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With sandy beaches, translucent waters, and historical structures, Egmont Key, the slender island at the mouth of Tampa Bay, attracts boaters throughout the region. Visitors on a sunny weekend may not find much island solitude, but they will find a beautiful natural refuge that possesses a remarkable past.
From prehistoric times, this spit of land has been a focal point in the region.
Aboriginal Floridians and Spanish conquistadors tromped across its wind-swept sands. Captured Seminoles were imprisoned there as they were shipped to the West from their homeland. Robert E. Lee, while still serving the Union, recommended the island be fortified. A lighthouse was built in 1848, after numerous ships ran aground on nearby sandbars. A hurricane swamped the original lighthouse and it had to be rebuilt in 1858. The lighthouse did not stop all shipwrecks. Off Egmont’s shores are the remnants of a Civil War era wreck that smashed into the shallows. The Florida Aquarium assisted in uncovering and preserving the wreck.
The USS Narcissus was an 81-foot steamer tugboat that took part in the Union blockade of New Orleans and later participated in the famous battle of Mobile Bay, where fabled Rear Admiral David Farragut commanded the U.S. fleet. According to Donald H. Thompson’s and Carol Thompson’s fascinating book, “Egmont Key: A History,” the Narcissus, was on torpedo-clearing duty when it struck a Confederate torpedo in Mobile Bay and sunk without loss of life. It was raised, repaired, and began serving as a dispatch boat. But its reprieve was short-lived.
After the war ended, the ship was ordered to New York to be decommissioned and sold. It never made it to New York. The Narcissus ran aground during a storm off Egmont Key in 1866. Swells swamped the vessel. When water hit the boiler, it exploded. All 26 aboard were killed.
The ship was mostly hidden by sand for many years but storms in the 1990s exposed some of the wreckage. The Tampa Tribune reported in 2015 that Nicole Morris of South Eastern Archaeological Services researched the ship, writing her master’s thesis about the vessel. The Florida Aquarium, collaborating with Nicole Morris and her husband and co-worker, John Morris, spearheaded the effort to have the state declare the Narcissus as Florida’s 12th Underwater Archaeological Preserve. The Aquarium is responsible for a number of archaeological discoveries in local waters, including several in the Hillsborough River.
At the Narcissus’ dedication as a preserve in 2015, 26 roses were thrown one by one into the water over the wreck and a galley bell rang 26 times. Dignitaries, including government officials, U.S. Coast Guard officers and historians, watched from The Florida Aquarium, where the ceremony was live streamed.
At one time, The Florida Aquarium led dive trips to the site. Tim Stripling, The Aquarium’s director of marine operations, said the wreck is in about 15 feet of water and visibility often was limited. The ship is not intact; only a few pieces are visible. Stripling said divers could see a commemorative plate and also “the propeller engine block and other wreckage.” Of course, disturbing the vessel’s remains is prohibited.
But the Narcissus is only a small part of Egmont’s rich history.
The island was developed as a Spanish-American War era fortress - Fort Dade. At one time, it housed 300 residents and included a movie theater, tennis courts and a hospital. The facility served to quarantine yellow fever patients. Some of the post’s old gun batteries, crumbling into the sea, remain as do sections of old brick roads. Fort DeSoto, across the channel from Egmont, also was developed as a military outpost during the Spanish American War. The two fortresses, along with mines, were intended to prevent any naval invasion of Tampa Bay. It was a sensible idea, but the armaments never were used.
Egmont later was used for training in both World I and World War II. Corroded bullet casings from those days occasionally may be found along the beach. The Tampa Bay Harbor Pilots maintain quarters on the protected backside of the island, where they can quickly meet incoming ships to guide them through Tampa Bay. Dominating the Egmont’s eastern vista is the Sunshine Skyway Bridge. The cable-stayed bridge, gleaming in the sunlight, is an impressive sight.
It is also a reminder of a tragedy.
During a sudden, blinding storm in May 1980, a freighter hit the previous Skyway Bridge. A section or the roadway linking Pinellas and Manatee counties collapsed. Thirty-five people, 26 of them traveling in a bus, plunged to their deaths. Investigators found the harbor pilot guiding the freighter was blameless, as the horrendous storm eliminated any safe option.The replacement bridge was built with more safety features.
Most of Egmont Key is now a state park. Boaters who visit can swim, fish, picnic and view the historic structures. There are no docking facilities but boaters can anchor along the beach. The southern inland section of the island is closed to the public to protect wildlife, so be careful where you wander. There are no restrooms or concessions. Park officials urge visitors to bring water, food and sunscreen. Ferry rides to Egmont are available from the mainland, including nearby Pinellas’ Fort DeSoto Park, which also contains batteries and other remains of its Spanish War era fortress.
The Egmont lighthouse endures as one of the region’s oldest structures, having survived countless storms. Unfortunately, much Egmont’s western side is being washed away. Several batteries already have been claimed by erosion and are now off shore from the island. More than history is in jeopardy.
Egmont Key is a national wildlife sanctuary with thousands of birds and other creatures, including loggerhead turtles and gopher tortoises.
The Egmont Key Alliance, which is campaigning to protect this natural treasure, cites 1850 surveys that found the island to be 580 acres. Now it is scarcely 200 acres. The Alliance wants the state to renourish the island with additional sand.
As the Sam Gibbons, late Tampa U.S. congressman who was instrumental in Egmont becoming a state park, once said, “The place is loaded with history.” It is also loaded with wildlife, and Florida leaders should work to ensure this fragile but resilient island continues to guard the mouth of Tampa Bay.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Joe Guidry, a Tampa native, worked for The Tampa Tribune Company for more than 40 years. He joined The Tampa Tribune Editorial Department in 1984, later became Deputy Editorial Page editor and took over as Opinion Page Editor in 2008, a position he held until the Tribune ceased publication in May 2016. Read more...