The first lighthouse on this remote island (70 miles west of Key West) was barely visible over the walls of this massive fort. It was not always this way, however. Fort Jefferson wasn't even built when the first lighthouse was built on this island in 1826. The forts walls crept up around the 70 high lighthouse in the late 1840s. A hurricane in 1873 just about completely destroyed the old lighthouse, so this new one was built atop the 55 foot walls. It stands 37 feet tall and houses a fourth-order Fresnel lens. The light remained in service until 1912.
Due to the vital shipping lanes passing near the island, the US Government was worried that a foreign army could take hold of the island and effectively control the shipping lanes in and out of the Gulf of Mexico. In 1846, the US Army decided to built a huge fort to thwart any such effort and to protect this interest. The Fort would be called Fort Jefferson and would be built to hold up to 1,500 troops, 450 cannons, and was surrounded by shark-infested waters. But it was never finished.
Not only was the fort never finished, but it never saw any battle either. The fort was effectively used as a prison though. The tour guide told us that they would occasionally not shackle the prisoners because there was no way they could escape. The guards would tease them saying things like, "If you are going to swim, Key West is 70 miles that way and Cuba is 90 that way," while pointing in their perspective directions. One such prisoner was Dr. Samuel Mudd. He was the doctor that was convicted of treason for setting the broken leg of John Wilkes Booth. Booth showed up at the doctors rural house after just assassinating President Abraham Lincoln. The doctor had not known that the President was dead, all he knew was that he was a doctor, and helped people. Later Secret Service agents had shown up on the doctor's door looking for Booth. They found one of Booth's boots at his house and immediately accused him of treason. He was sentenced to Fort Jefferson. He was released about two years later for helping quell a yellow fever outbreak that took 38 lives on the island.
Directions: The lighthouse sits over 70 miles west of Key West in the Dry Tortugas National Park. There are several charter tours that run a ferry service to the park. We used the Yankee Fleet and boarded the Yankee Freedom II. With a top speed of over 30 MPH, you will reach the park in about 2.5 hours.
Access: Grounds open. Tower open.View more Garden Key Lighthouse pictures