Exploring Fort Zachery Taylor Historic State Park: Key West’s Hidden Gem

Just a short drive from the hustle and bustle of downtown Key West lies Fort Zachary Taylor Historic State Park, one of the Florida Keys’ most unique historical attractions. Sitting on 87 beautifully maintained waterfront acres, this mid-1800s fort offers a fascinating glimpse into Civil War-era military history amid picture-perfect beachfront settings. Visitors today take advantage of diverse recreational facilities as well like lengthy trails, fishing piers and the largest public beach in Key West. The remarkably preserved fort defenses stand as the largest remaining from this period, creating plenty of opportunities for exploring and photography. Whether you’re a history buff, nature lover or simply seeking stunning scenery, carve out at least half a day to uncover the varied highlights found within this hidden coastal gem.

Construction and Early History in the 1800s

While famed for late-night celebrations and literary legends today, Key West held strategic military importance as an anchorage and navigational point for centuries. Its location along major Gulf shipping lanes to and from the United States made defenses essential. When relations with Spain improved in the 1820s, the U.S. Navy began establishing facilities around Key West includingmines, lighthouses and facilities for an African slave trade squadron. The Second Seminole War in 1835 emphasized the need for more substantial coastal defenses as well.

Fort Zachary Taylor finally took shape when construction began in 1845 to better protect south Florida’s coasts. It was named after future president Zachary Taylor whose forces were engaged in the Second Seminole War at one point. Renowned military engineer Joseph Totten oversaw plans based on new “Third System” style defenses with stronger, thicker walls. Laborer Samuel Hammond built temporary housing and warehouses to accommodate up to 500 men working on the ambitious brick fort project. By 1861 when Florida seceded from the Union, more than 1.5 million bricks made from native coral and limestone had been laid by hand and slave labor. However, weapons installations remained incomplete when Union forces withdrew from the Keys.

Strategic Stronghold during the Civil War Key West remained loyal to the Union throughout the war, making Fort Taylor a vital asset at America’s “southernmost point.” Its formidable guns gave Union ships and merchant convoys safe harbor and a picturesque backdrop for raising patriotic morale. Locals could even hear the fort’s nightly cannon blast signaling Key West’s secure status. Squads rotated through deployments here, honing artillery skills but otherwise enduring boredom with rare skirmishes against small Confederate ships and blockade runners.

Fort Taylor saw one dramatic battle in October 1861 leading to a Congressional Medal of Honor for Navy Cmdr. Rodgers. The Union warship he captained confronted Confederate privateer Judah P. Benjamin who refused surrender demands, so Rodgers sank the enemy ship. Eventually through wartime and subsequent efforts, workers expanded Fort Taylor to a nearly impenetrable hexagonal design spanning 16.5 acres. Its 186-foot width walls stood over 40 feet high in places surrounded by a 10-foot deep moat. By war’s end, Fort Taylor served as the South’s largest and strongest coastal defense fortification.

Changing Purpose in the 1900s

Despite its intimidating design, Fort Taylor’s value faded soon after completion when rapid artillery advancements developed. New horizontally rifled cannons, breaching shells and ironclad warships rendered brick forts obsolete. Fort Taylor still served military roles like housing salvage court proceedings, a civil war prison and wartime supply hub up through WWI. However by 1947, the Army declared the fort surplus property and sold it cheaply to private owners so long as its historic integrity was maintained. Unfortunately, neglect and vandalism plagued Fort Taylor over the next two decades until citizens rallied for public ownership.

In 1965, state funds finally purchased the historic fort and opened Fort Taylor State Park by 1968. Restoration work returned crumbling walls, batteries and structures to past splendor while establishing public beaches, trails and amenities. Extensive exhibits went in documenting the fort’s engineering feats and military timeline. It joined the National Register of Historic Places in 1973. While small actuator failures create occasional off-limits areas, visitors can stroll atop impressive perimeter walls overlooking aqua blue waters that seem frozen in the 1800s. Modern touches like food carts, equipment rentals and a splash park integrate discretely with the ancient fortress.

Structures and Highlights to Explore

Fort Taylor encompasses over two centuries of architecture and military history within its brick edifice and grounds. Visitors typically start by passing a Confederate artillery piece to enter the sally port stretching 60 feet across. Signage helps orient you towards key features like the blacksmith shop, guard house, store rooms, cistern and barracks within the complex inner compound. Don’t miss climbing atop the southwest bastion capped with cannons offering stunning vistas across the Gulf waters that warranted such an impenetrable fortress.

Kids will certainly enjoy inspecting the cannons up close, along with clambering through tunnels and a caponniere structure extending into the moat. Artillery rows and sweeping water battery walls evoke imagery of soldiers marching the grounds long ago. Pause inside the commanding officer’s arched quarters, strategically positioned near the fort entrance. Rangers sometimes offer guided programs delving into ghost tales or kids activities too.

Military buffs shouldn’t miss touring exhibits inside the nearby Water Battery and Fort Taylor Museum, even if requiring a small admission fee. Interactive maps and replica weapons convey the fort’s evolving roles over two centuries. Individual listening stations let visitors key in codes to hear detailed narratives, allowing you to delve deep into topics like engineering feats, wartime lifestyles or military prison experiences. Give yourself at least 90 minutes to take in all the fort’s features without feeling rushed before heading to beaches and trails.

Recreational Opportunities: Beaches, Trails and Wildlife Around every corner of historic buildings, tropical foliage insert vibrant accents inside Fort Taylor. But the natural gems sit just offshore with America’s southernmost beaches belonging to the park. A scenic walking trail skirts the perimeter between towering walls and sea grape trees where iguanas often scurry about. This peaceful path soaking up ocean breezes covers just under a mile roundtrip. Visitors eventually reach the park’s pièce de résistance: its beach with some of the clearest waters and best coral reefs found in the Keys.

The sandy shoreline stretches a quarter-mile in a sheltered cove that creates calm swimming conditions, perfect for families. Permanent restrooms, beach chair rentals and a snack bar offer backup amenities. Many simply soak up incredible views from lounging atop colorful towels too. When winds shift, occasional seaweed washing ashore gets swiftly removed by crews. For even more relaxation, unleash that inner Huck Finn by renting kayaks, paddleboards or snorkeling gear on-site to fully immerse yourself amid this subtropical marine sanctuary.

Serious anglers shouldn’t miss the 500-foot fishing pier reaching out into harbors off the old coal dock. Squid, yellowtail snapper, grouper and even permit get reeled in from these fertile fishing grounds that benefit from an offshore reef. Shoreline rocks also draw amateur nature enthusiasts who turn over clusters hoping to uncover spiny lobsters, crabs, starfish and tiny blennies. Patient birders may catch sight of great blue herons, white ibis, ospreys and brown pelicans frequenting native vegetation around old batteries. Sunset walks often reveal some spectacular but quick displays from the primitive winged residents as well.

Tips for Visiting

  • Hours: 8am to sunset daily, with later hours during summer. Closed Dec. 25 and holidays.
  • Entry fee: $4-8 per vehicle carrying up to 8 people
  • Location: 601 Howard England Way, under 3 miles southwest of central Key West.
  • Parking fills quickly on-site, so arrive early or bike in via trails.
  • Pack picnic lunches or purchase snacks from the Beach Cafe near the entrance.
  • Leashed pets allowed in upper fort areas only, not on beaches.
  • Guided tours & seasonal lectures provide extra historical insight for fees.
  • Beach chairs, umbrellas, snorkel gear and kayaks rentals available.

No trip to Key West is complete without some relaxation time on its world-famous beaches. Avoid crowded hotel pool decks and tourist traps by heading to Fort Taylor State Park instead. Its convenient location, affordable access, family-friendly amenities and rich history together create the ideal escape. Visitors consistently rank its beaches among the best attractions around Key West. And peeking inside the fort’s imposing brick walls never fails to impress when uncovering this defensive masterpiece overlooking aqua blue waters. Experience this all yourself with at trip to the historic guardians of Key West shores.

Share this article on social