HOW DID AMERICA’S SUPERFORTRESS BECOME A NATURAL PARADISE?
It was one of the most ambitious construction projects in U.S. history. For about a quarter of a century, sailing schooners had hauled 16 million bricks, mostly from Pensacola, to the 42-acre island of Garden Key, a four-day sea voyage away. There, some 70 miles across the water from Key West, Florida, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers built Fort Jefferson, the largest brick masonry structure in the Americas.
The design called for a six-sided fort with corner bastions for defensive fire along the 45-foot-tall walls. Construction began in late 1846, and by the time the seawall was finished in 1872, the Department of War had equipped the fort with 243 large caliber guns. They were never fired. Frequent hurricanes and yellow fever epidemics led the Army to withdraw the garrison in 1874, leaving behind only a caretaker force. At the height of its usage, the island’s population was almost 2,000, including children and women, one of whom described it as “a dark, mean place.” During the Civil War, Fort Jefferson was used to house prisoners, including four men convicted in the plot to assassinate President Lincoln. Fort Jefferson is now part of Dry Tortugas National Park, a haven for a diverse array of wildlife, including stingrays, sea turtles, birds, and coral reef fish.