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Fort Jefferson — The Island Ghost Town

Article by Christine OKelly

Located 70 miles from the Florida Keys is a small and uninhabited island chain named the Dry Tortugas. This was not always the case. This seven island chain, two hours by boat from Key West, was once home to over 1,000 people. These inhabitants lived on Fort Jefferson, a sprawling military complex located on the Garden Key.

The chain is now a ghost town, a historic and abandoned inductee into our National Park system. Over the years, the chain has become a popular tourist attraction. There are many things to see and take in when visiting this unique destination. This article explores three interesting sightseeing trips for those taking a day away from Key West.

The Ghost Complex — Fort Jefferson

The building of Fort Jefferson was a massive undertaking. So massive in fact that it was never completed. Upon Garden Key sits the massive structure. Its footprint takes up the majority of the island. Once upon a time, so did its inhabitants. Comprised of over 16 million bricks and holding 420 cannons, the fort is still the largest masonry structure in the Western Hemisphere. Jefferson was once strictly a military installation, housing soldiers and their families. This would change with the outbreak of the Civil War.

During the war, prisoners were held at the fort. Among the prisoners were four men convicted of conspiracy in the assassination of President Abraham Lincoln. One of those co-conspirators, a doctor, was later pardoned and set free after he helped treat an outbreak of disease on the island. Now a national park, Fort Jefferson is open to visitors every day.

The Dry Tortugas Light — A Light In The Darkness

Sitting three miles from the fort, is another solitary structure. It is far less massive, but it is just as historic and has just as many stories to tell. The Dry Tortugas Light is actually the second lighthouse on the island chain. The first sat atop the fort. However, that lighthouse, the Garden Key Light, became obsolete so a second one was built. Together, these two lighthouses would be the only ones in the gulf to remain open and operational throughout the Civil War. While the former has been demolished, the latter still stands. It has survived hurricanes, storms, war, and the passing of time. The light was made fully automatic in 1988, but before that a person would actually have to live near the tower in order to perform maintenance.

The Lost Islands Of The Dry Tortugas

At one time, the Dry Tortugas were a denser island chain. Some of the islands that were once a part of the chain disappeared in 1875. Along with these phantom islands, two navigational buoys were lost to time. During a guided trip to the area, it is possible to locate the remains of these structures and landmasses. The Iowa Rock and Pulaski Shoal, along with several small islands are all lost to time. However, they are not lost to history, nor inaccessible to vacationers, sightseers, or adventurers.

About the Author

Christine O’Kelly writes for the experts at Best On Key West. They provide information on trips to Fort Jefferson and other Key West attractions.

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