Today's Key West is known for its tropical style, night life and laid-back atmosphere.  But this has not always been the case. Since becoming part of the United States in 1821, Key West was utilized primarily as a strategic military base. The island’s location on the 90-mile wide Straits of Florida connecting the Atlantic and Gulf of Mexico earned Key West the nickname “Gibraltar of the West”.  As a result, four fortifications were built on the island and nearby Dry Tortugas.

West Martello Tower

West Martello Tower was the result of an island fortification plan originally conceived in 1836 but not underway until 1863 during the Civil War.  During the war, Key West was the only southern city under Federal control throughout the war.  Since the Key Westers were mainly confederate sympathizers, the fortresses under construction were connected by rail to help insure the troops’ safety.  The Civil War design of the West Martello was never completed and in 1878 advances in technology led to a refitting of the fort. During the Spanish American War at the turn of the century, West Martello was used for storing supplies, signaling, observation and quartering troops.

The U.S. government established an anti-aircraft battery in the fort beginning at the outset of World War l and continuing through 1949.  At that time the fort was turned over to Monroe County and was destined for demolition. However the Key West Garden Club convinced the county to save the fort and convert it into a tropical garden.  Since then garden club volunteers have spent countless hours transforming the decrepit brick bastion into a lush botanical paradise.  Admission to the tower is free and while exploring it is interesting to note areas that once held gunpowder and cannon are now stocked with tropical flora of every variety.

East Martello Tower

Much like its sister to the west, East Martello Tower construction began during the Civil War but was never completed.  Its thick walls were designed to withstand intense offshore bombardment but the development of exploding shells made the tower defenses obsolete.  The fortress never saw action of any kind and today the brick citadel houses an expansive collection of Key West artifacts, historical documents and military hardware. 

The museum area houses a collection of wood carving reliefs by world renowned folk artist Mario Sanchez, who grew up in the heart of Key West and whose work depicts his memories of Key West life.  Works by other local artists are also on display.  The central tower of East Martello is still intact and a climb to the top offers a breezy panorama of the Atlantic coast.  The Gulf of Mexico can be seen a short distance away in the opposite direction.  There is also a garden area, complete with an antique playhouse.  This fort is considered the best example in the United States of the Martello era of fortress design.

East Martello Tower

East Martello TowerCredit: Photo: Wayne WallaceCredit: Photo: Wayne Wallace

Fort Zachary Taylor

Fort Zachary Taylor is part of the Florida State Park system.  It encompasses 54 acres and has been designated a National Historic Landmark.  Like East and West Martello, construction began on Fort Taylor around 1845 but was not completed until much later.  It served as the headquarters for the U.S. Navy’s East Gulf Coast Blockading Squadron during the Civil War. The fort’s 140 guns were a huge deterrent for any confederate hopes of retaking Key West.  Fort Taylor’s guns were last manned during the Spanish American War.  During a modernization period before the Spanish American War, a desalinization system was installed, along with plumbing for sewage. The fortress became an observation post during World War l and a radar center during World War ll.  Eventually the army turned the fort over to the navy to maintain.

During a period of gradual restoration beginning in the 1970s, the fort became a multi-purpose destination. Today, in addition to the historical significance, there are many reasons to explore Fort Taylor and surroundings. Swimming and snorkeling just outside the fort on Patio Beach is a very popular activity and a picnic area is nearby.  There are also hiking and biking trails near the fort and fishing is permitted on the west side along the deep-water Key West Shipping Channel.  The park staff is also equipped to handle weddings and private parties.

Fort Jefferson in Dry Tortugas National Park

Fort Jefferson, Dry Tortugas National ParkCredit: Phoro: Wayne WallaceCredit: Phoro: Wayne Wallace

Fort Jefferson

Fort Jefferson National Monument is part of the Dry Tortugas National Park and is situated about 70 miles west of Key West.  There are daily seaplane and ferry excursions from Key West to the park.   The fort was originally conceived as a deterrent to piracy but eventually became a seeming impregnable United States defensive outpost.  Like the other keys forts, construction on Jefferson began around 1846, the year after Florida became a state.  Slaves were used for much of the construction.  Fort Jefferson was completed during the Civil War and at its peak housed more than 2000 military and civilian personnel.  It is still the largest masonry structure in the western hemisphere, with more than 16 million bricks used in its construction.

One of the most notable residents of the fort was a prisoner named Samuel Mudd, a doctor who had set the broken leg of Lincoln assassin John Wilkes Booth.  He was brought to Fort Jefferson after being found guilty of conspiracy in the assassination plot.  For his work with the sufferers of yellow fever at the fort, Mudd earned high praise and an eventual pardon from President Andrew Johnson. In 1888, due to high cost of maintaining the fort, it was reduced to a quarantine station. President Franklin Roosevelt declared Fort Jefferson and nearby Loggerhead Key to be a national park in 1935.

Today the fort is a popular tourist destination.  Flying in by seaplane, the birdseye view makes the enormity of the structure becomes evident as it looms closer and closer. In addition to the Fort Jefferson, there are two lighthouses to explore and many areas available for snorkeling, including the moat surrounding the fort.  It is also a bird watcher’s delight. At last count more than 299 species were spotted at the park, most on migratory stopovers.  Scuba diving on nearby shipwrecks is also popular. And many visitors enhance their experience by camping at one of the primitive campsites in the shadow of Fort Jefferson’s massive walls.  Tent sites are limited and are on a first-come, first-serve basis.

Key West’s rich history and seafaring traditions can be relived by visiting these monuments to the past.  Be sure to put one or more on your “to do” list for your next visit to the Keys.