Photographer: Merle Bishop

Photographer: Merle Bishop


Tortugus Harbor Light (Fort Jefferson)

Garden Key/Dry Tortugus, FL

Built: 1824, 1876

Construction: 1st Tower - Brick

2nd Tower - Boilerplate Iron

Status: Inactive / Dry Tortugus National Park

Height: Iron tower - 37 feet, total height - 87 feet

Location: Fort Jefferson (Garden Key), Dry Tortugas, Florida

Access: The lighthouse is located on Garden Key which lies approximately 70 miles west of Key West. Garden Key can be accessed by boat (passenger ferry from Key West) or seaplane (Seaplanes can be chartered at the Key West airport). The park is open all year round. Fort Jefferson is open during daylight hours, closed at dark. You must provide your own existence, the park has no housing, fresh water, concession (meals), bathing facilities, or supplies. A ten-site primitive campground is available on a first-come, first-serve basis. The fee is $3 per person, per night.

Photographer: Merle Bishop

Lighthouse 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 walls.

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.

Photograph courtesy of: National Park Service, U.S. Department of the Interior

Aerial view of Garden Key and Fort Jefferson.


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