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EGMONT OVERTURE

September 19, 2007

Author's Note: This article appeared in Sarasota Magazine.

 

EGMONT KEY, A GREAT FIND

Sparkling in the sunlight at the water's edge of Egmont Key was a hunk
of glittering metal. It was not a doubloon or pirate booty,  but a spent
brass cartridge -  a treasure of another sort.

Laying on the sand, it caught the eye of Nancy Sanford who had
accompanied me on an exploration of Egmont Key. Nancy is a naturalist in
love with both the history and natural splendor of this  island.
She picked up the brass shell, a spent casing full of sand. "Do you
think it's old?" she asked.

I carried the bullet to the park ranger who proclaimed it a "Thirty
aught six. Made and fired in 1918." Thirty indicated the caliber, and
1906 was the year the series started. Nancy found a rifle bullet fired
by an American soldier during the First World War, almost certainly
during rifle practice on Egmont Key. The year 1918 was stamped on the
shell.

Imagine that. Perhaps it is fanciful, but I couldn't help but wonder
about the man. A lonely soldier - perhaps a long way from home, stuck
out on a island, far from family and friends - had fired this bullet.
Did he have a sweetheart at home? Did he need a pass to go into Tampa
for a little weekend fun? We had touched this unknown man's life by
finding this old casing on the seashore.

Like so many who have come to Egmont, Nancy enjoys exploring its past
and wants see it preserved in the future. There are many reasons to hold
Egmont dear, including its vistas, lumbering gopher tortoises,
attractive Florida box turtles, and its rich historical roots.

Egmont's scenic beauty is obvious. On the Gulf side is pristine
isolated beach where you walk accompanied by the surf. No boom boxes, no
jet skis, no one para-sailing. Along the gentle bay side, all you can
hear is the wind, while fishes swim revealed over the sandy bottom.
Like the sun, history lies rich on Egmont. If we sowed an historical
quilt of everyone who has tread on the Key over centuries, the images
would represent Spanish influence, some English, a lot of Americans,
captive Seminoles, a monster hurricane, Civil War troops, and a lens
made by a Frenchmen, with Rough Riders passing by on their way to Cuba.
Some historians believe that the first Spaniard to die in North America
died here with Ponce de Leon's expedition for the Fountain of Youth. His
must have been a forlorn death, so far from his native land, something
like dying on Mars. The rugged lives of the Native Americans whom Spain
fought with, ruled over, and eventually extirpated, went unrecorded
except through European eyes.

DeSoto passed by Egmont on his voyages, a man who was capable, while
leaving his wife in Cuba for safety, of letting his dogs lose on a
Native American woman. A conquistador in search of treasures, DeSoto's
expedition was large for its time, hundreds of men, kidnapped Native
American guides, and pigs and horses.

Spain ruled Florida longer than the US has been a country, and  when
they gave way to British rule of the Sunshine State, the Key was named
by a relative for John Perceval, the Second Lord of Egmont, who is
prominent in Amelia Island's history. Go figure. The Egmont name stuck,
while others vanished, perhaps because it now appeared on maps. British
rule had little impact on Egmont Key, except to give it a name, nor did
the new country of America effect it much at first.

It wasn't until a few years before the Civil War that a lighthouse was
put on the Key. Then and now, Tampa Bay's entrance possessed many
sandbars on which ships could easily strand. Now, of course, there is
also the matter of The Sunshine Skyway Bridge and a shipping channel 40
feet deep. Even in the simpler 1830s, there was sufficient commerce and
obstacles into and out of Tampa Bay that stranding became a problem.
Built in May 1848, the first Egmont light lasted less than six months.
A hurricane washed over Egmont with waves 15 feet high. It was called
the Great Hurricane of 1848. When the storm had passed, so had the first
lighthouse.

Can you imagine being that first lighthouse keeper? Talk about drama.
He had his family with him. They survived the hurricane, but barely. The
family tied the station boat to the top of a palm tree and huddled in
the bottom through-out the storm. Bet they prayed that rope held! They
must have experienced powerful churning seas, gale force winds over
head, and torrential rains requiring frantic and constant bailing.

Beneath the current and second lighthouse passed Seminoles forced to
migrate to Oklahoma. Among them was Billy Bowlegs, a chief leader who
once was offered over $200,000 to move his tribe westward voluntarily.
Perhaps he should have taken the offer, rather than making an attack in
the Big Cypress which started the Third Seminole War. One can only
imagine how Billy Bowlegs felt forced onto the Trail of Tears.

The new lighthouse was built with a Fresnel lens. At this time, it
joined two other Gulf Coast lights, the one in St. Marks and another in
Key West, as three remote sentinels on the West Coast. The new light is
still operating, although it is no longer manned but was automated in
1939.

During the Civil War, Confederate troops abandoned Egmont to the
Yankees. Before they did, not wanting to help the Blue Coats with
navigation, according to Egmont Key State Park's brochure, they carried
off the lighthouse's Fresnel lens.

"OK," Nancy asked me, "just what is a Fresnel lens?"
A Fresnel lens was one designed by it's namesake Frenchman. Augustine
Fresnel revolutionized lighthouse beacons.

Very simply his lenses intensified light using prisms and mirrors. It
was a big improvement over old lights, much brighter, and seen at
greater distances. By the 1820s, his lights were being used in Europe.

The Union Army blockaded the Gulf Coast, and troops at Egmont were part
of this effort. They went looking for the missing lens. Some historians
say the taking of the Fresnel Lens sparked a Union Army invasion of
Tampa, but the lens was long gone when the soldiers got there.

Perhaps it's time for Tampa to abandon Gasparilla, when the invasion of
mythical pirate Jose Gaspar is celebrated, and instead hold Fresnelilla,
when Blue Coats invade. Instead of tossing beads to young maidens
enticed in popping open their blouses, as the pirates have for years,
Union soldiers could reward the citizens who expressed willingness to
return the lens.

Other historians report the lens was intentionally damaged by the
Confederates so it could not be used, as happened to the Pensacola and
other lights the Rebels abandoned. This would make more sense, since the
lens was heavy. Either way, the light was out of action during the Civil
War, and Tampa will never replace Gasparilla with Fresnelilla.

The end of the War Between the States did not mean the end of soldiers
coming to Egmont Key. During the Spanish-American War, Fort Dade was
built to protect the citizens living in Tampa and about the rim of the
bay. There probably was never much of a threat. None-the-less, almost a
half million dollars was spent to establish the fort, in those days an
enormous sum.

Along the west and north shores of Egmont are remnant gun batteries
long silenced, some so well-preserved you can stand on them, others
deteriorating and from which signs warn you to stay away. Two batteries
on the southern tip are off limits to the public and slipping into the
sea due to erosion.

The batteries are named for soldiers who are now dust, and the
artillery pieces are long departed. The gunners were sighting for
Spanish ships of war, but as far as anyone knows, all they saw was
water. A good tour of duty, as any soldier knows, is a boring one.
Down the middle of the Key runs a remnant red brick road which once
connected barracks and military facilities, including a bowling alley,
an early movie theater, tennis court, and a gym. By 1906, there were
some 70 buildings, electricity, and telephones.

Egmont was home to about 300 soldiers then. So many military men living
on such a small island (1.5 miles long, .5 miles wide at the most) must
have seemed a crowd. Daily formations surely took place each morning and
evening on the brick where military men stood at attention despite the
buzzing mosquitoes and biting flies of summer. Taps and revelry were
played, the American flagged lowered and raised while men saluted.
In present times, on the south end of the Key is a building where
pilots stay. The Tampa Bay Pilots Association began operating from the
island in 1926, three years after the fort was deactivated. The pilots
are still there, guiding large vessels safely into Tampa Bay.

Currently the most permanent residents on the island are reptiles and
birds. Near the lighthouse which is on the north end of the key, nearly
tame gopher tortoises amble along while visitors enjoy their presence.
Attractively marked Florida box turtles are not as obvious, but are
easily located by walking the inland trails, which cannot be more than a
mile long. Since Egmont is also a national wildlife refuge, all animals
on it are protected and should be left alone.

Although we had heard reports that pygmy rattlesnakes were prolific on
the island, Nancy has never seen one, and none were found during two
visits. While walking the trail and beaches, however, osprey and hawks
swooped over the island. The ospreys were catching fish, and the hawks
were trying to steal the catch of the day.

If you are driving over the Sunshine Skyway Bridge and look to the
west, you will see Egmont Key. It is between Anna Maria Island in
Manatee County and Fort DeSoto Park on Mullet Key in Pinellas County,
yet perversely it is located in neither. Egmont is tenuously claimed by
Hillsborough County, thanks to the magic of map makers.

The Key is currently co-managed by the State of Florida as a park. The
other partner in management is the US Fish and Wildlife Service since
Egmont is a National Wildlife Refuge, and its southern tip is off
limits. No changes in operations are foreseen in the near future.

While visitors to this state park will have to pay for transportation
or own a boat to get there, at present there is no admission fee, since
there is not a single place of entry to collect it. Activities permitted
on Egmont include swimming, fishing, snorkeling, shelling, as well as
touring the historical sites and wandering the trails.

There are limited facilities (i.e., one composting toilet). Visitors
should bring their own water. While there are relatively few visitors
during the week, weekends can become more crowded.

The park can be contacted at  727-893-2627. The Egmont Key Alliance,
Inc., does volunteer work on the island and can be contacted at
727-867-5615 or 727-344-1135.

Egmont is also an historic site. No artifacts can be taken from it.
Metal detectors are prohibited.

Egmont can be reached by private boat and by a number of private
transports with varying fees. Park management reports that there are
many boats who bring visitors from Pinellas County's John's Pass,
Treasure Island, Tierra Verde, and Pass-a-Grille. These include Tropical
Island Getaways (727-345-4500) and Dolphin Landing (727-360-7411).

One of the more interesting ways to reach the island may be by
hovercraft. At the present time, a hovercraft runs daily from The Pier
in St. Petersburg. The same hovercraft company has asked for a permit to
run from Fort DeSoto Park to Egmont.

Riding on a cushion of air, the hovercraft glides above the waves and
any exposed sandbars at low tide. It is something like traveling in a
car, and the only turbulence felt was from the waves in the channel
between DeSoto and Egmont.

With the past use of Egmont as a military installation, something about
going to the Key on a hovercraft, usually a military vehicle, seemed an
appropriate way to reach it. This alternative can be explored by
telephoning 1-866-Fly-Hover or on the web at www.hovercraftusa.com.
 

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