By: Paul S. Cilwa Viewed: 11/14/2019
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These remote keys have a history of sea turtles, sunken treasures, and one of the world's largest coastal brick fortresses. But you can't get there by car.

If you want to do something you can brag to your friends back home about, consider visiting the very remote Dry Tortugas National Park. No roads or bridges go to it; so you'll have to take a boat or seaplane. But those who have done so, swear it's worthwhile.

Juan Ponce de Leon first stumbled upon this stretch of islands in 1513, back when they were nothing more than clusters of coral inhabited by sea turtles. Upon his discovery, de Leon named the islands "Las Tortugas" (meaning "the turtles"), and is said to have subsisted off 160 of these very animals while on his journey through the high seas.

But there is no fresh water on the little islands. And so the mariners who followed Ponce de Leon called them the Dry Tortugas, and the name stuck.

The most interesting of the Torugas is the former Garden Key, which was where, in 1847, construction was begun on Fort Jefferson, a naval base intended to provide protection from pirates to US vessels. The design plans called for a practically indestructible hexagonal fortress, complete with a massive 420 heavy-gun platform. Two sides of the fort measured 325 feet and four sides measured 477 feet. The structure stood 45-feet above sea level, surrounded entirely by a wall and a 70-foot wide moat. Though construction lasted for roughly thirty years, Fort Jefferson was never fully completed. Despite this, 16 million bricks were laid, making it one of the largest coastal forts ever built.

During the Civil War the fort was also used as a prison, mainly for Union deserters. The most famous inmate, however, was Dr. Samuel Mudd, who was wrongfully convicted of conspiracy in the assassination of President Abraham Lincoln. After shooting President Lincoln, John Wilkes Booth jumped from the theater box, broke one of his legs, and immediately fled to Dr. Mudd’s farm where he received medical assistance from the good doctor, who had absolutely no idea who Booth was.

In 1865, Dr. Mudd was sentenced to life in prison and sent to the remote fortress. Two years later, a yellow fever outbreak occurred at Fort Jefferson. The outbreak took a number of lives, including the lone doctor who had been stationed at the fort. Dr. Mudd agreed to step in as a replacement and, as a result, many lives were saved. Consequently, the soldiers started a petition demanding Dr. Mudd’s release; a petition which President Andrew Johnson granted only four years into Dr. Mudd’s life sentence.

Today the Dry Tortugas are a National Park. You can get there by seaplane or by boat, various of which can be easily chartered from Key West. Day trips as well as overnights are available. Although there are no enclosed accommodations, there is a campground adjacent to the fort itself.

Dry Tortugas is considered to be one of America’s most remote and least visited national parks, making it a sure-fire entry onto your bucket list!