Egmont Key - The History

Egmont Key was named in honor of John Perceval, the second Earl of Egmont Key, 
who played an active part in Tampa Bay history. Egmont Key witnessed the 
passing of Spanish Conquistadors and English Privateers in wooden sailing 
ships. This was the struggle between brothers in blue and gray with ships
of steam and iron, and finally the giants of today, steel hulled, oil driven
and satellite guided. 

In the 1830's the town of Tampa had begun to develop into a bustling seaport.
As the shipping increased so did the number of groundings on the sandbars 
off Egmont Key. To remedy the situation the citizens of Tampa petitioned
the Federal Government for construction of a lighthouse at the entrance of
the bay. On March 3rd, 1847 Congress authorized funds to erect a lighthouse
on Egmont Key. The Egmont Key lighthouse construction was completed in May
1847 at a cost of $7,050.00 by Francis A. Gibbons of Baltimore, Maryland.
At the time it was completed the Egmont Key Lighthouse was the only one 
between St. Marks and Key West. 

The first light keeper, Sherrod (Marvel) Edwards, did not remain on the
island very long. The great hurricane of 1847 struck between September
23 and the 25th, 1847 and did extensive damage to the Egmont Key Lighthouse.
The tides during the hurricane were reported to be almost 15 feet above 
normal and the island had over 9 feet of water over it. Edwards and his
family sought refuge in a small boat he had tied off to a cabbage palm.
They rode out the storm in the boat and after the winds and the seas
had subsided, Edwards rowed the boat to Tampa and resigned on the spot.
Damage to the Egmont Key Lighthouse by this and subsequent hurricanes
in 1848 and 1852 prompted Congress on August 10th, 1856 to appropriate
$16,000.00 to rebuild the Egmont Key Lighthouse and also the lightkeeper's 

In 1848 the second Egmont Key Lighthouse designed to "withstand any storm"
was completed. A tribute to the men who designed and built it, this
tower still stands today. The new Egmont Key Lighthouse was approx.
120 feet tall and it's lighting equipment was the most modern of its time.
The lantern consisted of a fixed fourth order fresnel lens with an Argard
lamp which burned whale oil. 

During this period the Third Seminole War (Billy Bowlegs War) was coming
to an end and Egmont Key was the site of a tragic footnote to the Seminole
Wars. As the Seminoles surrendered they were sent to Egmont Key where
a camp had been established to house them until they could be transported
to Arkansas, their final destination. Tiger Tail, a Seminole Warrior, 
chose death to the indignity of being forcibly taken from his native Florida.
As the Seminoles prepared to board their ship, Tiger Tail swallowed a 
quantity of powdered glass with a cup of water. He then spread out on 
the beach, lay down and within a couple of minutes he was dead. 

At the outbreak of the Civil War Confederate troops briefly occupied the 
island of Egmont Key. Before the Confederates evacuated the island they
removed the fresnel lens from the Egmont Key Lighthouse to deprive the
Union Navy use of the beacon. In November 1861 Union Naval Forces
captured Egmont Key and established a base for Union gunboats blockading
Tampa Bay. As the war progressed, run-away slaves, Union Sympathizers, 
and Confederate Prisoners of War were also housed on Egmont Key. Union
Gunboats from Egmont Key often shelled buildings of military importance
on Tampa Bay and in 1862 shelled Tampa itself. In 1864 another raid was
made on Tampa from Egmont Key and the town was briefly occupied by Union
troops. During this occupation efforts were made to locate the missing
lens but were unsuccessful. The lens was finally returned at the end of
the war and the Egmont Key Lighthouse was back in operation in 1866.

Between 1866 and 1898 the light keeper, his assistant and their families
were the principal residents of Egmont Key. Each of the lighthouse 
keepers had his own house and they were responsible for the day to day
operation of the Egmont Key Lighthouse. They were required to clean
the lens, trim the wicks and replace oil in the lamp, and perform
general house-keeping chores. In 1872 a buoy depot and coal shed were
established at the Egmont Key Lighthouse to store buoys and provide
fuel for U.S. Lighthouse Service buoy tenders. In 1889 most of the
buoys and appendages which had been kept at Fort Jefferson, Dry Tortugas,
were transferred to Egmont Key. All the buoyage on the West Coast of
Florida were worked from this depot in the late 1800's and early 1900's.
It was noted in 1894 that Egmont Key was the only place in the Seventh
Lighthouse District where fresh water did not have to be purchased. 

Tensions ran high in Tampa during 1898 as war with Spain seemed 
imminent. It was feared that the Spanish would be sailing up the bay
any day to occupy the City of Tampa. In near panic, the citizens 
of Tampa demanded that the government build a fort at the entrance of
the bay. Egmont and Mullet Keys had been reserved for this purpose
in 1882 and Fort Dade was established with temporary gun batteries
at the outbreak of the Spanish American War. The Spanish Fleet
never came, however, between 1899 and 1916 over 70 buildings were
constructed on Egmont Key at a cost of $494,427.48 A small city
with over 300 residents existed on Egmont Key at this time. It was
complete with post office, movie theater, electric lights, telephone
service, sewers, ice house, hospital, and even an elementary school
for the children of the soldiers assigned there. Passenger boats
made daily trips from Anna Maria Island bringing mail and visitors
to Egmont Key. Advances in armaments during the early 20th century
made Fort Dade obsolete by the end of the First World War. After 
hurricanes in 1921 the fort was deactivated and a caretaker was
assigned in 1923.

After Fort Dade was deactivated in 1923 the lighthouse and pilot 
stations became the focal points of Egmont Key. Before a formal Pilot's
association was established in Tampa Bay, incoming ships had stopped
at the lighthouse and borrowed a chart of the bay from the light keeper
and returned it on his outbound voyage. In 1912 the Tampa Bay Pilot
Association obtained a lease for two acres on Egmont Key to maintain
a pilot outlook. The pilots have remained active since then guiding 
ships into today's busy Port of Tampa. In 1939 the U.S. Lighthouse
Service was transferred to the U.S. Coast Guard which has maintained
a light station on Egmont Key since that date. During the 1940's the
station was "modernized" by removing the fresnel lens and reducing the
height of the lighthouse down to 85 feet. A pair of DCB 36 airport
beacons with 200,000 candle power and a nominal range of 28 miles were
installed as a replacement. A radio beacon for ships and airplanes was
also established on the island of Egmont Key during this same period. 

The Island of Egmont Key is now a State Park. Enjoy your visit. But,
remember there are no food services there. Bring a picnic, keep any
alcoholic beverages in plain cups and have a nice time. 


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