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Road Less Traveled: Fort Jefferson

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On a distant island enveloped by sparkling turquoise waters, the brutally strong brick fortress known as Fort Jefferson creates quite a contrast. The fort is located 70 miles west of Key West, Florida, and accessible only by ferry, seaplane or private boat. Logic would dictate that few people would make the journey to the historic location. Yet in-the-know visitors are wise to secure reservations well in advance to visit one of the most remote sites in the U.S. National Park System.

Located within Dry Tortugas National Park, Fort Jefferson is both a mighty military outpost and a construction marvel. It’s one of the largest brick masonry structures in the Americas. More than 16 million bricks were used from 1846-1875 to create a six-sided, three-tier fort that was never finished. From this island perch along one of the world’s busiest shipping lanes, American ships sailing between the Gulf Coast and the eastern seaboard were protected from enemy advances. Though up to 420 heavy guns could be ready to defend the strategic deep-water anchorage, the fort was never attacked.

Discovered by Ponce de Leon in 1513, the seven small islands of the Dry Tortugas have been a stop for many notable residents. Ernest Hemingway was once marooned at Fort Jefferson for 17 days during a powerful tropical storm. John James Audubon visited to document some of the island’s more than 200 bird species. Yet, perhaps the most talked about resident is Dr. Samuel Mudd, the physician who set the broken leg of John Wilkes Booth. Mudd was pardoned from his life sentence at the prison after helping island residents during the 1867 yellow fever epidemic.

Snorkeling, sandy beaches and unique primitive camping now beckon adventurers, along with history buffs. As the bastion now wages a battle against the strong coastal environment that is slowly eroding and damaging the structure, the storied stronghold seems uncharacteristically fragile.

(Traveler Summer 2020)

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