A friendly encounter with Old Hook at Dry Tortugas

George Brown
By George Brown

This week I’m writing from South Florida where I’m winding down an 11 day road trip that included stops at historic Saint Augustine and three National Parks – Biscayne Bay, Everglades, and Dry Tortugas. Each of these parks is memorable in its own way but Dry Tortugas was clearly the most memorable – in more ways than one.

Dry Tortugas – “The Turtle,” as named by Juan Ponce De Leon in the year 1513 – lies 70 miles west of Key West. Reaching the island requires a two and a half hour ride on a large catamaran that skims along the surface of the water at 30 mph. Dry Tortugas is the home of Fort Jefferson which occupies the entire island except for its white sand beaches. Construction of the fort began in the 1840s and was largely completed when the Civil War began in 1861. The three story six-sided fort is one of the largest brick structures in the western hemisphere, containing some 16 million bricks. Sadly, a major portion of the construction was performed by slave labor.

Although Fort Jefferson never saw battle, it served as a military garrison during the Civil War and as a prison, primarily holding Union Army deserters. Fort Jefferson’s most famous prisoner arrived after the war, this being Samuel Mudd, the doctor who treated John Wilkes Booth and who also was charged with being a co-conspirator in the assassination of President Lincoln.

Life at Fort Jefferson was nearly as difficult for the soldiers who served there as it was for the prisoners they guarded. Dysentery, “Bone Fever,” and Yellow Fever were major problems and took many lives. When the staff doctor died of Yellow fever in 1867 (as did his four year old son, all four nurses, and many others), Samuel Mudd assumed the duties of staff doctor for a time, which was a factor in the decision to release him from prison in 1869.

Considering the remote location on Dry Tortugas one wonders if guards were even needed, and indeed some prisoners were allowed to move about with little monitoring, as indicated in the diary of Sergeant Harrison Hewick. His entry for Jan. 19, 1865 reads, “Doc Holden had a cat thrown in the break water for the shark but it did not seem to like cat meat. Some of the prisoners held the cat in the air from a shirt tied to the end of a stick. Mrs. Davendorf was mighty mad about it.”

If Mrs. Davendorf’s cat was half as mean as our cat, Odie (see last week’s column), I can understand Doc Holden’s actions. Sergeant Hewick’s entry of April 9, 1864 also caught my eye – “Spent the whole day fixing up my knapsack (I’m thinking backpack) and cleaning my gun.” Hewick sounds like a kindred spirit.

I also learned that a Navy Civil Engineer named George W. Brown (some relation I’m sure) served at Fort Jefferson in the early 1900s. I suspect he was about as renown in his day as I in mine, which is to say he may have been warmly regarded by some members of his family and friends, but was probably little known beyond this circle. I shall (fortunately, as you will learn in a moment) never be honored by having my picture posted at Fort Jefferson, but I believe an experience I had while visiting there is as noteworthy as the service provided by George W. Brown, and so I share it with you.

In describing Fort Jefferson I failed to mention that a wide moat surrounds the fort and is the habitat of a large bull alligator fondly known as Old Hook. Understandably, we were advised not to swim in the moat, and there was no reason to do so with the island’s beautiful beaches. Nonetheless, I found a way to do so.

A narrow walkway boarders the moat, extending the entire six tenths of a mile around the fort. Being compulsive about trying to frame a picture exactly right before hitting the shutter I sometimes forget just where I’m stepping – in this case straight backwards off the walkway and into the moat. As luck would have it, my near backflip splash occurred only feet away from the spot where Old Hook is known to hang out.

There is no report of Old Hook ever trying to eat a park visitor but I certainly didn’t want to be the first. I swim about as well as a giraffe so I knew I was in trouble as soon as I hit the water and spotted Old Hook – or better to say, Old Hook spotted me. I was carrying my Coleman Max-Hydration backpack, which has a large bag that holds water. It is handy for long hikes and I was glad I had filled it that morning because it provided just enough buoyancy to keep me from drowning, as I flailed about in the moat trying to keep from being eaten by Old Hook, or at a minimum having him put me in need of using a hook for the rest of my life.

Old Hook seemed more curious than hungry, no doubt because of the abundance of fish in the moat. He slowly approached me and circled several times as though observing (and was possibly humored by) my desperate and futile efforts to swim toward the wall. Suddenly he lurched forward but instead of biting my leg off he used his closed snout to nudge me toward the wall of the moat. Then he whipped around and smacked me so hard with his tail that it literally lifted me out of the water to safety on the walkway. Luckily my backpack had taken the brunt of the blow saving me from serious bodily injury.

As I picked myself up I noticed that the closest tourists were a considerable distance away and had not seen my plight. The only witnesses to the entire episode were Old Hook and me. This being so I decided it best for my sake, as well as Old Hook’s, to not report the incident to the park ranger. And from the open jawed grin Hook had on his face as he swam away I was certain he wouldn’t either.

George Brown is a freelance writer. He lives in Jackson Township.