History and Culture

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Egmont Key has a rich history. The entire key is listed on the National Register of Historic Places.


 Photo Gallery: History/Ruins 

Centuries Past

 Centuries Past

During the Pleistocene era, the Tampa Bay Refuges were part of the mainland of Florida. At the end of the last glacial period, ~20,000 years ago, ice began to melt rapidly and the sea level rose swiftly,separating them from Florida.

Artifacts of aboriginal/Indian pottery dating back 2,000 years have been found on the island. Since there is no freshwater source and because travel to the key entails crossing open water, it is likely that the key was used only periodically by Native Americans for hunting,crabbing, and shell fishing. Spanish expeditions first sighted the key in the early 1500s. The first recorded contact with the key was in 1757 by Don Francisco Maria Celi, a Spanish explorer. Egmont Key was named in 1763, after the second Earl of Egmont, John Perceval, the first Lord of the British Admiralty, and a member of the Irish House of Commons.

Historic Landmark Historic Landmark

When mapped by the Geodetic Survey in 1875, Egmont Key was approximately 50 percent larger than it is today. The first lighthouse was built in 1848 and was the only lighthouse on the western Gulf Coast of Florida. After hurricanes damaged the lighthouse in 1848 and 1852, the lighthouse was moved inland and rebuilt in 1857-58, and remains in service today. In the 1850s, Egmont Key was used as a holding area for Seminole Indians as they were being transported to Arkansas and Oklahoma.

Early in the Civil War, the key saw occupation by Confederate blockade-runners; while later in the 1860s, Union forces used Egmont Key to operate their Gulf Coast blockade of the Confederacy. The key was also used as a refuge for Union sympathizers and a military prison during the war.

 Take a Step BackTake a Step Back in Time

Construction of Fort Dade began in 1898, with temporary gun batteries built to protect Tampa at the outbreak of the Spanish/American War. The Spanish fleet never came, but by 1910 a small town of about 300 residents, brick streets, a narrow gauge railroad, an electric generating plant, and 70 buildings existed. At this time, during World War I, Fort Dade was used as a training center for National Guard Coast Artillery Units. The Fort was deactivated in the early 1920s, but later reactivated and used during World War II as a harbor patrol station and an ammunition storage facility.

Egmont Key became a national wildlife refuge in 1974 and was named to the National Register of Historic Places. In 1989, the State of Florida established Egmont Key State Park through cooperative agreement with the Service. At the present time, the US Coast Guard maintains the lighthouse and owns 55 acres at the north end of the island. The lighthouse is believed to be the oldest structure still used for its original purpose in the Tampa Bay area. The historic ruins of Fort Dade and Egmont Key State Park are managed by the Florida Park Service in cooperation with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (Service). Also, the Tampa Bay Pilots Association leases a 10 acre tract of land, 5 acres from Hillsborough County and 5 acres in two additional tracts from the Service along the east side of the island to conduct its business of piloting large ships into and out of Tampa Bay.

Egmont Key NWR, established in 1974, is administered in accordance with the National Wildlife Refuge System Administration Act of 1966. The refuge has four basic purposes: 

  1. provide nesting, feeding, and resting habitat for brown pelicans, terns, and other colonial nesting waterbirds;
  2. conserve and protect barrier island habitat and preserve historical structures of national significance;
  3. provide habitat and protection for endangered species such as manatees and sea turtles; and
  4. provide wildlife-dependent recreation and environmental education for the public (USFWS Visitor Services Review Report, March 2004). 


Rebuilding Past

 Rebuilding the Past ... For the Future