Egmont Key State Park
The Egmont Key State Park is a barrier island off the coast of Tampa and St. Petersburg. In addition to Egmont Key’s status as a beloved tourist destination and wildlife refuge, the island is known to be one of the most historical places on the Western Florida coast. Historians believe that the island was most likely one of the coastal islands first spotted by Spanish explorers Panfilo de Narvaez and Hernando de Soto. The Spanish later surveyed the island in 1757, and the English named the island in 1765 after the Earl of Egmont. The island was passed to the United States in 1821, and in 1847, the U.S. constructed the first lighthouse on the island. This lighthouse was replaced in 1858, and it still stands today. The Egmont Key State Park has held several militaristic roles relative to Florida history. During the Third Seminole Wars, the island was used as an internment camp for captured Seminoles (this internment and forced transfer to the West is the last act of what is known today as the Trail of Tears). Years later in the Civil War, the Union Navy captured the island and conducted several infamous raids from there. Lastly, the island became a military city as war with Spain loomed in 1898. The remnants of Fort Dade and other military structures can still be explored throughout the island today. Designated as a National Wildlife Refuge in 1974 and listed on the National Register of Historic Places in 1979, Egmont Key presents snippets of Western Florida’s most important historic events. Visitors to the island can stroll through the ruins of Fort Dade, discover an entire colony of gopher tortoises, and visit the 87-foot-tall lighthouse.
Backstory and Context
History of Egmont Key
Historians generally believe Egmont Key was first explored during the age of Spanish exploration in the early 16th century. Likewise, as Egmont Key sits at the entrance to the Tampa Bay harbor, it is thought that Ponce de Leon (1513), Panfilo de Narvaez (1528), and Hernando de Soto (1539) at least passed the island, if not moored near it before continuing on their respective expeditions. The earliest known description of Egmont Key, however, is attributed to pilot Don Francisco Maria Celi, who visited Tampa in 1757 and gave descriptions and measurements of Egmont Key. Years later, in 1765, British surveyor George Gauld visited the island and gave it the name of Egmont Island, after the Earl of Egmont.
Despite other names attributed to the island, the Egmont Key name became the standard when Florida was officially passed over to the United States as part of the Adams-Onis Treaty (1819, though ratified in 1821). In 1837, Egmont Key’s sole use was as a small military depot and observation tower. A land-office report in 1843 stated that there were settlers on Egmont Key at that time, though the Secretary of War ordered that the island was reserved for military purposes only, and thus no settlement could be granted. Nonetheless, with the island’s position at the head of the Tampa Bay entrance, the US Congress authorized the construction of a lighthouse on Egmont Key in 1846. The Lighthouse was completed in 1848 at a cost of $7,050.1
Great Gale of 1848
The 1848 Tampa Bay Hurricane, also known as the Great Gale of 1848, virtually destroyed all human-built structures on Egmont Key, while also giving rise to the first folk stories and the overall charm attributed to the island. The 1848 hurricane, nevertheless, is known to be the most severe hurricane to affect the Tampa Bay area (records show barometric pressure and storm surges consisted with a Category 4 Hurricane).
Along with the newly constructed lighthouse was lighthouse keeper Sherrod Edwards, his son and apprentice lighthouse keeper Marvel Edwards, and his family. By 11:15 am on September 23, 1848, the barometric pressure had bottomed out and water swamped the entire Egmont Key island. At least two feet of water flooded the Edwards home before Sherrod realized that he needed to take action. On the isolated island, the Sherrod knew his options for survival were slim, but to protect his family, he placed them in a boat, waded it to the middle of the island, and secured the boat to a few palmettos until the entire storm was over. Following the storm, Sherrod Edwards then rowed to Fort Brooke and handed in his resignation. The newly built lighthouse was, nonetheless, destroyed and required no keeper.2
Construction of Fort Dade
During the second half of the 19th century, Egmont Key saw the construction of the second lighthouse in 1858 (which still stands today), interment camps in the Third Seminole War, and occupation by the Union Navy during the Civil War, among other historic events. However, it was the Spanish-American war that gave Egmont Key its greatest military build-up. At the outbreak of the war in 1898, fearful Tampa Bay residents called for greater fortifications on Egmont Key and other islands. By 1900, the military fortifications and other facilities on the island were called Fort Dade. Although the Spanish never came, Fort Dade remained in operation until 1923, when it was largely abandoned by the army (ruins of the streets and gun batteries still remain).
Establishment of the Egmont Key State Park
Egmont Key was used sparingly post-1921—it’s most prominent usage was as a harbor station during WWII—and was largely abandoned. In 1974, all of the island except for the lighthouse compound and a Tampa Bay pilots’ compound was declared a National Wildlife Refuge by the United State Fish and Wildlife Service. Five years later in 1979, the National Park Service listed the island on the National Register of Historic Places. The island is only reachable by boat, though a commercial ferry takes visitors to the island daily.3