History, nature, beaches... Fort Zach has it all

Keynoter staff writerMay 9, 2008 

There’s nothing quite like it in the Keys. Tropical breezes sough through tall pines and emerald waters lap gently up on a glistening white sand beach. Locals bring picnic baskets and hammocks and children laugh and splash in the surf.

This oasis of a beach is in the heart of Key West and sidled up to the historic landmark it’s named for: Fort Zachary Taylor.

The fort itself still feels like a trip into Civil War America. Though construction on the structure began in 1845, it was not put to use until 1861 when Union Capt. John Brannon occupied the fort.

Contrary to its southernmost location, the fort was a Union stronghold for the extent of the Civil War. The strategic location helped the Union hold Key West and deterred the Confederate navy.

The fort was finally completed in 1866 and featured such modern amenities as a desalinization plant that created drinking water from saltwater and a sewage system that flushed with the tides.

When the Spanish-American War broke out, the fort was again pressed into use. According to the state’s official Web site, the late 1800s saw a renovation of the fort that included removal of the top level and the additions of two artillery batteries inside the moated fort.

Probably the biggest claim to fame is the fort’s collection of cannons, guns and ammunition. Although not all of the century-old arsenal has been uncovered, the collection that has been recouped is considered the largest collection of Civil War cannons in the U.S.

Each year the fort is host to an elaborate reenactment of the Civil War era. This year’s reenactment takes place Feb. 10 to 12, the 20th annual celebration of Civil War Heritage Days at Fort Zachary Taylor.

Each year, more than 100 people participate, donning costumes and arms of the 1860s era. Union “soldiers” set up camp inside the fort and Confederates camp on the grounds outside the fort. Other re-enactors play the parts of merchants, craftsmen, even the townspeople of old Key West.

The event features a number of activities, including a traditional military parade and demonstrations geared specifically for visiting school children. There will be reenacted land and sea battles and a recreated court trial.

For visitors — and locals — who miss the event, park rangers host daily historical tours of the fort.

Long a favorite escape for local beachgoers, the park has experienced an economic renaissance in recent years.

It has become one of the more popular Key West locations for a romantic outdoor wedding. For a while, the newfangled personal scooters called Segways were rented at the park.

What has long been a simple food concession has recently grown and expanded its menu. Snorkel equipment is available for rent for the adventurers who want to discover the park’s wonderful underwater amenities.

In addition to its historic significance, the park is a Mecca for artists. You can usually find someone painting plein air, and for many years Art in the Park has featured the finest sculpture the city has to offer — Sculpture Key West — each winter.

In addition, art students from Horace O’Bryant Middle School have, over the past few years, created outdoor art installments at the park that blend the beauty of nature and the kids’ insight.

Over the past few years, state officials have begun a somewhat controversial program to eradicate nonnative plant species from state parks.

At Fort Zach, as it is known locally, that means the shady canopy of Australian pines is set for eventual destruction. Plans are to replace them with native species. However, a movement to save the trees has slowed that plan, and now park rangers say the trees are being done away with through attrition. New ones will not be allowed to survive, and as the old trees die, they will be replaced by a more environmentally appropriate plant.

Originally published in the Winter 2006 edition of Keys Living.

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