What comes to mind when a person thinks of Key West, Florida? Most people think of sunsets and palm fronds whispering in the warm, tropical breezes. Others conjure up images of throngs of weekend partiers singing their rendition of Jimmy Buffet’s Margaritaville in the famed Sloppy Joe’s Bar. Some with a knowledge of Key West history remember that the island was known in Spanish as Cayo Hueso — “Island of Bones” — due to the Indian battles that occurred there.
But what about lighthouses? Sure, Key West has its own lighthouse, established in 1825. But if visitors buy passage on the high-speed catamaran Yankee Freedom II, after a two-hour ride they will reach seven islands composed of coral reefs and sand. This chain is known as the Dry Tortugas.
Why the name, “Dry Tortugas?” Tortugas is Spanish for turtle, and turtles resided in abundance on the island. However, the drawback of this pristine island paradise was the lack of fresh water. Explorer Ponce de Leon named the islands after the turtles in 1513, and the “dry” part of the name was added later.
On the day that my cousin and I visited the Dry Tortugas National Park, we had the options of swimming in the waters of the Gulf of Mexico, snorkeling, bird watching, or taking a 40-minute historical tour of Fort Jefferson, including the Garden Key Lighthouse. We chose the tour of the fort and lighthouse.
Think back to the year 1825. Mariners had a rough time navigating in the Florida Straits, with dangerous reefs, flats and rocky shoals dotting the Gulf’s floor. It was so treacherous that Congress allotted money for the construction of a lighthouse on Garden Key. It stood to a height of 70 feet, and was first lighted on July 4, 1826. The Lighthouse Board eventually reached the conclusion that the lighthouse on hot and barren Garden Key was much too short to be useful. It was decided that a lighthouse at the westernmost reaches of the Dry Tortugas would be more valuable in helping mariners steer clear of the reefs.
In 1858, a new lighthouse was built on neighboring Loggerhead Key, which is only three miles west of Garden Key. It reaches to a height of 150 feet. It is constructed of brick walls and has 203 granite stairs to the top. Both materials came from Pensacola. Iron and copper were used for the lantern and watchroom. At the base of the Dry Tortugas Lighthouse on Loggerhead Key, the walls are three feet nine inches in thickness, and the tower tapers to two feet nine inches at the top.
Loggerhead Key is open only for day use by private boaters, but the lighthouse is visible from Garden Key. On a clear day it can be seen without the aid of binoculars.
In 1846, construction began on the largest 19th century fort to be built in America, Fort Jefferson. After the establishment of the lighthouse on Loggerhead Key, the official name of the old Garden Key tower was changed to Tortugas Harbor Lighthouse. It continued to serve as an aid for vessels heading to the fort. The tower fell into disrepair and was badly damaged in an 1873 hurricane.
A proposal was made for a new lighthouse to be erected on the top wall of Fort Jefferson. The new lighthouse consisted of a boilerplate iron tower with a balcony and parapet. The lens from the old Tortugas Harbor (Garden Key) lighthouse was relocated to the new tower. On April 5, 1876, the new tower was lighted for the first time, and the old tower was razed in the following year. The present Garden Key Lighthouse is alternately known as Tortugas Harbor Light or Fort Jefferson Light.
The exterior is now painted black, with white trim on the windows and shutters at the exit door. The lighthouse is accessible from the parade ground inside the fort. Visitors may feel as if they’re journeying through a secret passage. My cousin and I entered a darkened brick room with spiral stone steps. When we reached the top level, we were in the base of the lighthouse. We exited through the open door of the lighthouse onto the grassy tier on the fort.
No special gear is needed for touring Fort Jefferson and the Garden Key Lighthouse. We boarded with our backpacks loaded with bottled water and sunscreen, plus an ample supply of camera equipment for photographing the lighthouse and birds. We dressed in accordance with the weather, meaning chino pants for the morning cruise and shorts for the afternoon sun. We each stowed away extra t-shirts. Not knowing the terrain or the amount of walking involved, I had my trusty black high top Converse Chuck Taylor sneakers laced, but we both packed a spare pair of water shoes for beachcombing. Snorkeling gear is provided free of charge.
The galley dished up a delightful continental breakfast before leaving Key West Seaport. On Fort Jefferson, the crew provided a spread of fresh seasonal fruits, sandwich meats, cheeses, and salads that would make any pirate drop anchor and come ashore for a hearty lunch.
This story appeared in the
November 2000 edition of Lighthouse Digest Magazine. The print edition contains more stories than our internet edition, and each story generally contains more photographs - often many more - in the print edition. For subscription information about the print edition, click here.
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