History: Seventy miles west of Key West,
Florida lies a group of seven islands comprised of coral reefs and
sand. Ponce De Leon discovered these islands in 1513, and named them
Las Tortugas because of the abundance of sea turtles found
there. Today, the islands are now known as the Dry Tortugas, either
because of the lack of any fresh water on the islands or the fact that
Ponce de Leon and his crew found the turtle meat to be very dry.
Since the 1600ís Garden Key was
a favorite haunt for pirates who overtook ships in the Gulf among the
keys, and off Cuba. Once the Government established a naval presence
in Key West, they decided to rid the area of the pirates and liberated
the Dry Tortugas.
The dangerous shoals and reefs
near the Dry Tortugas have destroyed hundreds of ships, leaving a long
legacy of shipwrecks, strandings, and fatalities. Because of the
development of commerce among the Gulf port cities, these well
traveled waters were a treacherous hazard to vessels. The Lighthouse
Board announced that a lighthouse on Garden Key would be one the most
important navigational aids in the United States.
The first lighthouse on Garden
Key was established in 1825, shortly after Florida became a US
territory. The barren island provided only brush and grass, so the
lighthouse keepers set about planting vegetables and coconut trees to
help tide them over between supply ships. They led a lonely and
isolated life until 1846, when the U.S. Army set its sights on
building an imposing military fortification on the island.
Known as the "Gibraltar of the
Gulf", Fort Jeffersonís construction began in 1846, using the
workforce of slaves, Union Army deserters and Confederate war
prisoners. Despite the 30 years of labor, the massive hexagonal fort
was never completed. This light, along with the
Loggerhead Key light, was one of the only Gulf Coast towers staying in
full operation throughout the Civil War.
Following a powerful hurricane
in 1873 and a fever outbreak, the U.S. Army withdrew its forces from
Fort Jefferson and converted the stronghold into a prison for
deserters and criminals. The fort's most famous prisoner was Doctor
Samuel Mudd, who had set the broken leg of John Wilkes Booth after he
killed President Abraham Lincoln.
In 1876, the Lighthouse Board
realized that mariners needed a new beacon at this strategic site
because the first lighthouse, which was damaged from a hurricane, had
been downgraded to a fourth-class harbor light. Officials commissioned
a new Fort Jefferson light 93 feet away from the original structure
with a kerosene-powered Fourth Order Fresnel lens. The new 37-foot
iron tower was built at the top of a 50 foot high parapet in the fort
In 1912 the
lightstation was automated, replacing the butts of kerosene with tanks
of compressed acetylene to fuel the beacon. It continued in operation
for 12 additional years until being decommissioned in 1924.
Restoration: The Fort Jefferson Lighthouse stands silent on an
aging and deteriorating fort structure. Despite the abandonment, the
Lighthouse itself is still in excellent condition and it is often
viewed by visitors to the island for a glimpse of the historic fort,
which is the largest coastal fort in the United States. Proclaimed as
Fort Jefferson National Monument in 1935, the area was redesignated in
1992 as the Dry Tortugas National Park to protect both the historical
and natural features of the islands and their surrounding waters. The
Dry Tortugas is a popular destination for scuba divers seeking
treasures from the sunken hulls of ships. The National Park Service is
actively seeking funding assistance to continue the restoration
efforts of Fort Jefferson.