The 1858 Egmont Key lighthouse is
still in operation as an aid to navigation.
In the foreground are rotating beacons
installed in the lighthouse in 1944, which were
replaced by the current beacon in 1989.
The Egmont Key Alliance is seeking
funding to restore the lighthouse and keep
the ruins of Fort Dade from eroding
into the Gulf of Mexico.
SUN PHOTO/CINDY LANE
EGMONT KEY – On a clear night on Anna Maria Island, you can see the beacon from the lighthouse on Egmont Key, just as anyone in three counties could have done in 1858.
The light has burned for 153 years as an aid to navigation, still doing the original job it was built for, according to Jim Spangler, past president of the Egmont Key Alliance, which intends to see that the lighthouse keeps right on burning.
On Florida Lighthouse Day last Saturday, Spangler gave tours of the lighthouse, which replaced one built in 1848 that was destroyed by storms.
The light, which used to run on whale oil and lard, is electric now, thanks to underwater power cables, but it has no backup generator. The original metal stairsteps inside are still intact, despite the salty environment, but need work. The rope handrails are worn.
The lighthouse interior is red brick, like those used in 1905 to build the roads that lead to the U.S. Army Fort Dade Military Reservation's ruins on the key. The interior bricks were once painted white like the outside, but one or more of the lighthouse tenders scraped the paint off, revealing the original red brick, Spangler said.
More restoration is planned, including repairing the metal railing along the top, which is called a "lantern room," not a "cupola," as most people think, Spangler said.
The Alliance hopes to restore the lighthouse to its original 1858 appearance, which had a different-shaped lantern room than the current structure, he said.
History worth saving
As an aid to navigation, the 87-foot-tall lighthouse may be on its way to becoming obsolete, as GPS becomes commonplace, Spangler said.
But as a piece of history, the lighthouse - and Egmont Key - shines.
The island, accessible only by boat, has had many incarnations; a prison for Seminole Indians and Confederate soldiers, a refuge for runaway slaves, the mosquito-infested Fort Dade, built for the Spanish-American War, a prohibition-era hideout from revenuers, a landing field, a harbor pilots' base, a recreational boating destination, a bird and sea turtle nesting area, a refuge for 1,500 gopher tortoises and a place where rehabilitated birds injured in the Deepwater Horizon oil spill were released.
The key, which is 1.5 miles long and 1 mile wide, sits in three counties - Manatee, Hillsborough and Pinellas - and has state and federal designations as Egmont Key State Park and the Egmont Key National Wildlife Refuge. The U.S. Coast Guard operates the lighthouse.
Along with the lighthouse restoration, the Alliance, with other groups, also is seeking Congressional support for a 50-year beach renourishment project proposed in 2008 by the Army Corps of Engineers to prevent erosion from claiming the remains of Fort Dade, parts of which already have crumbled into the Gulf of Mexico.
At the same time, the Florida Legislature is considering cutting $80,000 in state funding this month for the resident park ranger and part-time rangers, said Alliance President Richard Sanchez, adding that if the funds are cut, the key will likely be posted as closed during weekdays.
Alliance volunteers contributed nearly 10,000 hours to the key in fiscal year 2009-10, the equivalent of $72,000, or 3.5 full-time employees, according to the Alliance.
For more information on the Alliance, visit www.egmontkey.org.