Friday, February 1, 2008

Fort Zachary Taylor

Some people keep whining about how Key West is changing. Well, I'm pretty sure change has been happening all the time on this tiny island, and I've read the old newspaper reports of peoples' apprehensions about the railroad coming in 1912, and again when the new road was completed in 1938. Both events were going to change the island forever- and they weren't wrong on that! I'll bet the residents were none too happy when the US Army decided to throw together a pile of bricks at the entrance to the harbor and call it a fort. By the time the Civil War rolled around Fort Zachary Taylor was a well established island hanging just off the city of Key West itself.
Back then, the fort was actually much more like its bigger counterpart called Fort Jefferson, some 70 miles west of Key West, because Fort Zachary was also built out on the water yet connected to the main island by a very long wooden causeway. Nowadays we are used to the fact that Fort Zachary is surrounded by dirt, even if it is only fill, lumpy rocky dredged materials from the harbor bottom mostly, that have been built up and around the fort itself. That expanse of weedy lawn is all rubble, added long after the Fort sprouted here.Fort Zachary became home to a company of Union artillery at the outbreak of the Civil War and when Tallahassee seceded, the officer in charge, a Captain James Brannan surreptitiously marched his 44 artillerymen across from the town barracks to the Fort and they locked themselves inside the building and kept the flag flying for the Union. That was it for Key West and the city, despite some Bubba grumblings (notably the still extant Bethel family), they stayed with the Union for the rest of the conflict, helping support the blockade of the Confederacy. However its Rodman smooth bore canon never were fired in anger and today they lie around looking good and adding to the ambiance. As do their balls, as it were:Fort Zachary forms part of the State Parks system and there is a fee charged at the entrance, which is why I have an annual pass, I like coming down that much. Sunsets are beautiful here illuminating all the components of the Fort no matter how obscure their purpose, like this fixed pulley with no ropes attached:And the buildings themselves glow, as with pride while the dying sun slips them into darkness:Visitors get the run of the place, nominally till 5pm but if its just a matter of climbing the steep stairs to view the sun plunge into the straits of Florida that's what these walls are ideal for:Visitors can wander the parade ground and imagine themselves in here in the Spring enjoying a concert under the stars, perhaps. Most likely not as freezing cold as it was for the wife and I, last time we tried that about a year ago. It was great fun despite the bone numbing cold of the north wind whistling across the infernal parade ground! We huddled under inadequate blankets and listened to Arturo Sandoval blow his heart, and his cheeks, out right here:In the distance one can spot the sterility of Sunset Key isolated across the harbor, another new arrival, much newer than Fort Zach, in the town of Key West. These days the Fort provides a breath of fresh air for city dwellers who can wander the grounds at will in perfect safety and enjoy the paths that loop mysteriously giving the place the air of being larger than it is, a necessary attribute for a park on a small island-within-an-island:And in between the trees and the shrubbery the park service with an impish sense of humor allowed some pirates to take root, rejoicing over their booty, just outside the walls and the moat of the old Fort. Clearly someone got the Black Spot!The Fort's walls are impressively thick and no doubt in the era before rifled cannon would have done a fine job. The moat too, but as it is the defenses now make the place look gorgeous in the dying light of the sub-tropical day:Outside the fort's domain the 21st century intrudes with sunset cruises, ferries and private pleasure boats rushing back and forth across the entrance to the harbor, under the watchful eye of an iron statue on the ramparts, as well as a couple of tourists.And eventually a ranger comes by in his golf cart as the sun starts to truly disappear, to remind us that in "ten minutes" the park will be closing, and reluctantly we pile into the car (we have friends visiting and the motorcycle is on hiatus for the weekend: dreary but necessary), and we leave behind a place silent and dark and cold enough to house the Prisoner of Zenda, or a man or two in an Iron Mask:This is your friendly neighborhood Fort, a place to meander and meditate, to bring a picnic, or a bottle of wine as Key Westers would in defiance of all and any rules, to sit and to think, or not to think at all and just to enjoy. What a great place to be a kid again, Fort Zachary Taylor, far and away the best, most imaginative place to spend an evening's sunset in Key West.