Dry Turtles! Florida Keys and the Dry Tortugas

Home Inspector with Charles Buell Inspections Inc.

     My Sweetie and I recently made a trip to the Florida Keys----including the Dry Tortugas National Park.  A single blog post can not possibly cover all the things we did, but I do want to do at least two or three posts on some of the more impressive aspects of the trip.  Other details will likely come out in comments and/or Wordless Wednesday pictures in the future.

Approaching Fort Jefferson by water

     Perhaps the most impressive aspect of the trip was our visit to the Dry Tortugas.  I am by no means a “historian” and have little interest in merely recapping the small bits of information imparted to us by our guide for the day.  There are lots of resources one can find on the Internet or in the Library that can go into more meaningful detail than I could ever do in a blog.  While I find the history of these places fascinating, it is how they fit into current information and how they are useful to us today that I find interesting.  This post will set the stage for a post to come later---perhaps tomorrow. Each picture will have additional information if you run your cursor over it.

     In a “coconut-shell,” the Reader’s Digest version of the Cliff Notes of the Fort is that construction on the Fort----known as Fort Jefferson----began in 1846 and took 30 years to build----but was never actually completed as designed.  Designed to house 4000 soldiers it never had more than around 2000.  No cannons were ever fired outside of practice rounds.  The fort's biggest guns could throw a 242 lb ball of iron 3 miles.  Surely any wooden ship would think the sky was falling.  The fort was designed to function as a support facility to provide supplies for naval ships that could control the gulf.  So even though the fort itself never saw action it was hugely successful as a support facility for the ships that did.  The fort itself took so long to build that its smooth bore cannon were outdated by newer technology before it could be completed.  Working conditions were horrible with yellow fever running rampant and no knowledge of what caused it.

     Anyone that has ever been to the Florida Keys knows how hot and muggy it can get.  Now add to that, building a brick fort in the hot sun with your clothing being made of a type of crude wool popular with the army----winter or summer.  Oh and did I mention “winter” is really just a designation on a calendar as opposed to an actual event?  Oh and did I mention the mosquitoes?

     My guess is that no one involved in the tedious business of moving the tons of granite and slate used in the floors throughout the prison could have ever in their wildest fever induced dreams foreseen the bikini clad snorkelers encircling the island today.  These could not have been happy times for anyone at the fort and “paradise” would not have been a prominent word on the enlistment brochures at the army recruiting stations of the day.

     One of the first things one notices about the fort is that it is hexagon shaped----and that the sides are not equal so as to better fill up the shape of the island.  Another striking characteristic of the fort is that there is a moat all the way around it.  Well everyone knows a good fort always has to have a moat around it, plenty of alligators in the moat and of course a draw bridge.  Well in this case the moat was simply a deep depression all around the fort that was dug out to get fill for the walls of the fort.  Construction of the fort was simply a double wall brick structure inside and out and the center was filled with coral sand/debris mixed with lime which solidified into an almost limestone like concrete----very good at absorbing impact.  The over 16 million bricks were used as more of a façade to hold this coral construction in place.  This fort became one of the largest if not the largest fired-brick fortification in the world.  Tremendous amounts of this fill were needed to create the fort structure----all of which had to be dug----BY HAND-----from around the fort where the moat is.  At some point the builders realized they needed to keep the ocean from directly impacting the fort so they built the moat wall that you can see surrounding the fort.

The entrance to the fort----there used to be a draw bridge

Looking West---along the South Moat

     The fort is made up of three types of brick---two types of brown brick that came from the South (Georgia and Florida if I remember correctly) and red brick from New York.  The first brown brick they tried didn’t hold up very well to salt water, so they had to get a second kind.  If you remember back to the date of the start of construction you can see that the 30 year construction time frame lapped the time frame of the civil war.  This fort stayed in Union Hands during the war but obviously the south was not about to co-operate and provide the brick any longer during the war.  So they brought it all the way from New York.  You can see the clear color change of the top layers of red brick that run all around the top of the fort.  The moat wall is also that same red brick and thus consistent with the moat being constructed at this later time.

Trying to keep the ocean away

The West Moat

     Another interesting foot note is that all of the floors that the cannon sat on inside the fort structure were made of giant slabs of slate and granite.  Each had to be set----BY HAND.  These granite slabs were interspersed where necessary with the slate because the granite would hold up better to the iron cannon guides and supports.

Look carefully at the floor and note the arcs of the cannon that were mounted on the granite slabs

Smaller 32 lb shot cannon

     It is the use of iron in the structure that would become the tragic design flaw of the whole fort.  This flaw has created what will perhaps be an insurmountable barrier to long term preservation of the fort.  And now the stage is set for the Second Post in this series.

Charles Buell

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Amy Hahn
Pine Knoll Shores Realty - Morehead City, NC
Realtor/Broker - Crystal Coast, NC

Charles, Since Fort Jefferson is one of my all time favorite places, I really enjoyed your post.  You did an excellent job on the history and your photos are awesome.  My husband and I used to get dropped off for a few days at a time (we were working for the Nat'l Park Service at the time) and camp on the beach (glad to hear that camping is allowed again).  Most of the time, we were the only ones there and it was really cool.  There were salt water showers, but no drinking water or food available...don't know if I could handle it today!  I'm so glad you enjoyed your visit to the Dry Tortugas, and maybe a little jealous too. 

Dec 17, 2009 09:35 AM #6
Robert Vegas Bob Swetz
Realty ONE Group - Las Vegas, NV
Las Vegas Henderson Homes for Sale

Hello Charles and this is a very interesting post with some great photographs attached!

VB ;o)

Dec 17, 2009 09:46 AM #7
Charles Buell
Charles Buell Inspections Inc. - Seattle, WA
Seattle Home Inspector

Robert, we visited Dr. Mudd's cell.  If they turn the generator off at night it would be very quiet except for the waves.

Alan, you are welcome and here is something you might recognize :)

East Chicago

Bill, same you you regarding the holidays----check out the Tortugas some time.


Carla---not very often----but they will survive as "relics" perhaps longer :)

Amy, they have made visiting there pretty cushy:)

Robert, thanks


Dec 17, 2009 10:16 AM #8
Steven L. Smith
King of the House Home Inspection, Inc. - Bellingham, WA
Bellingham WA Home Inspector

Mr Charles,

The photos are very interesting. I had not realized that you were on a European vacation.


Dec 17, 2009 10:52 AM #9
Charles Buell
Charles Buell Inspections Inc. - Seattle, WA
Seattle Home Inspector

Nutsy, I would be willing to bet that this is just the tip of the iceberg in terms of what you don't know.

Dec 17, 2009 10:59 AM #10
Diane Williams
Pell City, AL


This was very interesting.  I just love history and it is amazing what was built so long ago and has weathered the test of time.  Your pictures are great. Thanks for sharing.

Dec 17, 2009 11:30 AM #11
Paul S. Henderson, REALTOR®, CRS
RE/MAX Northwest. - Tacoma, WA
Tacoma Washington Agent/Broker & Market Authority!

Fooled me, I thought it was in the Pacific NW...
Your friend in Washington State,

Dec 17, 2009 01:52 PM #12
Lizette Fitzpatrick
Lizette Realty - Richmond KY - Lexington, KY
Lizette Realty, Lexington KY MLS - Kentucky Homes

You really did get some awesome pictures! Love that blue water contrast with the stone.

Dec 17, 2009 02:16 PM #13
Charles Buell
Charles Buell Inspections Inc. - Seattle, WA
Seattle Home Inspector

Diane, I like looking at these old structures.

Paul, yes I know we have to look at that weird blue all the time:)

Lizette, it barely seems real does it?

Dec 17, 2009 02:55 PM #14
TeamCHI - Complete Home Inspections, Inc.
Complete Home Inspections, Inc. - Brentwood, TN
Home Inspectons - Nashville, TN area - 615.661.029

Charlie B, I remember going to the fort several years ago when I lived in FL. I do want to make another trip there and take some pictures. It is on my bucket list. Cool post... I featured this in PBB...

Helping you live your American dream...


Dec 17, 2009 07:28 PM #15
Debi Boucher
Real Estate Showcase Photography - Woodland Park, CO
"Realtor Showcase" - Real Estate Photography/Virtual Tours

I love this post, Charles! I am always taken with historical information, especially when there are great photos to go with it!


Dec 18, 2009 02:02 AM #16
Charles Buell
Charles Buell Inspections Inc. - Seattle, WA
Seattle Home Inspector

Michael, thanks----it is indeed a very special place.

Debi---thanks---glad you enjoyed them.

Dec 18, 2009 02:22 AM #17
James Quarello
JRV Home Inspection Services, LLC - Wallingford, CT
Connecticut Home Inspector

Having been to Florida last month this looks like a great place to visit. I bet my girls would have a blast exploring the fort. The water looks magnificent.

Dec 18, 2009 08:20 AM #18
William Johnson
Retired - La Jolla, CA
Retired Real Estate Professional

Hi Charles, and excellent job capturing this most wonderful ( little know) location. I went to the site in your link after reading and enjoying photos and realized something. Your photos are better than what is on the website. You captured marvelous color and all in all, they would do better showing your photos. Well done Charles.

Dec 19, 2009 05:14 AM #19
Jay Markanich
Jay Markanich Real Estate Inspections, LLC - Bristow, VA
Home Inspector - servicing all Northern Virginia

Reminds me of Fort McHenry!

Dr. Mudd did not stay at McHenry, however.

Dec 19, 2009 05:38 AM #20
Barbara S. Duncan
RE/MAX Advantage - Searcy, AR
GRI, e-PRO, Executive Broker, Searcy AR

I love old forts and recently visited St. Augustine FL and the fort that is there.  It was fascinating. 

Dec 19, 2009 11:03 AM #21
Charles Buell
Charles Buell Inspections Inc. - Seattle, WA
Seattle Home Inspector

James---you gotta go some time

William---thanks----the cheapo camera I use really does a pretty good job----someday I would like to have a real SLR type:)

Jay, I will have to check that one out

Barbara, what is it about forts any way?  Given what they were about and the hard lives involved with them---we do still find them fastinating don't we?


Dec 19, 2009 11:08 AM #22
Sean Allen
International Financing Solutions - Fort Myers, FL
International Financing Solutions

Great pics and thanks for the history lesson.... very interesting!!


Dec 20, 2009 08:10 AM #23
Charles Buell
Charles Buell Inspections Inc. - Seattle, WA
Seattle Home Inspector

Sean---this is in your neck of the woods-----just hop in your boat and get over there:)

Dec 21, 2009 05:22 AM #24
Randy DeLaMare
Realtypath LLC - Salt Lake City, UT
Helping friends Realize their Real Estate Dreams

This is the first I have ever heard of this place. Very intriguing, and informative. Thanks for posting. Maybe someday I will make it to Florida. There are so many places in this great country I would like to see.

Jan 01, 2010 03:44 PM #25
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