Fort Zachary Taylor State Park, Florida’s southernmost state park, is located at the southwest tip of Key West off Southard Street. Besides being home to a beach that many claim is Key West’s best, the park holds one of America’s most fascinating pre-Civil War historic sites: Fort Zachary Taylor. The fort and the park, called Fort Zach by the locals, is one of the island’s hidden gems. It is not very well known because it is tucked away on the waterfront behind the Truman Annex, not visible to drivers or pedestrians, and only identified by a small street sign. However, the fort is among the most important of Key West historic sites and is certainly worth a visit by history buffs, those looking for an interesting and educational family day trip, and visitors in search of the best beach on Key West.
Fort Zachary Taylor is a large, trapezoidal masonry fort built as a naval gun battery emplacement to guard the main ship channel that gives passage between the Atlantic and the Gulf off the west tip of Key West. The fort was originally positioned about 1,000 feet offshore and connected to the mainland by a walkway. Years of silt build-up in the harbor, the creation of the Truman Annex, and the disposal of material from the dredging of the main ship channel in the 1960’s left the fort surrounded by land except for a moat across the seaward face. Development of the area and the creation of a beach resulted in the current 87-acre park associated with Fort Taylor.
Construction on Fort Zachary Taylor began in 1845 as part of the United States’ ongoing exploitation of the natural defensive location of the Florida Keys. Like its companion Fort Jefferson 70 miles west in the Dry Tortugas, Fort Taylor was surrounded by water, protected by heavy masonry walls, and had two levels of gun rooms. Another similarity between the two forts is the series of beautiful archways opening into and dividing the gunrooms. These were the work of Irish and British master craftsmen, practitioners of the now-lost art of building castles and forts from stone and brick.
In 1850, the fort was named for President Zachary Taylor after his sudden death in office. Slowed by materials shortages caused by the need to ship bricks and granite in from New York, hurricanes, and Yellow Fever epidemics, construction of the fort took 21 years. In 1861, at the beginning of the U.S. Civil War, Union Captain John Milton Brannan seized control of the still incomplete Fort Taylor, preventing it from being taken by the Confederates. The fort played an important role during the Civil War as a center for Union naval operations and headquarters for the U.S. Navy’s East Gulf Coast blockade squadron, which prevented supply ships from accessing Confederate ports on the Gulf of Mexico. Although the fort was never the site of combat, many historians argue that Fort Taylor was a factor in shortening the Civil War. At one time during the war, nearly 300 Confederate sailing ships were being held in the harbor under the guns of Fort Taylor.
The fort was completed in 1866 and armed with 10-inch Rodman and Columbiad cannons that had a range of three miles. With 140 of these powerful cannons and large stores of ammunition, Fort Taylor prevented the Confederate navy from making any attempt to take either the fortress or the island of Key West. The fort was also equipped with interesting and advanced design features such as sanitary facilities flushed by the tide and a French-designed desalination plant that produced drinking water from the sea.
Fort Taylor was modified in 1889 by the removal of the upper level on one side in order to accommodate the newer weapons of Battery Osceola and Battery Adair, which were installed on the inside of the fortress. The old Civil War cannons were buried within the new walls that protected these batteries. The fort saw much use during the Spanish-American War in 1898, and toward the end of that war, the walls of the fort were reduced to a single story on all sides. With the coming of the 20th century, more sophisticated weapons and eventually radar and other devices took the place of the artillery batteries. Even though the fort’s guns were never fired in a hostile engagement, the fort played important roles in World Wars I and II, and in the October 1962 Cuban Missile Crisis.
The Army took the fort out of service in 1947 and turned it over to the U.S. Navy for maintenance. In 1968, excavations by a volunteer group of history buffs led by Key West resident Howard England revealed Civil War guns and ammunition buried in long-unused parts of the fort and embedded in the walls built to reinforce Battery Osceola. The work done by England’s group revealed the fort as the site of the country’s largest collection of Civil War cannons, and Fort Zachary Taylor was placed on the National Register of Historic Places in 1971 and designated a National Historic Landmark in 1973.
Public tours of Fort Taylor are offered from 8:00 a.m. until dusk daily. Unique among Key West historic sites for its role in military history, the fort also hosts weeklong Civil War reenactments and a Civil-War themed Halloween haunted fort attraction. Fort Zachary Taylor is one of Key West’s most interesting visitor attractions. The park beach is nice, the thick brick walls and deep shade inside the fort can offer cool respite from a hot Key West afternoon, and a day spent visiting is well worthwhile.