The Thundering Wet Dry Tortugas

Our small De Havilland Otter hovered a few hundred feet over the seas as the thundering clouds released torrents of rain highlighted by jagged bolts of lightning. The Dry Tortugas were anything but dry.

Most people think of Key West as the end of the Florida keys, but there are several smaller keys stretching beyond the famed home of Hemingway. About 70 miles west of Key West is Dry Tortugas National Park, accessible only by boat or float plane. I flew, though we almost didn’t take off. Cooling our heels at the small Key West airport, we watched the early morning lightning bring in wind-swept squalls. After an hour or so delay we got the okay and eagerly rushed the tarmac to board our 10-person flight. Storm clouds and rain parted in Moses-like fashion, just enough for our plane to squeeze through. Passing over reefs and wrecks we a lit on the water and coasted to the pier moments before the rain doused us once again.

Approaching Dry Tortugas - Ru Sun

For the record, the “dry” part of the name refers the lack of fresh spring water, a major problem for the inhabitants. Tortugas is Spanish for turtles, the name thanks to Ponce de León after seeing several sea turtles around the island.

Dry Tortugas

The main feature of the Dry Tortugas is Fort Jefferson. The largest all-masonry fort in the United States, it was constructed from 1846 to 1875 but nevertheless was never quite finished. During the Civil War concerns grew that the weight of the brick and cannons was causing the small island it sat on to sink. It served as a Civil War prison, though it’s most famous use was to house the four conspirators sentenced for their role in the assassination of Abraham Lincoln. Dr. Samuel Mudd, Edmund Spangler, Samuel Arnold, and Michael O’Laughlen served time in the fort; Mudd’s medical service during a yellow fever epidemic that killed many prisoners (including O’Laughlen) would result in his pardon and release by President Andrew Johnson. This fact is one of the main reasons I went out to the Tortugas.

Dr Mudd cell Dry Tortugas

Another reason is the rich ocean life adjacent to the fort and the other small islands that encompass the 100 square mile National Park. Due to the weather we had only a short time for snorkeling, but still saw many fish and pelicans.

Pelican Dry Tortugas

Rain again cleansed the plane as we skimmed the sea surface, briefly glimpsing a couple of the famed tortugas on the flight back. The skies seemed to light up as we touched down at the Key West airport. At least we could look forward to a delightful afternoon exploring Duval Street and Mallory Square. The Dry Tortugas could have been drier, and we could have seen more turtles, but the experience was still heavenly. This trip included time in the Everglades, in the Keys, and on the reefs, so there is much more still to show and tell. Stay tuned.

David J. Kent has been a scientist for thirty-five years, is an avid science traveler, and an independent Abraham Lincoln historian. He is the author of Tesla: The Wizard of Electricity (now in its 5th printing) and two e-books: Nikola Tesla: Renewable Energy Ahead of Its Time and Abraham Lincoln and Nikola Tesla: Connected by Fate. His book on Thomas Edison is due in Barnes and Noble stores in July 2016.

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[Note: All photos David J. Kent except first one by Ru Sun]

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9 thoughts on “The Thundering Wet Dry Tortugas

  1. Fascinating place. Maybe an ignorant question… Was Mudd really a conspirator (the one name I recognize)? I seem to recall that one of the people convicted had simply held Booth’s horse after he arrived at the theater.

    I think the tendency is to want to believe that immense human tragedies must involve broad, complex and powerful conspiracies. The more mundane explanation that one or two of Hoffer’s “misfits” can do so much damage is a disconcerting thought.

    • Yes, Mudd was a conspirator. He was the doctor that set Booth’s broken leg in Maryland that night. He claimed he didn’t know Booth but they had met and conspired previously to spy on the Union for the Confederacy. It was Spangler that held the horse for Booth (technically, Booth asked him to hold the horse but Spangler was busy moving set pieces around so had another guy hold the horse).

      There were a lot of conspiracy theories at the time, most notably that the Confederate government had aided Booth, both in planning and the escape. The war had just ended (not technically ended, but mostly so) and everyone was afraid this was a last gasp by the Confederacy to keep from reunification. A lot of distrust all around.

      The idea of wanting to believe in conspiracies is still true today. All you have to do is look at this year’s election and the years preceding it to see how paranoid and mentally insecure a large percentage of the US populace is. Frankly, it’s an embarrassment, and dangerous. I’m still in disbelief how profoundly stupid Americans are. Sigh.

      • Thank you for the $5.00 answer. I’ve seen some popular media assessments of the events after Lincoln’s assassination suggesting that various people were actually just swept up in the frenzy and innocent. However, I consider your take on the matter as both well-informed and reliable, and certainly more objective (not trying to sell air-time).

        I too am often surprised by people… not just Americans. But we do seem to have turned our paranoia into a well-refined and popular art. Richard Hofstadter described the American political trend back in 1952, I believe. And it might be argued that it goes much, much farther back into the American psyche.

        Seems a tenacious, if not politically expedient form of psychology. However, I think it tends to drown out the voices of the rational-right, leaving an unhealthy political vacuum. At any rate, it’s been mildly amusing… watching from a safe distance, anyway.

        • Sorry for the windy answer.

          The paranoia trend goes back long before anyone invented psychological labels for it. Seems we are a fearful folk, which explains all the wars we fight over imaginary things.

          I assure you I’m not amused by our current election insanity. Despite all the evidence to the contrary, I still seem to think that people will act rationally, or at least practicably irrational to crib from Dan Ariely. It seems I’m always going to be disappointed.

          • No worries… enjoying the breeze. But I’ll admit that my mild amusement doesn’t exactly mollify a bewildered sense of concern for the country. I’d hate to think we’re descending into a nationalist funk.

            Unfortunately, however, it seems that few Americans are ready to have the kinds of discussions necessary for addressing an emerging reality. Feeding paranoia is a good distraction… and bathrooms.

            Alas, I seem to have wandered far from the Dry Tortugas. Perhaps Fort Jefferson could some day be reopened? 😉

  2. Regarding the current situation, I remind myself that the South went too far to Civil War and it bit them in the butt (losing slavery after going to war to protect and expand slavery). I’m mildly confident (or at least desperately hopeful) that the bigots have gone too far.

    I would be in favor of reopening the Fort for strategic placement of the Trumpsters. 🙂

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