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About Egmont Key

Located near the entrance to Tampa Bay, Egmont Key is accessible only by ferry or by private boat. Fort Dade, built on this barrier island when the Spanish-American War was imminent was deactivated in 1923, but the lighthouse, originally built in 1848, still operates. Little more than rubble remains of the original town’s 70 buildings.

The Key is both historical and environmentally important to Florida. The national wildlife refuge is recognized as one of the most significant bird nesting colonies in the southeastern United States. Nearly 1,000 brown pelicans nested on the island, along with 25,000 laughing gulls and 5,000 royal terns last year.

Native Americans from Florida’s tribe of Seminoles, (mistakenly called Indians) were detained at Egmont Key in 1854 before sending them to reservations in Oklahoma. The trek was named the “Trail of Tears” because more than half died on the way and they owned nothing when they got there.

The original lighthouse was badly damaged by a series of hurricanes and Robert E. Lee, who was working for the United States Army Corps as an engineer, was sent there to determine whether it should be repaired or a replacement built. He recommended replacement which was completed in 1858.

Then, there is Teddy Roosevelt’s association with Egmont Key. He campaigned for William McKinley for President in 1896 and was rewarded by becoming the Assistant Secretary of the Navy. The U.S. Battleship, Maine, was blown up in Havana harbor in 1898 and the U.S. declared war on Spain. Roosevelt resigned his position with the Navy and recruited college athletes and cowboys who then became the ‘Rough Riders’. They were stationed at Fort Dade for training before leaving for Cuba where they fought in the Battle of San Juan Hill. It is believed that Roosevelt’s’ courage in leading the regiment propelled him into the presidency in 1901.

Egmont Key eventually became a hideout for a variety of nefarious activities such as piracy and bootlegging and in1930 the U.S. Coast Guard started a grass fire to “smoke them out.” In 1974 the southern half of the island became a wildlife refuge and now the Key is a Florida State Park.

The Key is also one of more haunted places on the western coast of Florida –many have left this tiny island in a hurry. One such person, a park ranger, explained his experience as follows: "It was when I was inspecting the southern section of the island, where the fort and gun batteries are located that I started hearing things. I stood there a few moments just to see if anyone would walk out, but no one did. It was pitch black outside, and no one else should have been there, outside of another park ranger. As I walked toward that area, I began hearing doors slamming shut, over and over, and, even though I was a little nervous I knew I had to check the area out. This is my job. When I got to where the noise was coming from, the doors were all shut and locked, which was very strange. I began to think someone was playing around, and when I saw a man dressed as a Civil War soldier, complete with all the regalia, I began to think, okay, what is this – this had to be someone’s idea of a joke. But, when this character started walking toward me, stopping about four feet from me and just staring intensely at me, then turning around and walking away, only to finally vanish all together, that was it for me. I got the hell out of there, and fast!" (- from a 2006 interview).

Some think that it could be the ghost of George V. Richard, the light keeper in 1861. Other Civil War era ghosts have been seen walking there, as well as units of gray-clad soldiers lined up in military fashion, as if ready for combat. Further, it has been reported that someone is whistling “Dixie” long after the island is free of visitors late at night. Park rangers and park volunteers alike have been hearing the ghostly whistling.

Other possibilities could be Seminole prisoners who were held on the Key. It might be those who had died from disease and violence, and were buried in a mass, unmarked grave. Others believe that a few spirits from the Spanish-American war are at home here and have returned to occupy the places where they live. When the sun goes down on Egmont Key, spirits and ghosts are just waking up, waiting to meet mortal visitors. Interested?

You can visit the Key by boat or ferry that leaves from Fort Desoto County Park. Call 727-867-6569 for reservations. The captain will stop the ferry and let you visit with the dolphins upon request.

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Copyright © Leland Desmon For One Image Media Group, Inc. All rights reserved.
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