Jennifer A. Chin (cswallow) wrote,
Jennifer A. Chin
cswallow

Dry Tortugas NP, Day 4: Fort Jefferson, the Unfinished Refuge

Fort Jefferson is the largest masonry building in the Western Hemisphere. Its millions of bricks were brought by boat from the mainland, and mortared by slave and prisoner labor. It was in turns a naval station to combat piracy, a guard post against invaders to the Gulf, a harbor, a lighthouse to warn ships from the teeming shallow reefs nearby, a prison for the deserters of the Civil War and the conspirators in Lincoln's assassination, and finally an incomplete ruin slowly crumbling toward the ocean. The harbor here is 2 miles in diameter, and 50-feet at its deepest point. In 1898, it was the only harbor between the Chesapeake and the Rio Grande that was deep enough for battleships. Construction only went from 1863-1871, when builders realized the weight of the brick could not be supported by the island it was standing on.



Today grass grows unevenly around its top tier, from which you can gaze out on the myriad colors of the ocean's shallows and reefs. It is mostly intact, though very much unfinished. The ragged edges of former windows drop bricks into the moat below, and stalactites are slowly forming at the joints of the archways. Despite this, it is a lush and beautiful fort - its courtyard shelters gumbo limbo trees, date palms, carob trees, cottonwoods and huge buttonwoods. After fierce squalls in the pacific, migrating birds limp their way to this refugio, taking refreshment from the fountain and sheltering in the trees while they gather strength for the rest of their flight. 



The Tortugas are also a goal for inmigrantes Cubanos,Cubans seeking the shelter of our "dry foot" policy. Those who can set a foot on dry land are entitled to legal permanent resident status and U.S. citizenship. But it is not an easy passage, most of them attempting in rafts and boats with little fresh water and no protection from the sun. Many are saved from dehydration and death by the U.S. Coast Guard, others are simply caught. In any case they are sent back to Cuba. For this reason, there is a permanent law enforcement presence on the Tortugas.

By the end of our fourth day, we've found another data logger, as well as 3 birds who'd lost theirs. Stuart and Sonny are worried about the loggers they attached this year, and send Colin and Yaron into the colony to catch those birds - they then jury-rig a more secure logger-band out of fishing wire and epoxy. 

This is our last day on the island. At the end we watch a video pulled together by Megan and David about our time, and put on a mini-show for the NPS staff and boat crew. Sonny announces his retirement, and talks about what it has meant to him to be a staff members of the Park Service. He says, among many things, that the charter of the park service is to protect and preserve the natural places that mean the most to the American public. More Americans have contact with a national park (every single american visits one park every year) than with any other public agency, and view NPS more favorably than another other agency. To teach visitors about the world around them, to protect a park system that has become the sterling example for almost every other national park system in the world - that is the charter of NPS. I think that to have dedicated his life to the NPS has been indeed a life well lived.


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