Due to its particularly quotable geographic location, Key West is home to many proud “southernmosts.” There’s the Southernmost Resort, the Southernmost Point Buoy, the Southernmost Marathon, Southernmost Webcam — not to mention a whole slew of bars and restaurants claiming to be the southernmost of their kind. Included in this long list of austral marvels is none other than Key West’s own Fort Zachary Taylor, proudly designated as the southernmost state park (that is, the southernmost state park within the continental United States — for those lucky enough to call Hawaii their home, rest assured: you’re still the big kahuna when it comes to meridional natural wonders.)
Fort Zachary Taylor, known simply as Fort Zach to locals, has gained a reputation as the best beach in Key West (with apologies to runners-up Smathers and Higgs Beaches — there’s always next year, guys.) Fort Zach’s beach area is one of the most photographed aerial landmarks of Key West: a white sand crescent dotted with tropical evergreens, bordered by a vast gradient of blue-green ocean, and boasting a highly-snorkleable reef. With the annual visitor count routinely topping out at over 500,000 each year, the 54-acre park is clearly a big draw for day-trippers looking to deepen their tans, spot a stingray, or simply watch the party boats go by. But it’s the trapezoidal stone fortress located just a five-minute stroll from the beach that truly sets this park apart. This towering stone structure is the actual fort of Fort Zachary Taylor State Park; an almost two-century-old fortress of stone perched at the water’s edge, it is home to the largest arsenal of Civil Warera seacoast cannons in the U.S., and boasts an epic history of war, epidemic, and construction delays so horrific they make the Panama Canal look like an HGTV weekend project.
After the embarrassment of seeing its East Coast harbors easily overtaken by British forces during the Revolutionary War, the United States government set out to implement a more secure system of coastal defensive strategy. Under the advisement of a lofty French military engineer (whose résumé boasted former employment with a little-known French emperor by the name of Napoleon), a proposed series of maritime fortresses was drawn up. It fell to Col. Joseph G. Totten to oversee the project, and in 1812 construction commenced on a series of stone forts overlooking the Atlantic Ocean. Twenty-four years in, Col. Totten realized that a potentially dire tactical error had been made: an extensive study of the Eastern marine border had erroneously deemed Florida’s coastline lacking any deep-water harbor, and as such, no plans for a fortress had been made for any city south of Pensacola. While Key West had for years been home to various military garrisons, the city had been gravely overlooked during the original evaluation of defendable harbors. A subsequent inspection deemed the southwest point of the island to be the best location for a fortress, and thus the construction of Fort Zachary Taylor was begun.
From the moment its construction was approved, Fort Zach proved to be a daunting task for its overseers. The difficulties of sourcing enough granite and brick from New England, coupled with Key West’s annual inundation of yellow fever, meant that building could not continue uninterrupted for very long. The work was grueling, the wages abysmally poor; to accomplish the most back-breaking work, local slave owners “rented” out their men, whose work earned their masters $1 per day. A hurricane in 1846 reduced the job site to rubble and set the project back a full year. Each summer, yellow fever spread quickly in the tropical heat, and it was only due to increased rations of whiskey and quinine that those laborers working to finish the fort could be persuaded to stay. Due to a belief that the disease was caused by an accumulation of stagnant air, cannons were frequently set off to create movement in the atmosphere inside the fort, while barrels of tar were hung above the barracks and set on fire in an effort to aid the movement of stale air outwards. It was, in short, an unpleasant place to live and work.
By 1850, the project had progressed far enough to receive an official name: Fort Zachary Taylor, in honor of the recently-deceased U.S. president, whose brutal success in Florida’s Second Seminole War 13 years prior had earned him the command of all American troops stationed in the state of Florida.
As civil war grew nearer on the horizon, attempts to speed up the completion of the fort were prioritized by leaders in Washington. They dispatched enlisted servicemen from the Company A Corps of Engineers to Key West to aid in managing the project, attending to the delivery of massive shipments of ammunition and weapons, as well as the construction of a desalination plant on site to provide large amounts of drinking water. A drawbridge was installed, along with a narrow railroad connecting the then-islanded fort to the nearby beach. (Decades later, the waters surrounding the fort would be filled in to create what is now Key West’s beloved Fort Zach beach and the surrounding pine-filled grounds.) An ingenious sanitation system that harnessed wave power to flush away waste was installed, and finally, a small makeshift bakery was added to provide rations for the troops on site. By early 1861, the fort (though still far from finished) was fortified enough to receive the entire Key West Barracks.
Meanwhile, in Alabama, Florida politicians convened with representatives from five other southern states to form what would soon be known as the Confederate Government. Within a month, all federally funded forts in the south had been seized by Confederate forces with only four exceptions — one being Fort Zach. On Jan. 14, 1861, a battalion of heavily armed troops from the 1st U.S. Artillery led by Capt. John M. Brennan marched into the fort, along with a handful of civilian workers, and claimed it officially on behalf of the North, raising a Union flag to symbolize their peaceful occupation of the fortress.
The Key West fort remained a Union stronghold for the entirety of the Civil War, where it acted as the headquarters of the U.S. Navy East Coast Blockading Squadron. During the Spanish-American War, the design of the building was augmented to accommodate heavier artillery, fortified by the addition of poured cement (which buried many of the original cannons until 1968, when excavations revealed the cache to be the largest in the nation). The fort continued as an active coastal fortress throughout the First and Second World wars, after which it was demilitarized and given to the Navy for scrap metal storage.
In 1973, the fortress was officially declared a National Historic Landmark. The state of Florida gained ownership of the property three years later, and after the erection of a Visitor’s Center, the Fort Zachary Taylor State Park opened to the public in 1985 as the southernmost state park in the continental United States.
Today, the park continues to draw hundreds of thousands of tourists annually. And while the magnitude of its historic significance is surely enough to entice tourists to visit, its caregivers are passionately committed to ensuring the fort remains relevant. Though the relic of the building itself remains nonfunctional, it is the waters off Fort Zach beach that will ensure the park continues to defend and protect those under siege — in this case, the endangered coral reefs surrounding the Florida Keys. With continued news on South Florida’s reef system reporting that the deterioration of the delicate coral is accelerating at a far greater speed than previously thought, scientists have begun warning the public that Florida’s barrier reef — the third largest in the world, and the only one in the continental United States — has reached a breaking point.
However dire the circumstance, the fight to keep the destruction of coral reefs at bay nevertheless persists, including here in Key West. In 2013, the island’s residents scored an epic win on behalf of their reef when they arrived at the polls in record-breaking numbers to vote down the potential dredging of a channel within the Florida Keys National Marine Sanctuary. According to many local politicians and business leaders, a bigger, deeper channel that would allow gargantuan cruise ships to access the island’s docks was vital to ensuring the prosperity of Key West’s multimillion-dollar tourist-based economy. However, with Florida’s reefbased tourism and commercial fishing revenue estimated at more than $7.5 billion, Key West residents decided to bet on behalf of the ocean, and were recently offered a haunting glimpse of what could have happened if they had not been victorious: a similarly cruise-oriented dredging of Port Miami made national news last year when it was revealed that, according to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, the dredging of the port caused extensive damage to the area’s coral reef, with an estimated 93 percent partial coral death due to sediment created by the dredging. For many Floridian ports with dredging plans in the works, programs to relocate and rehabilitate nearby reef structures withnursery-raisedd corals such as the one installed at Fort Zach are fast becoming part of the plan. At the research facility on Summerland Key, Mote scientists have revolutionized coral rehabilitation farming by selectively farming fragments of staghorn corals — a dangerously threatened species at up to four times faster inside Mote’s extensive Summerland Key underwater nursery than they would in the wild, allowing scientists there to replant hardier specimens at a much faster rate than ever before.
In addition to its exciting ongoing Coral restoration, Fort Zach recently unveiled its new $1.8 million brick entrance, replacing the aging ticket booths that previously welcomed over 600,000 visitors a year. Part of a larger series of multi-million-dollar restoration projects completed this spring. It’s a fitting improvement to one of Key West’s most valuable assets, and with the amphitheater completed and more waterfront area improvements on the horizon, the new gates (and those tireless volunteers who man the booths beside them) will almost certainly be greeting evermore national park visitors in coming years. ¦