The Quest to Save a Fragile Florida Island With a Difficult History
For many Floridians, Egmont Key conjures up paradisiacal images of secluded white beaches, turquoise water, and lush green foliage. The island at the mouth of Tampa Bay can only be accessed by boat. It draws more than 200,000 visitors each year to hike, picnic, snorkel, and catch views of birds, butterflies, and turtles in its national wildlife refuge and state park. It also contains a lighthouse dating to 1858 and the remnants of Fort Dade, built during the Spanish-American War and listed on the National Register of Historic Places.
“This is one of the last undeveloped places for shorebirds and sea turtles on Florida’s west coast,” says Stan Garner, a wildlife officer at the United States Fish & Wildlife Service and the visitor services manager on Egmont Key.
But the island is shrinking into the Gulf of Mexico due to erosion and sea level rise. In the mid-19th century, Egmont covered 540 acres. Today, that figure has dropped to around 270 acres.
Then there is Egmont Key’s historical role as a Seminole internment camp. During the Third Seminole War in the late 1850s, Seminoles captured by the U.S. military were brought to the island and confined in a guarded blockhouse while awaiting transportation west. At least 300 tribe members were imprisoned here. After Chief Holata Micco (also known as Billy Bowlegs) surrendered at Fort Myers in 1858, the captives were taken by ship to Egmont Key, then to New Orleans, and forced to resettle in Oklahoma. According to legend, some Seminole warriors imprisoned at Egmont Key walked out into Tampa Bay to drown themselves rather than submit to the involuntary relocation.
“This is a terrible period of American history. [Egmont Key] was essentially a concentration camp,” says Dave Scheidecker, an archaeologist with the Tribal Historic Preservation Office of the Seminole Tribe of Florida. “We don’t want this history forgotten just because it’s unpleasant.”
To that end, the Seminole Tribe has engaged in efforts to preserve the history of the island for the past few years. The tribe conducted an archaeological survey in 2016 and 2017, finding artifacts such as belt buckles and rivets dating to the mid-19th century. And it has brought tribal members to Egmont to learn about the internment camp history.
Supporters of Egmont hope that the Seminole Tribe’s efforts will create a renewed public awareness of the island’s importance, which could translate into more funding to address the erosion. Together with Florida State Parks, Friends of Tampa Bay National Wildlife Refuges, and the nonprofit Egmont Key Alliance, the Fish & Wildlife Service managed to get funding for a 2016 U.S. Army Corps of Engineers sand replenishment project.
That project helped, but every year the bay rises a little more. Some of the old gun batteries of Fort Dade sit 200 yards offshore, underwater.
Garner points to nearby Passage Key, which disappeared in 2004 only to re-emerge 10 years later. Water covers the 5-acre sandbar from time to time due to tropical storms and hurricanes. Without an “enormously expensive” re-nourishment project, he says, “that’s likely the future of Egmont Key.”