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Preservation of Civil War-Era fort begins

Restoration of Fort Jefferson, in the Dry TortugasNational Park, will take years and cost $18M

Restoration of Fort Jefferson, in the Dry TortugasNational Park, will take years and cost $18M

A preservation project is under way on the largest brick structure in the Western Hemisphere, a six-sided Civil War-era fort located on a tiny island 68 miles west of Key West in the Gulf of Mexico.

Directed by the National Park Service, a team of experts has begun planning for phase two in a five-phase restoration of FortJefferson, the 19th-century coastal fort that occupies the majority of Garden Key in the remote Dry TortugasNational Park in the Florida Keys.

When the U.S. Army originally began construction on the fort in 1846, the structure was designed to safeguard U.S. shipping and defend the Gulf of Mexico from potential threats to one of the country’s most important shipping channels.

“It was designed to protect one of the most strategic anchorages in North America,” said National Park Service ranger Mike Ryan. “Justifiably so, it’s been referred to as the Gibraltar of the Gulf.”

Construction continued for 30 years, but FortJefferson was never finished and never fired upon. The invention of the rifled cannon, whose ammunition could penetrate even the eight-foot-thick walls of the fort, made it obsolete for its intended purpose early in its construction.

During the Civil War, FortJefferson served as a Union military prison whose most famous prisoner was Dr. Samuel Mudd, convicted of complicity in Abraham Lincoln’s assassination. Mudd was imprisoned for almost four years before being pardoned in 1869 by President Andrew Johnson.

In 1898, the U.S.S. Maine sailed from TortugasHarbor on its ill-fated final journey to HavanaHarbor.

Later used by the Navy and Marines, the fort and its surrounding islands were designated a wildlife refuge in 1908 and as FortJeffersonNational Monument in 1935. In 1992, the area was proclaimed the Dry TortugasNational Park to protect its historic and natural wonders.

But salt air and tropical humidity have ravaged the massive structure. The fort’s iron Totten shutters, installed around each of the lower walls’ 146 embrasure openings through which guns were to be fired, are rusting.

The gun shutters were designed to close after artillery was fired through the embrasures, protecting gunners from incoming enemy fire. Yet as they continue to corrode, the iron shutters expand and push the brickwork that covers the walls’ coral concrete core outward to the point of collapse.

Working on scaffolding positioned on a platform in the fort’s moat, the preservation team has restored a 31-foot-wide by 40-foot-high section of the fort’s east wall.

An original Totten shutter with cast stone and carbon fiber materials that replicate the shutter elements, but can withstand the subtropical environment, serves as a guideline for the preservation firm currently working on the restoration — repairing and preserving additional embrasures.

The work is labor-intensive and detailed. Preservation masons chip away at old mortar with hand chisels and air hammers, removing loose bricks and then re-setting them or installing recycled bricks. The masons are challenged by the summer sun and remote location of the fort, which pose logistical challenges for such a large scale project.

But the work can be rewarding and the scenery spectacular.

“I’m very privileged to be out here,” says Mike Higginbotham, a historic mason from Bowling Green, Ky. “It’s like a working vacation.”

Phase II of the project will stabilize two sides of the Fort, and should begin in early 2008, Park Service officials say.

The goal is to ensure Fort Jefferson, the centerpiece of Dry Tortugas National Park, survives to be shared with future generations, Ryan says, adding that restoration will be accomplished with as many materials as possible used in the original construction, to preserve the historic integrity of the structure.

“This includes Rosendale cement [and] there’s a company in the Northeast that produces it from the same quarry and stone used in the original construction,” Ryan said.

FortJefferson is remaining open to visitors during renovation, according to park officials.

Visitors to the Florida Keys can travel to the Dry Tortugas via daily high-speed ferry service or seaplanes. Both services originate from Key West.

“FortJefferson is an incredible architectural and engineering achievement in both design and craftsmanship,” says Melissa Memory, chief of cultural resources for the park.“This project will help ensure that the Fort is not lost forever to the ravages of time.”

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Andy Newman is media relations director for the Florida Keys Tourism Council.