Florida's Dry Tortugas National Park, by Ted Cookson

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by Ted Cookson
Published in February 2013
Mallory Square and Sunset Key in Key West, Florida, 32-second video clip

Who would expect to find the largest masonry structure in the Western Hemisphere lying on a small and remote island 109 km (68 miles) west of Key West, Florida?  Dry Tortugas National Park was formed to preserve Fort Jefferson, built of 16 million bricks on Garden Key, and the six other Dry Tortugas.  These isolated islands, which all lack fresh water, are the westernmost of Floridaís keys.   

The U. S. built a 20-meter (65-foot)-high brick lighthouse at this location in 1826, and then construction on the never-to-be-finished huge hexagonal Fort Jefferson finally began in 1846.  Named after Thomas Jefferson, the third U. S. president, the fort was designed as a platform for over 400 heavy guns and was meant to safeguard American shipping at the entrance to the Gulf of Mexico.  Amazingly, nearly 2,000 people were living on site at one point during the construction.  Although fresh water cisterns, designed to be refilled by rainwater, were built into its walls, cracks in the fortís masonry due to subsidence soon allowed seawater to pollute the fresh water.

Federal forces retained control of Fort Jefferson during the U. S. Civil War; and by the end of the conflict in 1865 the fortís population had fallen to 1,013, of whom 527 were prisoners.  Most of those in detention were deserters who had been apprehended, whereas most civilians being held there had been accused of robbery.  In mid-1865 a party of four civilian prisoners was brought to the fort.  These men had been convicted of conspiracy in the assassination of President Abraham Lincoln.  The most famous of these was Dr. Samuel Mudd who, after providing exemplary medical attention to the fort occupants during an 1867 yellow fever outbreak, was later pardoned and sent home.

In 1888 Fort Jefferson was converted into a quarantine station since the facilityís limited military usefulness was no longer thought to justify the high annual maintenance costs.  In 1935 President Franklin Roosevelt visited Garden Key by ship and designated the area a U. S. national monument.  Finally in 1992 the seven isolated keys and fort were declared a U. S. national park.  

A day trip from Key West to Dry Tortugas National Park is a fun adventure for the whole family and will provide many happy memories.  A comfortable ferry and a faster catamaran service offer 9- or 10-hour day trips with round trip prices from US$165 per person.  See www.yankeefreedom.com for details.  A more-expensive 35-minute-per-way seaplane service also operates.  See www.tinyurl.com/jeffair for more information.  Key West is a three-hour drive south of Miami.  Round trip restricted economy class airfare from Cairo to Miami begins at about EGP 6,600.


ABOUT TED COOKSON:  Egypt's most widely-traveled travel agent, Ted has been to every country in the world!  He has also visited 316 of the 321 destinations on the list of the Travelers' Century Club (visit www.eptours.com and refer to World Travel Club).  A travel agent in Cairo since 1986, Ted manages EGYPT PANORAMA TOURS, a full-service travel agency, at 4 Road 79 (between Roads 9 and 10, near the "El Maadi" metro station) in Maadi.  Contact Egypt Panorama Tours (open 7 days a week 9 AM-5 PM) at:  Tels. 2359-0200, 2358-5880, 2359-1301.  Fax 2359-1199.  E-mail:  ept@link.net.  Web site:  www.eptours.com

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