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.