Posted on October 22, 2020
It’s not all tiki-bars, scantily clad people and parties in Key West… well, it’s mostly that, with a pinch of Hemingway and a whole lot of Jimmy Buffet. Sure there’s the Sunset Celebration; sure there’s Fantasy Fest, sure there’s the inherent wackiness of an archipelago that defected from the United States for 5 seconds thanks to stale Cuban Bread. There’s all of that, plus great beaches, and a night-life that just won’t quit. BUT, Key West is also one of the most historically rich places in the US. Why? Because everyone likes the beach; even Presidents, Banana Republic Dictators, Army Men, Artistic Types, and the CIA. For an island that has only 250 years of actual recorded history, up until the late 18th century the place was a wigwam of folklore and maybes, the spot sure managed to do a lot. So much so that it has haunted dolls, thousands of ghosts, great pirate tales, CIA missions, invasion forces, and not one but a total of 4 – If you count the one in the Dry- Tortugas – forts. Today we’re going to talk trash and wag our chins as we dive deep into Fort Taylor and more importantly its macabre and morbid history… and the ghosts haunting its parapets.
A History Of Fort Taylor
Grab a map of Key West, it’s really small. Nothing more than a 10-mile island and the juicy spots are on its southern tip. A jogger can circumvent the whole island in an 1 hour. Down south, past Duvall and all its bar, you’ll discover the Fort Zachary Taylor Historic State Park. Aside from one of the best beaches in the Florida Keys, or at least in Key West, the place is also known for it’s rather impressive Civil War-era fort. If you’re in the Keys, and last night’s hangover hasn’t beaten you black and blue, you should check it out. It’s worth it just for its wide panoramic views and its own personal, more intimate, depiction of the legendary sunset celebration.
Plans for the fort began in 1822 as part of a mid-19th century scheme to secure the southeast coast of the US. The Gulf was being plagued not only by outside aggression but by scoundrels and pirates. The US, to stem this tide of villainy, began constructing a series of forts across the south right after the War of 1812.
Thompson Island, at the southwest tip of Key West, was elected as the place for the fort in 1822, and designs for the garrison, drawn up by Simon Bernard and Joseph G. Totten, were ratified by the Commander in Chief in 1836.
It took them, the army, and all the King’s Men to put this Humpty Dumpty together a total of almost fifteen years. The area was remote, full of pitfalls, natural catastrophes, hurricanes that would pummel the tip of Key West, and through the archipelagos roaming bands of criminals, miscreants, and misplaced natives.
The Fort Taylor was finally inaugurated in November 1850. The man that was supposed to break the proverbial champagne bottle and cut the red-ribbon was President Zachary Taylor… The POTUS didn’t make the affair. Why?
Overindulging In Ice Cream
Old Zachery, a couple of months before, had keeled over. On July 4, 1850, the POTUS gorged himself in abundant quantities of raw fruit and iced milk – nowadays called Ice-Cream. It was the 4th Of July and the man was tipsy with holiday cheer. 5 days later… Well…
“I should not be surprised if this were to terminate in my death. I did not expect to encounter what has beset me since my elevation to the Presidency. God knows I have endeavored to fulfill what I conceived to be an honest duty. But I have been mistaken. My motives have been misconstrued, and my feelings most grossly outraged.”
Zachery died of intestinal distress on July 9th. One of his biographers, due to his 16 months in office, labeled him as: “more a forgettable president than a failed one.” If you had to name all the presidents, Taylor would probably be one of the final ones… the half dozen of so at the tip of your tongue.
Anyway, back to the fort. Zachery didn’t make the premier so the place was named in his honor. Go figure.
Fort Taylor’s Framework
The fort’s framework consists of oolitic limestone and New England granite. Its five-foot thick walls rose 50 feet. The walls contain 42 guns on three levels; cannons that back then were state of the art, instead of round balls they had explosive aerodynamic projectiles that closely resembled modern-day bullets. The fort’s tech’ wonders were the pride of the state and the envy of other citadels.
Troop barracks were cast into a gorge with space for 800 men.
Rainwater was assembled in underground wells along the perimeter of the fort.
Yellow Fever epidemics were rather ubiquitous in the Keys way back when the fort was being constructed. You really couldn’t say you had acclimated to the area unless you had gotten a bout of Yellow Fever. Your residency card was a deep tan, a love for rum drinks, and Yellow Fever antibodies.
Scores of man died while Fort Taylor was being constructed and each regiment left on the island to man the citadel had to deal with the pox. The fort’s mortuary was full of dead soldiers and the island’s hospitals were swamped numerous occasions by lost causes.
At the rise of the U.S. Civil War on January 13, 1861, Union Captain John Milton Brannan, relocated his 44 men of the First U.S. Artillery from Key West Barracks to Fort Taylor. The man’s orders were to stop the fort from sinking into Confederate hands. Fort became a key outpost against blockade runners. It served as a deterrent for Confederate troops to move inland; its cannons due to their design had 10 times the accuracy of others of its kind. From its walls, Union soldiers could hit a boat swaying in the surf with ease. Shooting fish in a barrel.
In 1898, the fort was diminished down to the second floor and Battery Osceola was added to the south casemate.
Since then, up until it became a national landmark, the fort has stood as one of the State’s most used battlement. The stronghold was massively used during the 1898 Spanish–American War, World Wars I and II, and the Cuban Missile Crisis. At the Fort, future Presidents have plotted, the CIA has zoomed recording devices at Fidel’s sandbox, and all manner of international intrigue has taken place. It’s a shining example of why Florida, despite its relatively new status as a state – from a historical POV – is one of the most significant region’s in the Nation’s biography.
In 1947, the garrison, now a relic of its time, was turned over to the U.S. Navy for maintenance. In 1968, aides led by Howard S. England unearthed Civil War guns and munitions buried in long-abandoned parts of the post; the find became the nation’s largest collection of Civil War cannons.
Ghost and Goblins
Yellow Fever epidemics. Jailed convicts. Scoundrels at every corner…. and the regular shenanigans associated with Key West have made Fort Zachery Taylor one of the most haunted spots on the island. The place is rife with exploits and tales of the macabre. It’s a mish-mash of drunken sightings and historical legends… and urban tongue in cheeks telling… In other words it’s just one more aspect of the Key West narrative; a double-sided coin made up of maddening certainties and entertaining lies.
Not a drop of blood was spilled in battle in the Fort, BUT dozens upon dozens of people kicked the can within the military icon’s walls. Disease ran rampant in the place; drunk soldiers played Russian Roulette with one-bullet flintlock guns; the desperate took night time swims off its beach with rock in their pockets.
Fort Taylor is of full of disturbing events and of countless strange activities. The Park Rangers that roam the area and protect it have sighted such bizarre sights as:
- Soldiers lining up in formation on moonlit nights.
- Bloated corpses, floating unto the beach only to disappear when approached.
- A foul stench emanating from the barracks.
- The sound of gunfire and the flash of powder in darkened corridors.
- Eery whistling in the parapets at night.
- Cold spots in the downstair section of the fort.
- Anguished moans in the area once used as a field hospital.
For more tales check out our blog.
Source for Featured Image: Wikimedia.