park in 1992.
The relentless assault of the elements is unabated today. Yet Fort Jefferson remains standing, willing to serve in the defense of the homeland, but acting as a refuge for those seeking peace in the world, and for Cuban refugees seeking a “dry foot” on American soil. The cannons are forever silenced; the only noise in this place is from the chirping and chatter of thousands of fowl at the nearby bird sanctuary.
The American Flag still flies proudly and high over the wondrous and imposing structure. The fort now appears to be at peace with itself. Once a symbol of war, it is now a sanctuary not only for birds but also for those who seek that peace and incomparable beauty. As the seaplane took off and banked over the fort, I noticed a little sailboat bobbing in the water just off the island and I felt convinced that any ghosts that may inhabit it are doing so willingly and happily. Perhaps even my own.
Key West Seaplane Adventures is the only seaplane service to Fort Jefferson and flies year-around, weather permitting. The company provides a small cooler and beverages for each passenger. For information, visit www.keywestseaplanecharters.com. Daily ferry service is also available from Key West, aboard the Yankee Freedom II. For information, visit www.yankeefreedom.com.
By and large the world thinks of Florida as consisting of two places. Ride along next week as we hit one of them: almost a nation unto itself, Florida’s first city.