Fort Jefferson

Dry Tortugas Island, Key West, Florida

BUILT: 1846
OPERATION TIME: 1846 to present


Fort Jefferson (named for President Thomas Jefferson) began construction in 1846. The already existing lighthouse on the island remained with in the fort’s walls up until it was demolished in 1877. A massive design, the fort featured two sides that measured 325 ft. and two walls that measured 477 ft. Heavy guns were mounted onto the sides of Fort Jefferson’s walls.

Within the fort’s brick walls were living quarters for soldiers and officers, storehouses, gunpowder magazines, and other buildings. In order to construct such a massive structure, the Army utilized blacksmiths, carpenters, civilian machinists, general laborers, masons, prisoners, and slaves as their team for construction. By 1863 (during the Civil War), slaves were no longer needed to work on the fort, as the population of military convicts had risen significantly.

One peak population at Fort Jefferson was an astonishing 1,729. Officers brought their families into the fort, and a few other military personnel brought their wives to serve and laundresses. Other inhabitants of the fort included lighthouse keepers, doctors, cooks, and others.

Cisterns were built into the walls of the fort in order to provide fresh water. Columns filled with sand were placed in the inner walls, their height spanning from the roof to the ground. The purpose of this was to filter rainwater from the top to the underground chambers for water. The idea had to be cancelled as the enormous amount of weight created by the columns cracked the cisterns, causing seawater to leak into the fresh water supply.

Throughout the course of the Civil War, Fort Jefferson remained in federal control. Population of the fort declined to 1,013 (486 soldiers/civilians and 527 prisoners) with the end of the war in 1865. Most of the prisoners had been deserters or robbers rather than POWs.

In July, 1865, four special civilian prisoners arrived at the fort: Dr. Samuel Mudd, Edmund Spangler, Samuel Arnold, and Michael O’Laughlen, all of which were convicted for conspiracy in the assassination of President Abraham Lincoln.

A yellow fever epidemic spread throughout the fort in 1867, which provided Dr. Mudd with praise as he assisted in helping the sick. However, the fever was not without its losses: many prisoners were claimed by it, including O’Laughlen. Mudd was eventually pardoned and released by President Andrew Johnson.

The usefulness of Fort Jefferson had decreased greatly by 1888, and the cost of maintenance from hurricanes became expensive. The fort was turned over to the Marine Hospital Service to be used as a quarantine station in the same year.

Years later on January 4th, 1935, President Franklin D. Roosevelt took a ship to the island and designated Fort Jefferson a National Monument. On November 10th, 1970, the fort was listed on the National Register of Historic Places. Dry Tortugas Island and the fort were declared a National Park on October 26th, 1992.

Fort Jefferson is believed to be haunted by those imprisoned at the fort who died. One of the known spirits is that of Dr. Mudd, who has been known to push living visitors of the park. Activity includes moaning, voices, and convincing EVPs.

In Popular Culture

  • The Prisoner of Shark Island (1936) is a film about Dr. Samuel Mudd’s time on the island. Many historic details are incorrect.
  • Flashback (2003) takes place at Fort Jefferson.
  • Assault on Devil’s Island (1997) had several scenes that were shot at the fort.
  • In World War Z (2006) by Max Brooks, the fort is used as a holdout by the survivors of the zombie apocalypse.
  • The fort was featured on SyFy’s Haunted Highway.


  1. Wikipedia. “Fort Jefferson, Florida,”



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