Step into the past at the Florida Egmont Key Lighthouse. Before two-way radios and GPS, sailing vessels relied on lighthouses, round towers with flashing or rotating lights, to keep from crashing into shore, rocks, and each other. On Florida’s Gulf Coast, where millions of coves, islands, and inlets present a natural watery maze, Egmont Key’s lighthouse was instrumental in keeping ships, their cargoes, and their passengers as safe as possible.
lighthouse st. petersburg, 2
A small island at the mouth of Tampa Bay, Egmont Key was named for a British lord. After the Americans took over, residents began asking for a lighthouse on the key. Because of the island’s strategic location between the Keys and the Florida panhandle, the government thought this a good idea, and by 1846 plans were drawn up for a forty-foot brick structure, with thirteen lamps and twenty-one reflectors.
The lighthouse might not have lasted long if not for the foresight of one Mr. Walker, a local customs collector. He insisted that, because of “heavy gales of winds,” the tower be constructed one hundred feet inland from the shore. In that way, Walker reasoned, even if a hurricane were to topple the structure, those inside could escape without drowning. Walker’s persistence eventually beat down the budget-minded U.S. Treasury official who thought a foundation of sand and old shells would be sufficient; Walker insisted on heavy pilings driven straight into the ground, and he got them.
In mid-April, 1848, the Egmont Key lights were activated for the first time by lighthouse keeper Sherrod Edwards. Six months later, Walker’s wisdom was borne out when a massive hurricane left the entire island under several feet of water. When the waters began to recede, keeper Edwards rowed his family to the mainland and lost no time in handing in his resignation. Lightning strikes and other problems caused a new tower to be built in 1857. This second lighthouse stood another ninety feet inland and boasted a powerful Fresnel lens that shone from a height of eighty-six feet.
All America saw changes during the Civil War, and the Egmont Key Lighthouse was no exception. Lighthouse keeper Ricketts, a Confederate sympathizer, fled by night with the Fresnel lens in a box and all the other supplies he could remove. Makeshift and replacement lenses were used for several decades, until a new third-order Fresnel with a red sector made its debut in 1893.
Other wars left their mark on Egmont Key. At the time of the Spanish-American War, in 1898, The Army constructed Fort Dade on the island. The fort grew during subsequent years, especially during World War I, to eventually include a movie theater and a bowling alley, among other amenities. Toward the end of World War II, in 1944, the now-obsolete Fresnel lens was replaced with a rotating beacon, and the lighthouse’s upper portion was removed.
Today, Florida Egmont Key Lighthouse as well as Egmont Key are a National Wildlife Refuge and a nationally recognized Historic Site. Only a few private boats may visit the island, but these bring packs of visitors eager to see the sights, explore hiking trails, swim, beachcomb, and snorkel the shallow, warm waters, home to packs of playful dolphins. For a fun, rewarding family day trip out of Tampa, it’s hard to top the Florida Egmont Key Lighthouse.