The Fort Zachary Taylor State Historic Site, better known simply as Fort Taylor, (or Fort Zach to locals), is a Florida State Park and National Historic Landmark centered on a Civil War-era fort located near the southern tip of Key West, Florida.
History of Fort Zachary Taylor
Construction of the fort began in 1845 as part of a mid-1800s plan to defend the southeast coast through a series of forts. The fort was named for United States President Zachary Taylor
in 1850, a few months after President Taylor's sudden death in office. Yellow fever epidemics
and material shortages slowed construction of the fort, which continued throughout the 1850s. At the outset of the American Civil War
in 1861, Union Captain John Milton Brannan
seized control of the fort, preventing it from falling into Confederate
hands and using it as an outpost to threaten blockade runners
. Originally, the fort was surrounded by water on all sides, with a walkway linking it to the mainland. The fort was completed in 1866, although the upper level of one side was destroyed in 1889 to make way for more modern weapons, with the older cannons
being buried within the new outer wall to save on materials. The fort was heavily used again during the 1898 Spanish-American War
The fort was "modernized" during the Endicott Period, when the top two levels were removed and newer coastal artillery was emplaced, which remained through mid-World War II, when anti-aircraft guns replaced the coastal artillery pieces. The Coastal Artillery Corps was abolished in 1947, and the fort, no longer of use to the U.S. Army, was turned over to the U.S. Navy
for maintenance, who used it as a storage yard for scrap metal and other material. As previously mentioned, the fort was originally surrounded on all sides by water and connected by a causeway. However, as Naval Station Key West expanded during the 1900s, fill from the ocean bottom that was used to increase the naval base's acreage also resulted in Fort Taylor slowly became encircled by beach sand, eventually leading to the fort becoming landlocked.
In 1968, Howard S. England
, a civilian architect for the Navy, was assigned to investigate and report on the fort, at the time an overgrown dumpsite. He completed his report, in which he recommended further research and excavations, but was told there was neither manpower nor funds available for that purpose. He persisted, and the Navy told England he could volunteer his time, if he wished, and examine the fort. England gathered a group of volunteers and they went to work. During a ten-year period, England and his "Sandhogs
" searched long-abandoned parts of the fort, where they uncovered the largest collection of Civil War armaments in the United States, including cannon, guns, a desalinization
plant and thousands of cannon balls and projectiles. After the historic significance of the Fort was established, the Navy transferred the property to the United States Department of the Interior
in 1970, which subsequently deeded it to the State of Florida in 1976 to be developed as a public park.
In 1971, Fort Zachary Taylor was placed on the National Register of Historic Places, designated a National Historic Landmark in 1973 and in 1985, became Fort Zachary Taylor Historic State Park. England voluntarily continued his research for nine years and discovered how the armaments came to be buried, created a museum for the artifacts, wrote his memoirs and donated them to the Friends of Fort Taylor. FOFT is the non-profit, community service organization that sponsors the Civil War Days event, the Pirates in Paradise Festival and other historical reenactments. Their role is to help preserve Ft. Taylor, a national landmark, as well as assist the state park in its overall mission.
As part of his research, England created 84 architectural and technical drawings which included physical dimensions: elevations, floor plans, details (e.g. handrails and doors), several types of large guns, their carriages and equipment as well as their projectiles. England donated his Architectural and technical drawings of Fort Zachary Taylor 1969-1980 to the Bureau of Archaeological Research, who transferred them to the State Library and Archives of Florida, where they reside today.
With the disestablishment of Naval Station Key West in 1974, the fort's land closer to downtown Key West became part of Naval Air Station Key West
's Truman Annex
. The Annex was originally called the "Fort Zachary Taylor Annex" and it included that part of the former Naval Station that included the submarine and destroyer base.
President Harry S. Truman used this facility for his Winter White House for 175 days in 11 visits. The Secret Service had a private beach built on the land for the president's security, but he reportedly only visited it once, preferring the public beaches. The beach name is called "Truman Beach" The fort and its related support buildings was later renamed for Truman.
Naval Station Key West was decommissioned in 1974 because the latest generations of nuclear submarines were too big for the port. It was the landing point for many Cuban refugees during the Mariel boatlift. That part of the old Naval Station that remained under control of the still operating naval air station on Boca Chica Key were renamed Truman Annex while most of the other buildings were sold to private developers. There continues to be a museum for the Truman White House and the Navy continues to own and maintain the piers.
Due to the back fill of sand around the fort, the park boasts the best beach in Key West and the park occupies 87 acres (352,000 m²).
In addition to the role of the fort and its adjacent beach as tourist attractions, Fort Taylor is also the location of a number of annual events, including week-long Civil War reenactments
. On the weekend preceding Halloween
, it is transformed into a haunted
fort, much like a haunted house
but on a grand scale and with a distinctive Civil War theme. The Fort Taylor Pirate Fest
, part of the Pirates in Paradise Festival, is scheduled for Dec. 5 - 7, 2008.