The option to visit Fort Jefferson is left to the passengers of M/V Spree and I try to lobby for it. According to Damian my public relation skills are on par with those of BP executives so I don’t expect much. But the dive master in charge of the trip planning describes it as groovy, plus the tropical wave threatens to collapse, so it’s decided we’ll skip one dive and do the fort. Hooray!!!
Tropical wave is the south equivalent of an Arctic front: one of those meteorological terms that mean the weather can change for the worse. Spree docks with a thump as the squall starts. 15 minutes later the torrential rain is over leaving fresh cool air. We are the only people left on an islet, not counting few campers and resident park staff, as Spree can dock only after all the ferries from Key West leave.
The fort appears empty and abandoned. We walk leisurely the grounds observing the scene of a battle against nature. The battle which humans are clearly losing. Contradictory preservation efforts don’t help: blowing up the barracks damaged by fire is followed by meticulous restoration of rusted iron shutters. The fort has been doomed since inception. No fresh water, hurricanes, and, most recently, tourists. Cisterns to collect rain water cracked under the fort weight letting salt water seep in. Same happened earlier at Fort Taylor in nearby Key West but do we ever learn? No enemy attack needed here. And none came: there are miles and miles of water to sail around beyond the range of guns. The strategic importance of the place, nonexistent in the age of satellites and iPads, was disputed even before the fort was built. Used as a fort, a prison and finally as a marine quarantine station now enjoys its old age as a part of the national park serving as a reminder of the typical manly overreach.
The only invasion that it had to endure came strangely from Key West when federal government closed down National Park Service during 1995 budget crisis. Closing the national park was hurting local economy so flotilla of city officials under the flag of Conch Republic arrived at the fort trying to reopen it for tourists. Columbines, bastions and moat were not part of the defense plan, a simple citation was sufficient.
The most recent restoration effort consumes millions of dollars from the latest stimulus package. Nothing stimulates economy better then maintaining remote heaps of bricks.
Fort Jefferson is in the middle of nowhere. 70 miles of water separates it from the closest American settlement - Key West. And only 90 miles from Cuba. It sees a fair share of Cuban refugees in tiny unlit boats. They use light from the nearby Loggerhead Key Lighthouse as a beacon. If they are caught at sea they are turned back by the Coast Guard, if they land on American soil they can stay. Desolation meets desperation.