Dry Tortugas National Park

The first European to see the Dry Tortugas was Juan Ponce de León, who visited on June 21, 1513. Ponce de León caught 160 sea turtles there and subsequently referred to the islands as the “Tortugas” (turtles). They are called Dry owing to the absence of surface fresh water on the island. The archipelago includes a high concentration of historically significant shipwrecks dating from the 17th century to the present. The Dry Tortugas were a significant American naval base from colonial times to the early 20th century, providing a sheltered anchorage and coaling station through the Spanish–American War.

Florida was acquired from Spain by the United States in 1822. The Dry Tortugas were seen as a strategic point for the control of the Straits of Florida and the Gulf of Mexico. In 1847, the construction of a lighthouse began. In 1856, a more powerful lighthouse on Loggerhead Key replaced the Garden Key Light.

Work was half completed in 1860. Construction continued into the American Civil War, but eventually stopped, and the fort was used as a military prison. Dr. Samuel Mudd and three others were charged with conspiracy in the assassination of President Abraham Lincoln. They were imprisoned. Mudd was pardoned in 1869 after averting a viral outbreak. This use as a military prison continued until 1874. With the introduction of coal-fueled ships, the Dry Tortugas became a coaling station for U.S. Navy ships.

Fort Jefferson (top left and right pics above) was a massive but unfinished coastal fortress. It was built between 1846 & 1875 to protect the nation’s gateway to the Gulf of Mexico. Supply and subsidence problems and the Civil War delayed construction. The fort was never completed because of fears that additional bricks and cannon would cause further settling and place more stress on the structure and the cistern system. Distinguishing features include decorative brickwork and 2,000 arches. Time, weather, and water continue to take their toll, necessitating ongoing stabilization and restoration projects.

The Fort Jefferson National Monument was designated by President Franklin D. Roosevelt under the Antiquities Act on January 4, 1935. The monument was expanded in 1983 and redesignated as Dry Tortugas National Park on October 26, 1992, by an act of Congress. Dry Tortugas is managed by the staff of Everglades National Park. The park was established to protect the island and marine ecosystems of the Dry Tortugas, to preserve Fort Jefferson and submerged cultural resources such as shipwrecks, and to allow for public access in a regulated manner.

During the United States federal government shutdowns of 1995–1996, Dry Tortugas was closed along with all other national parks. Seeing this as having a damaging effect on their tourism-dependent economy, the residents of Key West, Florida, raised money to keep Dry Tortugas open. The effort was inspired by the Smithsonian Institution, which raised private donations to keep its museums open during the shutdown.

Failing to find anybody to accept the money to reopen the park, Key West residents, under the auspices of the satirical micronation Conch Republic, sent a flotilla of civilian boats and fire department boats to Fort Jefferson in order to reopen the national park. When officials attempted to enter the fort, they were cited. The citation was contested in court the following year, and the resultant case, The United States of America v. Peter Anderson, was quickly dropped.

The park is a landing location for immigrants arriving from Cuba in homebuilt boats. Receiving and housing the migrants is a particular problem for Dry Tortugas, which has limited resources for such arrivals and which is several hours from the nearest Coast Guard or Border Patrol units.

Grade: A

REFERENCE: Google Earth

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