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 meridianal 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 snorkel-able reef. With the visitor count for 2015 topping out at 525,000, 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 2-century-old fortress of stone perched at the water’s edge, it is home to the largest arsenal of Civil War-era 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 resume 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 fortress, and thus the construction of Fort Zachary Taylor was begun.
Unfortunately, it would be another 30 years — Nov. 3, 1866, to be specific — before the construction of Key West’s fort would finally cease. Decades of inefficiency, plague, extreme weather and human rights abuses would mar the years between Fort Zach’s conception and anticlimactic completion (the fort was technically never finished; a bombardment of Fort Pulaski, Ga., by Union forces completely demolished that building, spurring a national shutdown of fortress construction).
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 backbreaking 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 because of 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 outward. 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 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 World Wars I and II, after which it was demilitarized and given to the Navy for scrap metal storage.
After dredging projects in the 1960s solidified the space between the fort and the beach, excavations on the interior fort walls were begun, the results of which were so impressive that, 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 construction 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.
Fort Zach today
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, coral.
Mote Marine Laboratory, a coral restoration nonprofit headquartered in the Florida Keys, has for years dedicated itself to the study and restoration of the ocean’s vast and complex ecosystem. This year, a new partnership between the Mote lab, the Department of Environmental Protection, the Florida Keys Marine Sanctuary and Fort Zach will see the installation of more than 5,000 nursery-grown corals in the waters off Fort Zach beach. This landmark program will serve to educate the public on the importance and ongoing destruction of the world’s coral reef population, and will help to restore the damaged reef structure surrounding Fort Zach.
Amazingly, the coral fated to be installed at Fort Zach will consist of newly propagated pieces of previously rescued corals from within the park itself — returning native coral to their home in a larger, stronger state after their rehabilitation at the Mote nurseries. The replanted coral habitat will allow for volunteer “citizen scientists” to snorkel the growing reef alongside researchers during prearranged events, giving visitors up-close access to the project and its progress.
With the latest 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. A bigger, deeper channel, deemed necessary in order to allow gargantuan cruise ships to access the island’s docks, was vital to ensuring the prosperity of Key West’s multi-million dollar tourist-based economy, according to many local politicians and business leaders.
However, with Florida’s reef-based tourism and commercial fishing revenue estimated at over $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 recently 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 with nursery-raised corals are fast becoming part of the plan. Fort Zach will allow visitors a firsthand look at the possibilities these nursery-grown coral programs can offer struggling reefs when its Mote Marine Laboratory program kicks off later in the year.
This summer, Fort Zach will install 10 interpretive panels throughout the park grounds, providing visitors with information on the history and ongoing restoration efforts of the park. As the 16th most visited state park out of a whopping 171 nationwide, the panels are sure to get plenty of use from over half a million visitors looking to learn more about this spectacular little strip of shoreline. And with exciting programs like the coral rehabilitation project on the horizon, it’s no wonder that Fort Zach continues to climb the ranks of the most popular parks in the country, making it a definite do-not-miss for any future visit to Key West — whiskey and quinine or not. ¦