Saving fort off Florida coast not a job for the faint of heart

Isolation, deprivation will be offset by lure of history, beautiful views

April 25, 2004|By ORLANDO SENTINEL

DRY TORTUGAS NATIONAL PARK, Fla. - The working conditions are daunting, but the perks are great: stunning views, all the fish you can catch and bragging rights to saving Fort Jefferson.

Brick by historic brick, the nation's most isolated, ambitious and star-crossed coastal fort is falling into the sea. That is prompting the National Park Service to look for 15 or so hearty souls willing to brave isolation and deprivation to undo the damage wrought by 158 years of tropical salt air.

It's not a mission for the meek or pampered. The masonry crew hired for the first phase of the $16 million repair on Garden Key, a 23-acre sand island 68 miles due west of Key West, Fla., must be self-sufficient.

Completely self-sufficient. After all, this job will be a yearlong, bring-your-own-everything test of endurance. That includes the basics: food, water, housing, sanitation and electricity.

Forget something? It's a long, expensive haul to the nearest Home Depot, a two-hour ferryboat ride or 30-minute flight by seaplane. And don't expect to relieve the boredom with long-distance chats.

"Cell phones?" laughed Mike Ryan, the park's lead interpretive ranger. "Out here they're only good for paperweights."

The work will be rigorous, too. Sure, there will be plenty of time to join the nearly 80,000 annual visitors to the park who explore the surrounding coral reef or watch 90,000 hatchlings from the adjoining sooty-tern rookery take flight. But the task at hand - repairing the fort's eroding mortar and deteriorating cannon ports - will be no nature walk.

But for skilled laborers who appreciate history, fixing Fort Jefferson will be a rare opportunity. They'll return to the golden age of coastal castles and marvel at the ingenuity and audacity of a bygone era.

They'll walk the same ramparts where Civil War soldiers, Union deserters and four men convicted of complicity in the assassination of President Abraham Lincoln once trudged.

The most famous was Samuel Mudd, the country doctor who set John Wilkes Booth's leg after the presidential assassin broke it jumping to the stage at Ford's Theatre. Sentenced to hard labor, Mudd arrived at Fort Jefferson in 1865, sweeping the bastions and battling a yellow-fever outbreak until he was pardoned four years later.

By then, Fort Jefferson was a bustling city on the sea, home to nearly 2,000 people. Life was harsh. Disease, insects, thirst, malnourishment and overcrowding abounded. Union soldiers drilled in the parade ground. Prisoners and laborers hauled supplies to masons whose work was never done.

After more than $3 million and nearly 30 years of construction, Fort Jefferson was never finished or fully armed, but it served its purpose.

A six-sided behemoth made from 16 million red bricks, it stood guard over the vital shipping lanes of the Caribbean and Mississippi basins, its imposing 45-foot walls and daunting gun power giving maritime enemies pause.

Twenty-five-ton guns could hurl 432-pound projectiles three miles away. Smaller rounds, heated molten red in one of the largest hot-shot furnaces ever built, could be flung like flaming arrows, burrowing into a ship's hull with deadly aim.

And gun crews could act with impunity, protected by the thick fort walls and one of the most ingenious inventions in coastal fortification, Totten shutters. Named for their creator, Joseph Totten, the Army Corps of Engineers' chief engineer, the heavy iron plates covered the gun portals like common shutters.

Yet they were anything but common. Activated by gases from the discharge, the plates would pop open a millisecond before a cannonball left the barrel, then slam shut, shielding gunners from enemy fire and flying debris.

But coupled with advances in artillery, Fort Jefferson's sheer size would eventually doom it. After just 12 years of construction, the mammoth structure started to sink, cracking the underground cisterns and ruining the storage space for 1.5 million gallons of precious rainwater needed for drinking. Park personnel, who rely on generators for electricity, still use an alternate cistern today.

During the Civil War, when the fort doubled as a Union prison for deserters and blockade runners, the army brought in steam condensers to distill seawater, but the end product was hardly refreshing. Left to cool in large vats in the parade ground, the water attracted mosquitoes and other unhealthy organisms.

"One soldier wrote that for every quart of water they would pull out of the vats, they would skim out a pint of wigglers," Ryan said. "Which I take to mean mosquito larvae. And that's just the stuff you could see."

In 1874, chased away by another yellow-fever epidemic and a hurricane that destroyed the barracks, the Army evacuated Fort Jefferson. The garrison planned to return but never did. New technology made the unfinished fort obsolete. Rounds from new rifled cannon could penetrate even the thickest walls, rendering the Totten shutters useless.

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