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The Dry Tortugas: The Keys and the Fort

Harper's New Monthly Magazine


A long the twenty-fourth parallel of north latitude, near to the tropical line, and extending westward into the Gulf of Mexico about one hundred miles from the southern extremity of Florida, are numerous mound-like ridges of white sand, that have, through influence of tide and wind, been dumped above the waters of the Gulf from that vast bed of ddbris known as the Florida Reef. On the extreme western portion of the reef is the group anciently called, and Spanishly, Tortugas; familiarly denominated Tugases by the wreckers, and latterly known to the world as "The Dry Tortugas."

These islands derive their appellative, "Key through several corruptions from the Spanish Cayo, aa "islet," and the specific title Tortuga —"tortoise"—from the huge sea turtles that yet frequent them. "Dry" they were called in contradistinction to the vast tract of wet reef which at low-water nearly reaches the surface.

If you were to approach the Dry Tortugas, bound in from the north, the "Keys" of the Florida Reef would be in sight on your right, or starboard quarter; the pale, whitish blue of the sea reveals the coral bottom of the reef which you are just clearing to avoid the current of the Gulf Stream, whose deep blue waters are on the opposite side. On the western horizon a solitary tower rises into elegant proportion, looking more like a monument than the usual form of a light-house, so much of architectural beauty it has; and this is Loggerhead Light. Soon the lesser tower of Garden Key Light and the battlements and bastion towers of Fort Jefferson appear. How much this all looks like some fairy scene, some floating castle! and then, if it is evening, and the sun has just gone down, what a glorious picture you have! a tropical sunset; radiant with grandeur over the whole arch of the heavens; effulgent with all the glory of color; a fitting back-ground for the noble art-forms of this great fortress in the sea.

Little white islands crowned with mangrove and cedars now appear surrounding, ring-like, the central harbor. Between these islets a belt of shoals or reef, whereon the surf breaks violently, presents at three different points openings to the narrow, winding channels which lead to the impregnable structure within.

While we are waiting the ceremonies of the officer who must visit the vessel before she is allowed to enter, we will add a word of history.

In 1819 the King of Spain sold Florida to the United States for five millions of dollars. After a time our Government considered that the Tortugas should be fortified, that such a strong-hold should not be left for other nations to occupy in time of war. So, about the year 1847, Fort Jefferson was commenced on Garden Key, an island of thirteen acres, standing centrally in the group, and surrounded by a deep channel or harbor. Here was an oldfashioned light-house; and here, sixty miles from human habitation, lived the keeper; his home a Swiss-like structure with a broad veranda, before which stood two old cocoa-nut palms, whose wonderfully large leaves gave grateful shade, and whose fruit furnished cool, delicious beverage and meat. This old cottage, which was lately removed, is made the scene of one of Cooper’s novels—"Jack Tier."

Relics of the Buccaneers are occasionally found upon the reef; long guns of iron and brass, one of which is preserved at Fort Jefferson. The Keys of Florida and the neighboring West India Islands were long the resort of freebooters. French, English, and Dutch were among them; and it is said that they were held together by all the force of martial law. It is not many years since the remnant of this piratical band were hunted away by the vessels of our West India squadron. Spanish coin has been found on the Keys. Captain Benner, the light-keeper at Tortugas, recovered something over a thousand dollars of silver money at East Key.

Once in the central harbor of Tortugas it is easy to see why it will be a work of extraordinary strength, and consequently one of great importance to the country. Fort Jefferson, the citadel, will be surrounded by a continuous line of fortifications and heavy batteries, covering an area of eight or nine miles in diameter; guarding closely the three narrow and extremely labyrinthian channels of approach.

Fort Jefferson is an imposing structure. As we see it from the harbor two long faces or "curtains" are visible, each pierced and arranged, including the huge bastions, for one hundred and thirty-two heavy guns—the whole work mounting near five hundred. The walls rise from the very sea, and are only protected from it by a low wall which incloses a moat sixty feet in width. A heavy cornice or castellated battlement gives a noble and picturesque feature; and at each bastion the round towers furnish fine stairways of granite, and are surmounted with pointed roofs, which, with the modern traverse magazines on the top of the parapet, some sixty feet from the base, give more the effect of the ancient castle than is seen in other works of this country. The sallyport is the only entrance; and here is a drawbridge and heavy gates, over which are cells where the conspirators are incarcerated.

Since the establishment of the military prison here it has been necessary to maintain a heavy guard. At present the garrison consists of four companies of the Fifth United States Artillery.

On entering the fort the stranger is surprised to see a pleasant parade-ground of fine Bermuda grass—the choicest of all lawn grasses—and large groups of evergreen mangroves and buttonwoods. Towering above all are the elegant plumes of the cocoa palm. A neat walk leads to the officers’ quarters through an arching group of mangroves, flanked by long rows of ordnance material. And as we approach head-quarters a beautiful group of mangroves is seen, furnished with shady seats and lounging places, where the ever acceptable hammock swings invitingly.

The building for officers’ quarters is, probably, one of the finest in the army. A threestory brick block, four hundred feet in length, having large, handsomely-finished rooms and verandas. The soldiers’ barracks opposite are similar, and of the same dimensions, and are the finest in the country. The hospital, chapel, commandant’s quarters, and the various store-houses, are planned on the same scale of liberality for comfort and elegance.

Across the parade is a cottage, vine-clad and cozy. Some one has facetiously called it "Boffin’s Bower." Take possession of the hammock which hangs under the veranda, and while enjoying the luxury of a swing, see what it is to live out of door. Here in the cold month of November or December, or any time in the year, is the same display of rich foliage and flowers. The veranda, band-rail, pillars, and all festooned and draped with jasmines, Thunbergias, morning glories, and cypress vines. Dick, the canary, jubilant with song, has also a home in the Bower.

It is very curious the way some of these plants act that we have known in the cold North: they shoot up from the seed joyously, and grow jollily; they revel in the sunshine and shower; they yield graciously their nectar to the Southern butterflies and humming-birds, and smile all over with charming effiorescence until fall; and then some of them appear to be nonplused. They look as if they wanted to say, "What shall we do nextgo on?"

They do go on, reassured by the continued genial warmth. Thunbergia has covered itself with glory, and now over a year old, is a perfect galaxy of white stars. The four-o’clocks are quite like shrubs, and no evening sun fails to receive a gentle courtesy from these manycolored marvels.

The Dry Tortugas is not a perfect desert; most plants and tropical trees will flourish here. here, at the end of the veranda, is a group of splendid bananas, and they have borne most delicious fruit; and their leaves are very grand and beautiful. These bananas are nearly ready to bear. When they get to be about fifteen feet high they are ready to fruit; and that takes only one year, for this is only an annual. As soon as one bunch of bananas has ripened the plant dies, and others shoot up from the root to bear the next year. The stalk is not hard like a tree, although it is ten inches in diameter at the base. It is just like the corn-stalk, full of sweet juice, as old Tom and Bess, our rabbits, and old Bon, our pet goat, well know. The blossom is quite showy and graceful as it hangs drooping from the top, its rich purple sheath contrasting finely with the rich green of the broad, arching leaves—leaves six feet in length and a foot and a half in width.

On the brick wall of the house, climbing nearly to the top, is the night-blooming cereus —long, triangular joints of green, which throw out numerous thread like feelers that cling. closely to the wall. What a glorious show they made last summer! With their great pondlily-like flowers opening their pure white petals at evening, and sending forth rich perfume until morn. Here is a banyan or wild fig, much like the banyan of the East Indies, for it throws down great numbers of slender branches to the ground, where they take root and support the horizontal limbs. On the fence grows one of the curious "air plants"—orchids. This specimen we found growing upon the dead limb of a tree at old Fort Dallas, on the Miami River, in Southern Florida, near the Everglades. It is a singularly beautiful object, having long spikes or heads, like wheat, that are richly colored, scarlet and blue with yellow anthers. The plant resembles the pine-apple. Gum trees, castor-oil plants, date palms, and the curious, palm-like tapioca plant are here.

Those large clumiis of maritime lilies are perfectly at home in the salt sand-soil, and give confidence to the tender gladiolas, and crocus, and dyeletras; for, bless you, if those timid bulbs that have just come from the cold North should find out how near they lie to old Ocean! Don’t speak of it; but thrust your walking-stick half its length into their bed and you come to salt-water—the sea! Some oldfashioned roots, coffined in soil from a nice Northern garden we wot of, and some old-fashioned flowering annuals, have been cheering us all winter with their bright faces. Marigolds, larkspurs, and hollyhocks are among them. The great vine which covers much of the cottage— an Ipomcea—is a native here, and is surnamed Bona Nox, or good-night, because it blooms about bedtime. This is a wonderful vine; every night during the past year hundreds of large salver-shaped white trumpets bloom out, and remain open until sunrise, reflecting the quaint music of the midnight sphinx in concert with the great ophicleides of the night-blooming cactus.

Outside the fort is an old, abandoned building which once bore the name of Hospital, but latterly it was more like a curiosity shop. One apartment the surgeon held as private—

"And in this room a tortoise hung,
An alligator stuffed, and other skins
Of ill-shaped fishes; and about his shelves
A beggarly account of empty boxes,
Green earthen pots, bladders, and musty seeds."

And, no joke, "periwinkles and pickled snakes." An old and valued janitor was here attendant— of Scottish make—with a beaming, ruddy face, and teeth that threatened to push through bodily at every word. Kind, generous Busby! here he was happy; though his hammock which now held his rheumatic limbs was often and long on the briny deep. Busby was here the presiding spirit. Two Charleys make up a trio whose source of pleasure was centred here, and whose company we may wish on various occasions in excusions over the coral reef’s.

"Fat Charley" was a prisoner; a good-natured, ingenious fellow, invaluable as a boatman, and a daring diver. He was one of the unfortunate ones who were put in confinement, as they say, "for just missing a roll-call." Charley thought it rather hard that he should be treated so for "merely obeying orders;" for he, as he said, was ordered by his Colonel at Bull Run to retreat. So he retreated to Vermont, and, finding that the regiment had not followed, waited for further orders.

"Young Charley" was an excellent diver too. And with Fat Charley and Busby and the boat—the Rosetta!little else was needed for a lively time on the coral reefs. Quaint old balconies and verandas were on the old hospital, and away up in the peak or gable end was Busby’s balcony look-out. Here, as he said, he took "dead loads of comfort." He kept an old, dilapidated spy-glass up there that had been made of two others still older, that you couldn’t possibly see any thing with; and this was an abundance of satisfaction to him. Righton the peak over the balcony was a neat vane, and the letters indicating points of compass; this one of the prisoners made for him, and, as he had carefully set it by a ship’s compass, here was satisfaction again to know precisely where the wind was.

The Rosetta was built in Boston, so we think she was better for that; and she was so important in the service of reef-hunting, and as we thought so beautiful, we can’t refrain from introducing her here. She was "lap-streak" gig-built, and seventeen feet long. We had a fancy to have her painted completely on the outside with vermilion, and on the inside with white, and she was a gay object on the blue sea in the bright sunshine. After a while we painted pure white. She had a deck forward which came aft about five feet, and a deck aft about two feet in length, with a copper traveler across it at the stern. The gratings and tiller were of mahogany, and the stern-sheets were trimmed with the same. Her name was on the stern in copperblock-letters. Side-boards onthe gunwale aft were decorated with marine views. On the bulk-head was a medallion of curly-head Rosetta. Each side fore and aft was boxed in flush with the gunwale and decks, and just wide enough to inclose a five-inch air-tight cylinder. This was sufficient to make her so much of a life-boat that she would not sink when she was Lull of water’ and five persons in her. She was schooner-rigged, with "spritsail," the foresail being the largest. The foremast had a neat copper vane and a "fly" of red bunting. With a good anchor, painter, sculls, grains or harpoon, and the indispensable "monkey" or water-cooler, the Rosetta was in good sailing condition. She was not cranky, had good bearings, carried none but live ballast, and running before the wind free could distance any thing of her size, or, as Busby used to say, could "tak’ the consait out o’ ony yer croft."

Fat Charley was splendid ballast, for he weighed over two hundred pounds. Busby always sat forward, amidships, and looked after the fore-sheets. When Fat Charley was along he had to sit aft and assist Young Chariey, who always had the helm. There was not much room to spare when the main boom passed over Fat Charley’s back. One day as the Rosetta was running into the harbor before the wind she suddenly jibed, and Fat Charley went over backward into the channel, and the Rosetta went over on her beam-ends and filled; but that was no matter, as Fat Charley could swim like a duck, and the Rosetta would sail if she was full of water.

Source: Excerpt from Holden, J.B. "The Dry Tortugas."
Harper's New Monthly Magazine, July 1868, Vol.37, No.218., Pgs. 260-262


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