Tag Archives: Mini-Vacation

From Ponce de Leon to Dr. Mudd: A Mini-Vacation

26 Sep

I have visited a very large number of U.S. National Parks, and have lots of opinions about them: Denali (in Alaska) was cool, but it was rainy and cloudy in the dead of summer. Glacier (in Montana) was gorgeous, but the roads are enough to scare anyone. The Olympics (in Washington) were…pretty much exactly like the rest of Washington- but the hot springs were great! Without a doubt, though, my favorite National Park is Dry Tortugas (in Florida).

First off, doesn’t it just sound cool? You say “Dry Tortugas” and it immediately puts me in mind of pirates and Caribbean adventures (Pirates of the Caribbean, anyone?) Second, it is Florida, which as you’ll notice, is a lot warmer and more southerly than any of the other National Parks I’ve visited. Third, just look at it:

Doesn’t it just look awesome? Dry Tortugas National Park also goes by the name “Fort Jefferson”. Besides being arguably one of the prettiest National Parks, it also has the distinction of being the least visited. They can barely even maintain having more than two volunteer Park Rangers at any time. How could that possibly be, you ask? Well, you may have noticed that the park is an island, but what that picture doesn’t show you is that Dry Tortugas is four hours away by speed boat from the nearest inhabited part of America (Key West, FL). Its closer to Cuba than the United States (the only reason it has any Park Rangers at all is that illegal immigrants are constantly trying to land themselves on this island).

Besides having more Cuban “visitors” than American tourists, the island has a really cool history. It was first discovered by Ponce de Leon in 1513, who gave it the name Dry Tortugas (“tortugas” for all the turtles he caught on the island and “dry” because it doesn’t have any fresh water). Nobody really bothered with the island again until after the Spanish sold Florida to the U.S. Commodore John Rodgers thought the island might make a decent naval outpost and started construction in 1846. Since Rodgers wanted Fort Jefferson to serve as an advance warning spot in case of danger coming from the Caribbean or the Gulf of Mexico, he made sure that it was heavily armed. Despite the dedication of decades and a ton of federal resources, the fort was never fully completed. Five points if you can guess why.

You get five points if you guessed the Civil War! Fort Jefferson played an interesting role in the War of Northern Aggression: it served as a prison for prisoners of war. Surprisingly, one of the southernmost bits of U.S. territory actually belonged to the Union during the Civil War. They didn’t even have to halt construction during the war because they switched from using slaves to prisoners for free labor. One thing you might notice in the pictures is that the top layers of the fort have different color bricks than the lower levels. This is because when construction started, they brought bricks in locally from Florida and other southern states, whose bricks are naturally a more reddish-orange color. Once the war started, their supply was cut off and they have to import bricks from as far north as Maine (these bricks have the darker red color).

During the Civil War, when the fort was used as a prison for captured Confederates, the population of the fort had as many as 2,000 people. However, the lack of fresh water on the island made disease a big problem. The sickness that riddled the island was as much a danger for the prisoners as it was for their Union soldier guards and all of the fort staff. Their shared near-death experiences tended to bring the inhabitants of the island together, and in 1865, the Unionists who had been on the island petitioned the U.S. government to get official pardons for the Confederates who had been imprisoned there. One of their most well-known prisoners was Dr. Samuel Mudd, who aided President Lincoln’s assassin, John Wilkes Booth. In 1867, a particularly bad epidemic of yellow fever hit the island, killing a majority of the island’s inhabitants, including the fort’s only on-staff physician. The remaining residents turned to Mudd for medical help to see them through the epidemic. His work to save the lives of the people on the island garnered their respect, and they helped him to get a an official pardon from Andrew Johnson.

Author’s Note: You may have noticed the gratuitous amount of pictures in this post. This is because its rainy and cold out in the real world, so I thought I’d give everyone a mini vacation to the Florida Keys. Also, some of these are my own pictures, and I’m proud of them. Enjoy.