Wednesday, February 22, 2017

A City On the Sea

Dry Tortugas - a real city on an ever-changing sea that was a thriving hub of humanity during the Civil War. As many as 2000 people made a home inside the walls of Fort Jefferson - one of the nation's largest masonry forts - built atop a fragile atoll 70 miles west of Key West, Fla. It is now one of the most unusual National Parks you may never  have heard of and its location one of the strangest, the setting being amidst the third largest reef system in the world. . Named after endangered green sea turtles - loggerheads, to be precise - native to the area, the park is actually a cluster of seven islands made up of coral reefs and sand that once stood as a bulwark protecting valuable shipping lanes between the Gulf of Mexico and the US mainland.  At one time 420 canons were in place around the sides.
Begin in 1846, the fort was made of 15 million bricks in an area first discovered and named by Spanish explorer Ponce de Leon in 1513. It only became a US protected park in 1992. Visitors today are strictly regulated and, while swimming, birding and snorkeling are permitted, numbers coming ashore at any one time are small. There is a camp site and a beach landing spot for seaplanes. A catamaran leaves early morning from a Key West marina with as many as 200 customers paying $150 minimum for a return trip. Breakfast and lunch are included, with drinks - even alcoholic concoctions sold late day for $5 each on the mid-afternoon run. That is a total of nearly five hours aboard for the experience of having a guided tour of the historic fort as well as time  to splash and explore around the rough white sandy beaches. Showers and changing rooms are available as well as a hose to wash away the offending sand.
The former city's population consisted of military personnel and their families living in close quarters with slaves and a group of prisoners that included the doctor who had treated President Lincoln's assassin - John Wilkes Booth. The doctor was believed to have been among the sympathizers with knowledge ahead about the event. What's left today is whatever the imagination can supply from empty caverns in the fort (including a chapel) and outlines in the center yard of former living quarters. Uniformed park rangers are on duty ten days at a stretch before promised relief time in Key West - a thriving village-cum-city known for easy living where there is a theater, a movie house and two fine bookstores scattered among a multitude of restaurants and bars.
The  park also is home to a ten-year-old salt water crocodile not thought to be aggressive. But beware: this is a wildlife refuge. Native creatures have priority! No wonder Ernest Hemingway wrote about the place.

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