Visitor Center offers museum, souvenirs

DRY TORTUGAS, Fla.— Tucked under the massive brick walls of Fort Jefferson in the Dry Tortugas National Park is a small grotto closed off by a creaky door. An unassuming sign barely gives notice of what lies within. It says “Visitor Center.”

People are usually directed to the door by a ranger who has taken pity on some overheated soul who didn’t plan on the island’s relentless sun. The visitor’s center has the only air conditioning and chairs available to tourists and that is often the initial attraction. Others stumble in almost by mistake.

It’s that hard to find.

Once inside, the center offers more than a cool place to get out of the sun. Spend a little time there and your visit to Fort Jefferson is enriched in ways that those who haven’t ventured in will never be lucky enough to know.

“I had no idea that this was what it is. When I opened the door, I thought that this was a ranger’s office. I needed directions to the boat,” said Deena Thomas, an Orlando resident who came to the park with her husband and daughter.

The entrance of the Visitor Center at Fort Jefferson (Staff photos).

Make no mistake, this visitor’s center is a far cry from some of its state-of-the-art cousins at big national parks like Yellowstone or the Grand Canyon. There are no flashy displays or giant maps to greet you here. There is no deluxe cafeteria lined up with talkative children. Lines don’t form at the gift store with trinket-laden senior citizens.

No, this is a no-frills affair. Nothing fancy. Just three little rooms in what one imagines was a stock room or maybe even a prison cell. While it does have that lovely air conditioner in the back window, there isn’t even a bathroom available.

The rangers tell visitors the sewage system is having some problems that will, hopefully, be fixed soon. Exactly when…no one seems to know. People are told to use the facilities on the tour boats that bring most of them to the island.

But who needs all that fancy stuff? The fort’s residents of the 1800s certainly got by just fine without them. What you do get at the Visitor Center more than makes up for it anyway.

The entrance of Fort Jefferson.

This is a center that offers simple, old-fashioned information, and that is what makes it so appealing.

“We have just stood here for the last 20 minutes looking around. It’s fascinating,” said Thomas, holding her daughter Terry’s hand as they surveyed the exhibits.

If you have even a casual interest in history, the little displays in the first room you enter do a terrific job of giving a glimpse of what life was like when the fort was one of the most strategic bases of the U.S. Navy.

Take the time to read the reproductions of Sgt. Harrison Herrick’s diary that hang on one wall. “Felt better,” he writes after what must have been a very stormy arrival at the Fort. “Went ashore with prisoners and all in small boats at about 4 p.m.”

As you read on, Sgt. Herrick’s words describe the daily ins and outs of long days at the remote Fort Jefferson. Walking around the fort later, his description of the parades on the grounds or the excitement of the mail delivery is easily imagined.

Slowly winding your way from one historical display to the next brings you to the door of the other, more high-tech room of exhibits. Here, high-tech means that there is a television against one wall with a short video tape you can turn on when you want.

Watching a video when the monumental work of architecture that is the fort waits to be explored seems like a poor use of time.

Visitors watch a videotape in the Visitor Center museum.

Nonetheless, the video does give a wonderful overview of the fort which no ranger or guide could really compete with.

If you choose to pass on the video, make sure to examine the biology displays that offer more insight to the island. You’ll learn that the Sooty Terns that swarm around the neighboring key are from the west coast of Africa.

Or you might decide that the lives of little sea turtles (las tortugas) are so tough that you should appreciate what you have.

Before you take all that historical and biological knowledge out for a spin around the fort, walk into the third room – the gift shop.

If you are lucky you will meet Niki Ryan standing behind the counter. One of 13 residents of the island, the cheerful 31-year-old park service employee can give you a better appreciation of Fort Jefferson than all the books and displays combined.

“We have a huge rat problem here. When the visitors leave and the sun sets, they come out. They have no natural predators here. So it’s up to us to get rid of them. They came here with the first sailing vessels couple of hundred years ago,” she said.

It’s that kind of conversation. You keep hearing things that lead to more questions and soon you realize that you are late for lunch.

A U.S. flag and 19th century cannon on display in the Visitor Center museum.

The Visitor Center is supported by the Florida National Parks and Monuments Association, which also maintains the visitor’s centers at Biscayne National Park and the Everglades National Park. The non-profit association works with the National Park Service to promote and enhance the park experience.

Ryan says between 60 and 150 people come through the shop a day and that her store outsells the other association’s other two stores.

The best seller in the shop is Pages from the Past — a Pictorial History of Fort Jefferson by A.C. Manucy. Post cards always do well too.

Before you leave, let Ryan know how much you enjoyed Sgt. Herrick’s diary display out front and she might tell you about the project that she just completed.

During some of her long, isolated hours on the island, Ryan painstakingly translated onto a compact disk the often poor handwriting of the diaries and letters of various soldiers, prisoners and residents.

It is a wonderful contribution to the historical record of the fort.

The CD is there, behind the counter. If you are really nice and smile sweetly, you might be able to take one home.


If You Go

Best Souvenirs:

Baseball cap: Embroidered with the name of the park and either a rendering of the fort, a turtle or a tern, $16.95.

Poster: An aerial photo of the Fort Jefferson (Garden Key) and the surrounding keys. 16 inches x 20 inches, $3.

Videotape: Fort Jefferson – Gibraltar of the Gulf. History and views of the fort today, 11 minutes, $11.95.

Best Books:

Pages from the Past — a Pictorial History of Fort Jefferson by A.C. Manucy. A history of Fort Jefferson with color photographs and illustrations, 32 pages, $7.95.

Escape and Capture of John Wilkes Booth by Edward Steers, Jr. An account of the assassination of Lincoln and Booth’s capture and imprisonment on the island, 72 pages, $6.95.

Sam the Sea Cow. A Children’s Reading Rainbow book, for ages 4 to 8, $7.95.

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