Dry Tortugas National Park is about 68 miles west of Key West and is in the Gulf of Mexico. This park is home to the seven Dry Tortugas islands and Fort Jefferson, a large unfinished fortress. The islands include archipelago’s coral reefs. The parks most notable characteristics include the sea life, tropical birds, and the vibrant coral reefs. The legends of shipwrecks and sunken treasures have brought people from across the world.
The Islands got their name from
the first European to visit the islands, Juan Ponce De Leon. He visited on June
21, 1513 and caught 160 sea turtles. In result, the Islands were named “Tortugas”
or turtles. The Dry part came from the fact there was a lack of fresh water on
the island. It is home to a sizable military
fortress, Fort Jefferson. It is the largest brick made structure in the western
hemisphere and includes over 16 million bricks. It was built with the goal to
protect the shipping canal that was quite lucrative in the mid-19th
century. The islands are relatively flat in result the reefs were an issue for
ships passing through. Many shipwrecks occurred when the ships were going
through the 75-mile wide straits. Naturally it turned into a “ship trap” and
today it is the site for many shipwrecks. In efforts to try to fix the problem
they built a lighthouse in 1825 to warn ships coming of the reefs. Another larger
lighthouse replaced the first in 1858.
The Fort was used
as a federal prison after the civil war all the way up to 1874. One notable
prisoner that was there was Dr. Samuel Mudd, who aided John Wilkes Booth after
the assassination of President Abraham Lincoln. He originally was sentenced for
life but after averting a yellow fever outbreak in 1865 he was pardoned. After
1874 coal fueled ships were introduced and the Fort was used as a coaling
station through the Spanish-American War.
On October 26, 1992 by an act of
Congress, to protect the reef and wildlife, the islands were re-designated as
Dry Tortugas National Park. This act preserves the history of Fort Jefferson
and the submerged history of shipwrecks marine life that is available to the public.
All national parks were closed including the Dry Tortugas during the government
shutdown from 1995 to 1996. The Key West residents saw this negatively affecting
their tourism-dependent economy, so they raised the money to keep it open. Once
they raised the money they didn’t know who to give it to so they sent several civilian
and fire department boats to Fort Jefferson in order to reopen the national park.
The officials that tried to enter the fort were cited. This went to court but
was quickly dropped.
The park had their highest visitation
in 2000 there was 83,704 visitors. The visitation has decreased over the years
to about 60,000 a year. The island is also a location where immigrants in
homemade boats called “chugs” travel over from Cuba. This is an issue because
the Dry Tortugas has limited resources and a crude radio system for reaching
out to the Coast Guard.
One of the most unique things
about the Dry Tortugas is the undisturbed historical artifacts and ecosystem.
You can get to the islands by seaplane or Dry Tortugas National Park Ferry.
Some activities you can do include scuba diving, saltwater, camping, snorkeling,
fishing, picnicking, bird watching and kayaking. During May and June one can see
the greatest concentration of sea turtles. If you want to stay on the island
overnight, the only option you have is tent camping and there are several
designated sites for this.