Fort Jefferson is a massive but unfinished coastal fortress. A small island called Bush Key, later called Garden Key, was selected as the site for the lighthouse, which became known as Garden Key Light. Construction began in 1825 and was completed in 1826. The 65-foot lighthouse was constructed of brick with a whitewashed exterior.
A small white cottage for the lighthouse keeper was constructed beside the lighthouse. The design called for a four-tiered six-sided 1000 heavy-gun fort, with two sides measuring 415 feet, and four sides measuring 564 feet.
The walls met at corner bastions, which are large projections designed to allow defensive fire along the faces of the walls they joined. The heavy guns were mounted inside the walls in a string of open casemates, or gunrooms, facing outward toward the sea through large openings called embrasures.
Fort Jefferson was designed to be a massive gun platform, impervious to assault, and able to destroy any enemy ships foolhardy enough to come within range of its powerful guns. Fort Jefferson’s peak military population was 1,729.
In addition, a number of officers brought their families, and a limited number of enlisted personnel brought wives who served as laundresses (typically four per company). There were also lighthouse keepers and their families, cooks, a civilian doctor and his family, and others. In all, there were close to 2,000 people at Fort Jefferson during its peak years.
Dry Tortugas National Park is a national park in the USA about 68 statute miles (109 km) west of Key West in the Gulf of Mexico. The park preserves Fort Jefferson and the seven Dry Tortugas islands, the westernmost and most isolated of the Florida Keys.
Nearly thirty years in the making (1846-1875), Fort Jefferson was never finished or fully armed, yet it was a vital link in a chain of coastal forts that stretched from Maine to California. Fort Jefferson, the most sophisticated of these, was a brilliant and undeniable symbol that the United States wanted to be left alone.
Though never attacked, the fort fulfilled its intended role. During the Civil War, Union warships used the harbor in their campaign to blockade Southern shipping. The fort was also used as a prison, mainly for Union deserters. Its most famous prisoner was Dr. Samuel Mudd, the physician who set the broken leg of John Wilkes Booth.
Visitors to the fort today are told that Dr. Samuel Mudd was the fort’s most famous prisoner. He was the doctor who set the leg of John Wilkes Booth, who broke it while fleeing the Ford Theatre after assassinating President Lincoln.
Booth then stayed the night at Mudd’s house, but it is unclear whether he knew of Booth’s actions or not. Though he was pardoned, his conspiracy conviction was never overturned. Today, many people visit the Dry Tortugas National Park every year, with Fort Jefferson as the main focal point.
It is a haven for bird-watchers, with nearly 300 different species present. Seven species are found here frequently and nest within the park. They include the Sooty Tern, Brown Noddy, Brown Pelican, Magnificent Frigatebird, Masked Booby, Roseate Tern, and Mourning Dove.