Thursday, May 21, 2009

Fort Jefferson-16 Million Bricks

The US Army started building Fort Jefferson in 1846, twenty one years after a lighthouse was built on Garden Key to guide shipping past the shoals separating the Gulf of Mexico from the Straits of Florida and passage to and from the Eastern Seaboard. These days the anchorage to the south of the fort is occupied mostly by recreational sailors with commercial fishermen stopping by in season (no commercial fishing is allowed in the national park) but in the 19th century the deep waters around the fort were a refuge for ocean sailing commercial ships.The one big thing everyone will always tell you about the Fort is that it is built of 16 million bricks. And those bricks came from various places on the east coast which is why there are two distinct shades of red used in the construction:According to people who know, the masonry in the fort is a work of art that would be hard to reproduce today, consisting as it does of hundreds of unsupported arches. This is one such example, a particularly spectacular one which covers the main magazine inside the fort, the place where they stored gunpowder:The whole fort is a honeycomb of arches built a hundred and fifty years ago and still standing:

The army labored on for decades piling brick upon brick, until in 1874, after a particularly virulent outbreak of yellow fever they gave up and walked away. During those almost thirty years of occupation the fort had served as a garrison for between 250 and 400 extremely bored soldiers, then during the Civil War it became a prison camp and president Lincoln commuted death sentences for desertion into prison terms at the remote fort.The cannon I'm leaning up against is a Rodman, one of several hundred dragged to the fort but never used for anything more serious than target practice. Rifled barrels made brick defenses obsolete and the fort lost it's purpose before it came close to being finished. Later it became a staging point for the Spanish American war and then steam ships which stopped by to pick up coal after they added coal docks to the fort. They built two docks on iron posts which have rotted away almost completely but the pilings that reman make excellent growing platforms for coral and thus are excellent snorkling spots. These pilings are the easternmost set shown next to a Privilege catamaran leaving the harbor:The exterior of the fort is protected by a brick wall that encloses a moat designed as protection from from wave action, but many of the exterior bricks in the fort wall are still choosing to crumble away:The casemates for the cannons, many of which were never installed, are rotting under the effects of the damp salt air and the iron shutters are falling apart:

Carol told me they have started replacing them with new shutters- made of fiberglass! You wouldn't know it to look at them:

And then there are all the open windows looking out of the fort:


Inside the fort it's a huge parade ground gone bad- or gone good if you like your parade ground full of leafy green open spaces that resemble manicured parkland.And the park service markers hint at much construction that went on in here in the bad old days:

Nowadays the barracks and the officers quarters are patches of thick grass in what appear to be enormous brick flower beds:But some of the stuff is still there and is indeed restored:

The shot furnace was designed to roll cannonballs through red hot embers so that when they came out at the other end they could be lobbed into wooden ships to try to set them on fire. The furnace too has been restored:The work of restoration has won a six million dollar grant according to Carol, my source of all knowledge related to the fort. Indeed there was a construction crew on the job inside the fort while I wandered around:Wetting their bricks prior to installing them, as good as new because they are new:

But bricks are everywhere around Fort Jefferson, they seem to grow and reproduce like weeds:

We had bricks in the campground to anchor stuff to the ground in the gusty winds so they aren't all going to waste. And the tops of the wall paradoxically has sand covering some of those bricks, making an interesting pathway around the fort:One bricked-up corner reminded me of perhaps an ivy covered seat of learning, or a cloister for some reason, not at all a fort:Viewed from the ferry Fort Jefferson is a Swiss cheese of brick arches:Solid in it's fragility.