Photo credit: Boca Grande Lighthouse, Manatee County Public Library System
By Danielle Dankenbring
Florida’s identity has been in many ways, shaped by the sea. It’s over a thousand miles of coastline has provided fishing, commerce, and tourism for the state. However, today’s friendly shores once presented early mariners with a series of hidden dangers beneath the waves.
Reefs and shoals – often unmarked and uncharted – posed threats to ships as they navigated Florida’s peninsula in the early 1800s. These navigational threats were often paired with the possibility of pirates, and Florida Keys wreckers that preyed on defenseless ships by sometimes using false lighting. In addition to the pirates and wreckers, several hurricanes have sunk countless ships along the Florida coast. When Florida became a territory of the United States in 1822, the federal government made quick work of establishing navigational aids where there was the most danger. One of those aids came in the form of lighthouses.
The first two lighthouses to shine on Florida’s coast were St. Augustine and Pensacola – both completed in 1824. Many soon followed over the following decades – including nearby Egmont Key Lighthouse and Port Boca Grande Lighthouse.
At the time Manatee County was established in 1855, it briefly extended from Tampa Bay to Gasparilla Island, which is located in Charlotte Harbor. The southern tip of Gasparilla Island is next to Boca Grande Pass. Gasparilla Island means “large entrance” or “big mouth” in Spanish and refers to the large pass that connects the Gulf and Charlotte Harbor.
During the 1830s settlers in Key West, Sanibel, and Tampa Bay asked the federal government for a lighthouse in Tampa Bay, but it wasn’t until 1848 that a lighthouse was built on Egmont Key. However, there was still a need for one on Gasparilla Island.
In 1888, the same year that Cortez was established, the United States congress assigned $35,000 for the U.S. Lighthouse Service to build a lighthouse on Boca Grande Pass. With the discovery of phosphate deposits, the lighthouse on Gasparilla Island was needed due to the increased shipping traffic that was occurring along the Gulf Coast. The lighthouse is a simple, one-story, wooden bungalow on iron pilings with a black octagonal lantern tower. It has survived more than seven hurricanes, a fire, and beach erosion.
Originally, there was a federal organization that tended to lighthouses – the United States Lighthouse Service, and the U.S. Lighthouse Board. Lighthouse keepers had to be extremely vigilant, and were tasked with the important work of making sure that the lights guiding vessels never went out.
As maritime navigation technology advanced, their purpose in navigation decreased. Eventually, in 1939, the United States Coast Guard took up the responsibility for the upkeep and maintenance of all lighthouses. They have also passed responsibility of them to the National Park Service as well as museums and historical societies.
Today in Manatee County, there is a U.S. Coast Guard Station in Cortez - which has been in service since 1974. Housed on the property where the Albion Inn and Burton/Bratton Store once stood. The station’s jurisdiction covers from south of the Skyway Bridge down to Gasparilla Island in Charlotte Harbor.
Just as lighthouse keepers were diligent in consistently keeping the light of the lighthouse lit, the U.S. Coast Guard’s own motto, “Semper Paratis – Always Ready,” also aligns with how lighthouses stood as an always ready light to guide the way, and watch over Florida’s coast.