Northern Prairie Wildlife Research Center
St. Petersburg, Florida
In the 1830s, as shipping increased, so did the number of ships that were grounded on the numerous sandbars around Egmont Key. On March 3, 1847, Congress authorized funds to construct a lighthouse on Egmont. The construction was completed in May 1848. When completed, it was the only lighthouse between St. Marks and Key West. When the Great Hurricane of 1848 struck September 23rd and 25th, tides 15 feet above normal washed over the island and damaged the light. Another storm in 1852 did additional damage and prompted Congress to appropriate funds to rebuild the lighthouse and lightkeeper's residence.
At the end of the third Seminole War in 1854, Egmont Key was used by the U.S. Army to detain Seminole prisoners until they could be transported to Arkansas.
In 1858, the lighthouse was reconstructed to "withstand any storm." The new tower was 87 feet high with an Argard kerosene lamp and fixed Fresnel lens. Confederate troops occupied the island when the Civil War began. Realizing that they could not defend their position, the Confederates evacuated Egmont, taking with them the Fresnel lens from the tower. The Union navy used Egmont to operate their Gulf Coast blockade of the Confederacy. In 1864, Union troops raided Tampa in an unsuccessful effort to locate the missing lens. The lighthouse returned to manual operation in 1866 at the end of the war. After the Civil War, the lightkeeper, his assistant, and their families were the principal residents of the island from 1866 to 1898.
When the Spanish-American War was imminent, citizens of Tampa demanded the Bay be protected from attacks so Fort Dade was established on Egmont Key. The Spanish fleet never came; however, some 70 buildings were built at a cost of $494,427 as part of a coastal defense plan. When construction was completed in 1916, Fort Dade was a small city of 300 residents with electricity, telephones, movie theater, bowling alley, tennis courts, hospital and jail among other services. The Fort was deactivated in 1923.
The Tampa Bay Pilots Association, established in 1886, set up operations on the island in 1926. When ships approach Tampa Bay, a pilot boards the vessel in the main channel and directs the ship to the docks. As the vessel leaves the dock the pilot guides it out and returns to Egmont Key on one of the pilot boats. The work of the pilots helps to protect the Bay from environmental damage that would result from groundings and/or collisions.
In 1939, the Lighthouse Service was transferred to the U.S. Coast Guard, which has maintained the light as well as radio guidance equipment. The Key was designated a National Wildlife Refuge in 1974, managed by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. Due to staffing limitations and increased public visits, the Wildlife Service was unable to protect the resources on its own. When the Coast Guard automated the light, Coast Guard personnel were reassigned. The Florida Park Service began operations at Egmont Key on October 1, 1989 as part of a co-management agreement with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.
Today, the combined resources of the Wildlife Service and the Florida Department of Natural Resources provides better protection for Egmont Key and its wildlife and a more enjoyable experience for the visitor.
Real Fun in the Real Florida