Fort Jefferson gets a face-lift BY CAMMY CLARK
DRY TORTUGAS -- On an island 70 miles from Key West, a massive pre-Civil
War-era fort is being restored, one brick at a time.
Two crews have embarked on a three-year, $6 million project to stabilize
and restore two crumbling walls of six-sided Fort Jefferson. Work on the
federal project is challenging -- the nearest hardware store is a 2 ½-hour
boat ride away -- but the ocean views are spectacular.
'I call it, `The Big Whopper,' '' project manager Ken Uracius said of the
fort, the largest brick structure in the Western Hemisphere.
Uracius, a master mason who has worked on structures ranging from the New
England Patriots' Gillette Stadium to Frank Lloyd Wright buildings,
oversees two, 14-man crews that are in the second year of the project.
''Fort Jefferson is totally worth saving,'' said Kelly Clark, exhibits
specialist for the Dry Tortugas National Park where the fort is located.
``Little to no alterations have been done since the period of
construction. It's one of those hidden gems of our country.''
Called the ''Guardian of the Gulf,'' Fort Jefferson was the most
sophisticated fortress built as part of a coastal defense system conceived
after the British devastated American cities during the War of 1812.
Thousands of men, some slaves and Union deserters held as prisoners,
worked on its massive structure from 1846 until 1874, when the U.S. Army
abandoned the 17-acre outpost.
The invention of the rifled cannon -- with ammunition that could penetrate
the fort's eight-foot-thick walls -- made the structure obsolete before it
was finished or fired upon.
''Although it's always been in an isolated world, the fort has a great
connection to mainstream American history,'' Clark said.
Among its more colorful history: The four-year stint of Dr. Samuel Mudd,
the doctor who set the broken leg of John Wilkes Booth. Mudd was convicted
of conspiracy to assassinate President Abraham Lincoln and sentenced to
life in prison.
When a yellow fever epidemic broke out at Fort Jefferson, Mudd was
relocated to its military prison to take over as its physician. For Mudd's
work, President Andrew Johnson pardoned him in 1869.
Fort Jefferson also was the last stop of the USS Maine before its ill-
fated journey to Havana harbor, where the ship exploded in 1898, killing
266 sailors and helping spark the Spanish-American war.
Uracius, who has spent months working at the fort, marveled at the
meticulous workmanship that went into its construction. He remains
especially impressed by the arches, which he said few masons of today
The fort, despite a century and a half of sea spray and hurricanes, would
be in good shape today -- if not for the ``Totten shutters.''
The 1,800-pound, wrought-iron shutters were installed around the openings
used for shooting cannons. Gen. Joseph Totten, chief of engineers for the
U.S. Army, designed the shutters that automatically opened with the blast
from firing, then slammed shut to protect the gunners.
''Totten spent his entire life developing the system,'' Uracius said.
``But in the 1860s, they didn't know wrought iron expanded. So sitting out
here in the salt air, this material grew to probably twice its size.''
The expansion acted almost like an explosion, pushing out the surrounding
bricks to cause cracks and crumbling. Over time, thousands of bricks ended
up in the moat below.
Restoration began in the late 1980s, when National Park Service employees
from New Mexico began coming yearly to Fort Jefferson to repair brickwork,
Uracius, who works for Enola Contracting of Chipley, Fla., said the crews
are trying to salvage as many original bricks as possible. Replacements
come from a Louisiana company that still makes bricks with an 1860 brick
press, Uracius said.
To complete the authentic feel of the repairs, the crews use Rosendale
natural cement, made by a New York company that once was run by a friend
Matching the brick color has been difficult since the top and bottom
bricks are different colors -- the ones on top from Maine, those on the
bottom from Pensacola.
The line between them ''is where the Civil War started,'' Uracius said.
The restoration work is meticulous and labor-intensive. The masons,
working from rickety scaffolding above the moat, chip away at old mortar
with hand chisels and air hammers. They redo the brick work after
replacing the old wrought-iron shutters with cement replicas.
Mason Jeff Perry of Wales, Mass., said he is in awe of the bricklayers who
did the original work.
''We got all the saws and stuff, and they had nothing,'' he said. ``I kind
of wonder how they did it without electricity.''
The logistics are mind-boggling, too, Uracius said. All equipment and
materials have to be brought in by barge, and all workers transported by
''Everything out here is unique,'' he said.
The project will stop at the end of June, a break for hurricane season.
''Can you imagine us having to take down all this scaffolding, get off the
island and out of the Keys with five days notice?'' Uracius said. ``We'll
start back in November.''
Thanks to Joe Bilby of the PhilaCWRT for sending this release to us.