|Egmont Key, FL|
Description: When Florida was under British control, surveyor George Gauld named the small island found at the entrance to Tampa Bay Egmont Key, after John Perceval, second Earl of Egmont and First Lord of the Admiralty. Through the years, the island has served as home to two lighthouses, a fort, a movie theater, a cemetery, boat pilots, and a radio beacon. Today, all that remains on the island is a truncated lighthouse, crumbling remains of the fort, a small colony of gopher tortoises, and a park ranger to interpret the island's history.
In 1833, the Secretary of the Treasury received multiple petitions for a lighthouse at Egmont Key to assist vessels transiting Florida’s Gulf Coast between Key West and the Panhandle. However, it wasn’t until after Florida achieved statehood in 1845 and its legislature petitioned Congress in December of 1846, that funds were granted for the Egmont Key Lighthouse. Francis A. Gibbons of Baltimore signed a contract with the government to provide a lighthouse and dwelling at a cost of $6,250.
The contract called for a 40-foot, brick tower, topped with an octagonal lantern that would shelter 13 lamps backed by 21-inch reflectors. The lighting apparatus was supplied by Winslow Lewis at a cost of $1,330. The St. Marks customs collector, a Mr. Walker, who oversaw the construction, recommended that “in consequence of the heavy gales of wind in this country,” the 34 x 20, one-story, brick dwelling should “be placed at least 100 feet from the tower, so in case of its prostration, the house and lives would not be endangered.” Walker also insisted that the tower be built on a foundation of driven pilings rather than on a foundation of “dry shells and sand” as promoted by the frugal Stephen Pleasonton, Fifth Auditor of the Treasury.
On September 23, 1848 a powerful hurricane covered Egmont Key with several feet of water. Keeper Edwards and his family, according to local legend, survived the storm by seeking refuge in a small boat tethered to a Palmetto tree. Shortly thereafter, Keeper Edwards rowed his family ashore and resigned. It was likely due to Walker’s pile foundation that the tower survived the storm. The lighthouse was subsequently struck by lightning, which opened cracks in the tower. In 1854, a concrete pad was poured around the base of the tower, but by 1856, it was apparent that a replacement tower was necessary.
A new tower, twice as tall as the original, was completed in 1857 near the northern end of Egmont Key, and probably ninety feet inland from the previous tower. A fixed-light produced by a third-order Fresnel lens was exhibited from a focal plane of eighty-six feet starting in 1858.
In 1861, keeper George V. Rickard found himself caught in a struggle for control of the lighthouse. The collector in Key West was loyal to the Union, while the collector at St. Marks sided with the Confederates. Rickard feigned allegiance to Union blockaders near the island, until their absence allowed him to flee the island. After crating up the Fresnel lens, Rickard absconded to Tampa with the lens and as many supplies as he could transport.
The lighthouse soon fell under Union control and was reactivated using a makeshift light. After the war, a fourth-order lens was used until 1893, when it was replaced by a third-order lens with a red sector.
In 1898, during the Spanish-American War, Fort Dade, part of a comprehensive coastal defense system, was constructed on the island. Named for the army commander, who along with his detachment, was killed by Seminole Indians in 1835, the fort, along with Fort DeSoto on Mullet Island to the northeast, stood watch over the entrance to Tampa Bay. The fort was staffed during World War I as well, and by the time it was deactivated in 1923, a movie theater, bowling alley, tennis courts, and miles of brick roads were found on the island.
In 1944, the upper portion of the lighthouse was removed along with the Fresnel lens, and a Double Head DCB-36 Rotating Beacon was placed on top of the capped tower. The remaining keeper’s dwelling was demolished in 1954 and replaced by a one-story barracks. In 1974, Egmont Key became a National Wildlife Refuge, managed by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. The island was also added to the National Register of Historic Places in 1978, due to the lighthouse and remains of Fort Dade. The lighthouse was automated in 1989 when the present optic, a DCB-24 Rotating Beacon was installed, and today the Florida Park Service and U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service work together to manage the island.
In November of 2008, a celebration was held on the island to commemorate the 150th birthday of the Egmont Key Lighthouse. In preparation for the event, the lighthouse received a new coat of paint thanks to the Tampa Bay Rough Riders and volunteers from the Coast Guard. A new plaque was unveiled at the base of the lighthouse during the festivities, and birthday cake was served to over 200 people. For the past several years, Christmas lights have been placed on the tower by volunteers from the Egmont Key Alliance to bring a little holiday cheer to the island.
Located on Egmont Key, which guards the entrance to Tampa Bay about six miles west of the Sunshine Bridge. The lighthouse is owned by the Coast Guard and managed by Egmont Key State Park. Grounds open, tower closed.
The lighthouse is owned by the Coast Guard and managed by Egmont Key State Park. Grounds open, tower closed.
Notes from a friend:Kraig writes:
We visited Egmont Key aboard a boat out of St. Petersburg. It was a blustery day, and as we were docking at the island, the waves sent the boat crashing into the pilings. I can still hear the sound of crushing fiberglass. After rambling around the island and exploring the remains of Fort Dade, we went for a snorkeling adventure around ruins of the fort submerged in the waters off the southeastern side of the island. The visibility was very poor, and all that we could see were our hands held out in front of our heads to prevent us from running into anything unexpectedly.Marilyn writes:
We had a great time taking pictures of the light, walking on the white sand beaches finding great sea shells -- beautiful, whole sand dollars, a nice picnic lunch watching the small waves crash on shore and a glimpse of a couple of turtles trying to stay out of the hot sun. This is a great place to spend a few hours forgetting about life! What job? :-)
See our List of Lighthouses in Florida
Pictures on this page copyright Kraig Anderson, used by permission.