Living at the Dry Tortugas Fort Jefferson National Park

By Wayne Landrum

After 26 years of working in National Park areas across the country, I moved to the Dry Tortugas; a unique and remote sub-tropical park. It is located in South Florida at the southwestern end of the Florida Keys. I was assigned the position of park manager for the 100 sq. mile park, a small group of islands surrounded by the waters of the Gulf of Mexico.

It was 1992 when I packed my bags and moved to the Dry Tortugas from Biscayne National Park in Homestead, Florida. This was shortly after hurricane Andrew had blasted the southern tip of Florida.

That year, 1992, was the year Fort Jefferson National Monument, was designated by Congress as Dry Tortugas National Park. My position as manager was to supervise and take care of the operations in the park and to supervise the employees living there. Usually there are about 15 people living and working in the park at any given time. There are maintenance employees to operate the facilities and equipment, including boats, generators, water systems and all other types of equipment, to keep the “small city” operational and there are law enforcement rangers, naturalists and biological researchers, to interpret care and protect the parks natural and cultural resources.

What is it like to live in a remote location, 70 miles at sea from the nearest town with access only by boat or seaplane?

There are the hurricanes that visit the place and have frequently over the past 150 years. The park closes to the public before the arrival of predicted hurricanes but the employees usually stay in the fort. The walls are 40 feet high and made of brick. There are designated shelters for employees on the second floor in the power magazines. These rooms were built with walls eight feet thick and are stocked with food water and all necessary provisions to exist through the storm and until outside conditions are again safe. During hurricane Georges in 1998, all the park residents chose to ride it out in the park. It is probably safe to say that Fort Jefferson is the safest place to be in the Florida Keys during a hurricane.

Communication with the rest of the world was spotty at best; the one radio telephone we all shared in the office was often out for months at a time. The marine radio allowed us to communicate with the boats in the area and we had our own park radio system often reaching only 8 to 10 miles.

Technology changed considerably from l992 until I left the park in 1999. Cell phones did not work in the lower keys with adequate coverage until about 1995, and still don’t at the Dry Tortugas. However, other improvements have made life easier at the park. Each resident now has satellite television if they want it. There is now a satellite phone for use in emergencies and overall communications have improved.

There are other differences out at the Dry Tortugas from living in a place with a road. Planning for food and supplies had to be based on the park supply boat coming out to the park once a week from Key West. If you ran out of basics you just had to wait for the boat to return the next week and it occasionally did not make it out due to repairs or storms too strong to allow safe passage. The supply boat also takes employees to and from the park for days off, park business or private travel.

Living in a remote National Park has some great benefits for those who enjoy the outdoors. The park is a birding paradise, with Spring and Fall migrations of rare birds passing through the park. The park is also a premiere nesting area for frigate birds, masked boobies, noddy terns, and sooty terns. Species of birds are often seen in the Dry Tortugas National Park that are extremely rare in the continental United States.

Sea turtles cruise through the area and Loggerhead and Green Sea Turtles are commonly seen next to the beaches inside the park. Fish and tropical reefs are attractions to divers and swimmers.

From Garden Key one can watch the sun rise from the sea in the morning and set in sea in the evening. At dark the night sky lights up with stars and planets because there are no cities obscuring the sky with their light and air pollution.

Many park employees are attracted to the more remote national parks because the natural setting is still intact, remote and exciting. It has been a good career for me and my family spending our time working in places where others spend their vacations.

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One Response to “Living at the Dry Tortugas Fort Jefferson National Park”

  1. John Hanley Says:

    Man, ohhhh man. After 2 camping trips ( summer of 2005 and spring of 2007 ), my wife and I are ready to sign up as volunteers. It is a long waiting list sure, but it would be well worth it. We both love the park and the ” suspended” state it seems to be in, naturally speaking. You folks that have worked it, and maintained it all these years deserve a heartfelt thanks from those of us who have been able to visit.

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