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Remote Lighthouses

Dry Tortugas National Park, Monroe Co., FL (April 2009)

Also be sure to see the Travel/Geography Blog

Garden Key Lighthouse

Dry Tortugas National Park Lighthouses

Perched above the Gulf

Garden Key Lighthouse Watching Over the Gulf of Mexico

The end of the Florida Keys is not Key West. Not hardly. Islands of coral, sand and mangrove trail out further into the Gulf of Mexico. First come the Marquesas Keys and then further out still, some 70 miles from the civilized shores of Key West come the Dry Tortugas. This small cluster of keys at the far western terminus provide less than 150 acres of land struggling to push above the waves. Nonetheless they sit at a strategic point within the shipping lanes serving ports of call all along the Gulf of Mexico and every bit of international trade serving the interior of the North American continent via the Mississippi River watershed. It didn't take long to realize that the shoals and reefs of the Dry Tortugas were a huge navigational hazard, as they racking up numerous shipwrecks along its shores. Mariners needed a lighthouse.

Fort Jefferson Wall

A View Down into Fort Jefferson

Florida became part of the United States in 1819 and a lighthouse arose on Garden Keys only seven years later in 1826. The first structure was made of brick and raised a light over the Dry Tortugas for two decades before construction began on Fort Jefferson (see my Fort Jefferson Page). Mariners complained that it still wasn't sufficient so the government constructed a much taller lighthouse on nearby Loggerhead Key, moving the Garden Key Lighthouse's first order Fresnel lens to Loggerhead. Garden Key was then downgraded to a fourth order lens marking the harbor rather than the primary light to warn ships away from the dangerous Dry Tortugas shoals.

Fort Jefferson Cannon

Protecting Ships while Protecting the Fort

A fierce hurricane pounded the islands in 1873, severely damaging the Garden Key Lighthouse. Repairs were attempted but experts soon determined that it should be replaced. A new lighthouse, this time made of iron plate, and this time built atop Fort Jefferson (which did not exist at the construction of the original version) arose above the surf. The designers felt that iron would withstand enemy assaults better than brick, and so the lighthouse took the distinctive plate metal hexagonal form it maintains today. Thus the new Garden Key Lighthouse stood 70 feet above the focal plain and atop the fortress, marking the harbor entrance until its deactivation in 1924. It can still be visited today in Dry Tortugas National Park.

Looking across to Loggerhead Key

Loggerhead Key Lighthouse

The much taller Loggerhead Key Lighthouse sits only three miles away but was much more effective once it was first lighted in 1858, featuring its 151 foot height and a first order Fresnel lens it borrowed from Garden Key. Its conical brick outline commands the Dry Tortugas and provides the protection to mariners that the earlier attempt had only hoped to fulfill. The view, above, was captured from the western side of Fort Jefferson. Notice the structures encircling its base. These included housing for the lighthouse keeper and his crew along with a freestanding oil house and cisterns for collecting water, for the name "Dry Tortugas" is both an accurate description and a warning to mariners. No potable water can be found here except for what can be collected from the frequent rains that scour the island. The light remains active today although it was automated in 1988.

Ferry at Fort Jefferson

The Ferry Docked at Ft. Jefferson

Finally the ship arrived at the wharf on Garden Key where it would remain for several hours. The crew served lunch in the cabin and passengers were free to eat aboard ship, or at one of the picnic tables along the beach, or anywhere else for that matter. Otherwise we were free to wander about the historic fort, snorkel and swim in the shallow waters, or simply relax in the subtropical sun.

And the return trip that afternoon was indeed as smooth as glass.

Readers who have an interest in ferries might also want to check my Ferry Index page.