KEY WEST, Florida Keys — A museum depicting the natural and historic resources of Dry Tortugas National Park and historic Fort Jefferson has opened in Key West, offering visitors an easily accessible introduction to one of America's most remote national parks.
The Dry Tortugas and Key West Bight Interpretive Center is located at 240 Margaret St. on the Key West Bight, a natural deep-water harbor on the island's Gulf of Mexico side. The free-admission museum also spotlights the culturally rich history of the bight.
Dry Tortugas National Park, lying approximately 70 miles west of Key West in the Gulf of Mexico, is made up of seven tiny coral-and-sand islands. It includes Fort Jefferson, one of the largest brick structures in the Western Hemisphere, on which construction began in 1846. During the Civil War Fort Jefferson served as a Union military prison for captured deserters and others.
Museum highlights include an 11-foot-diameter scale model of the historic fort as it appeared in the 1870s, a 30-foot-long photomural depicting the bight's historic highlights, an exhibit featuring a life-size replica of the fort's most famous prisoner, Dr. Samuel Mudd, and a hands-on children's exhibit showcasing the natural resources of the park.
The center's opening is among several Florida Keys events celebrating the 500th anniversary of the discovery of Florida and the Keys island chain. Adventurer Juan Ponce de Leon sighted the Keys May 15, 1513, according to Spanish chronicler Antonio de Herrera y Tordesillas. Later, June 21, de Leon and his shipmates discovered a group of islands they named Las Tortugas (The Turtles) for the scores of sea turtles they harvested there.
Operated by Yankee Freedom, whose ferry is the only commercial boat licensed to carry passengers to Dry Tortugas National Park, the interpretive center is open from 8:30 a.m. to 5 p.m. daily.
The free-admission interpretive center is located in the old Thompson Fish House on Dock C at Key West's Historic Seaport. Image by Carol Tedesco
Historic Fort Jefferson is America's largest coastal fort. Photo by Andy Newman/Florida Keys News Bureau