Enthralling Egmont Key
By E. Adam Porter
A twenty-minute ferry ride from the Bay Pier at Fort DeSoto lands you on one of Florida’s hidden treasures, Egmont Key State Park. Accessible only by boat, the tiny barrier island is home to a bird sanctuary and a haven for fisherman, picnickers, snorkelers, hikers, bird watchers and history buffs.
As you walk the sand-crusted stone paths around the island you get a real sense of the history of this place. It is a ghost town abandoned by man and ravaged by wind and waves, at once appealing and ominous. The walls of Fort Dade are cold and gray but not quite chilling. The ghosts that walk these paths and roam these ruins have a story to tell. It is a tale of pirates and prisoners, warriors and wives. Of glorious days playing in the Gulf Coast sunshine and long nights languishing in sweltering prison cells. Of the hot agony of fierce battle and the warm comfort of family. It is a dichotomous and wonderful place, boasting a pair of weathered landmarks.
The solitary spire of the Egmont Key lighthouse has stood sentinel since 1848, a shining beacon for countless ships seeking safe harbor. Damaged by hurricanes both in its inaugural year and again in 1852, the lighthouse and keeper’s residence was rebuilt in 1858. That 88-foot tower was topped with an Argard kerosene lamp and stationary Fresnel lens. At least, it was until the Civil War. When abandoning the island, Confederate troops took the lens apparatus with them, leaving the lighthouse “built to withstand the storm” cold and dark. Union troops raided Tampa in an unsuccessful attempt to recover the lens…just one more forgotten battle of the Civil War.
During World War II the lighthouse was an aggressive beacon, actively searching for and occasionally sighting German U-boats. In 1944 the light that had replaced the stolen Fresnel lens was itself replaced with an aerobeacon. It’s light flashes every 15 seconds and is visible for 22 miles. Today, the lighthouse is automated and under the care of the U.S. Coast Guard which shares management duties of the island with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.
While Egmont Key saw action in both the Civil and Seminole Wars, the stoic, ruined Fort Dade harkens back to more recent militant times. In 1898, as Teddy’s Rough Riders were approaching San Juan Hill, plans were being made to construct Fort Dade. Though the first troops did not arrive until after the signing of the peace treaty that ended the Spanish American War, the fort and its long guns remained at the ready until 1923. The troops stationed there saw little real action. They spent down time enjoying recreational comforts including tennis, baseball, a movie theater, a gymnasium and fishing. What they didn’t have was air conditioning and much in the way of mosquito control. So, this billet was no island paradise.
Gazing across the water from the walls of the remaining fort – there were once three, but two have been taken by the sea – you can feel the unique mix of nervous anticipation, listless boredom and utter freedom the lookouts and gun battery crews felt as they stood their watch. A careful walk down the weathered steps into the dank rooms below draws the world in around you. Listen closely and you can almost hear the ghosts of Confederate soldiers and Seminoles that were imprisoned here, each in their own time, both riddled with disease and oppressed by inhuman conditions.
The travel-worn trail leading away from the fort soon becomes a brick causeway. Following that redbrick road leads to the ghost town where up to three hundred soldiers and civilians once lived, worked and played. Today, most of those buildings are in ruins, hollow shells and overgrown foundations.
When the army left, Egmont Key became home to vagabonds and squatters, a hideaway for hermits, illegal immigrants and modern day pirates smuggling alcohol and other contraband. In April 1925 Federal Agents stormed the island, captured the inhabitants and set fire to the town’s main street, NCO Row. The Agents captured their quarry and departed, the fire still raging. It spread, engulfing nearly every other building in town before local Fire Departments from Manatee, Hillsborough and St. Petersburg were able to contain it.
Just down the causeway from the town is a small cemetery. White crosses surround a flagpole, the Stars and Stripes proudly whipping in the stiff seabreeze. The names of the interred can be read on a small plaque near the cemetery gate. Young men, some in their teens, all died during the Civil War. Most of dreaded Yellow Fever, two, including a civilian, of gunshot wounds. It’s easy to wonder if some of these men may have taken part in the ill-fated attempt to recover the lens that was the reason they were on this island. They perished here unsuccessful in one skirmish but faithful to a higher duty, men from cooler climes and a few from across an ocean, defending their adopted land. Standing next to this place, eyes on the flag, the gravity of the moment is enough to shake the earth.
And suddenly, just like that, the spell is broken and the day is once again bright, beautiful and full of promise. A glance up at the ferry tells you that Captain Jeff is ready to drop his snorkelers off to explore the submerged wreck of the first fort to be claimed by the sea. Best not to keep him waiting.
When you visit
Egmont offers prime Florida wildlife viewing, especially for birders. Bring your best camera and a long lens. And, if you have a GoPro or waterproof unit, pack that as well.
This is a primitive stop. Plenty of photo opportunities but zero bathroom facilities or food options. The ferry operators do offer a limited canteen, but you’re better served to pack your own lunch. No big coolers, though. Opt for a backpack. Water is a must, even if you plan to spend most of your visit snorkeling.
Bring comfortable sandals or walking shoes. The rock and brick causeways that lead back into the island are relatively easy, but the round-trip hike will leave you footsore if you try it in flip-flops.
The fort makes an irresistible photo op, but obey posted signs. They’re there for a reason. The entire park is a wildlife refuge, so, please, leave no trace.
The ferry to Egmont Key leaves from Hubbards Marina at Fort Desoto, 3500 Pinellas Bayway S., St. Petersburg, FL 33715. Click here to review ferry costs, restrictions, departure times and blackout dates, which change seasonally. Reservations strongly suggested, 727.398.6577.