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Egmont Key

This is a recent aerial photograph of Egmont Key, looking to the south.  The lighthouse is in the foreground near the northern tip of the island.  The ship pilots' compound is near the southern tip of the island, in the distance.  Egmont Key has suffered tremendous erosion and is now considerably smaller than it was in 1900.  See, e.g.,  

 https://www.mnn.com/earth-matters/climate-weather/stories/floridas-egmont-key-home-wildlife-and-wild-history-disappearing-under-rising-seas  


https://www.abcactionnews.com/news/region-hillsborough/egmont-key-is-disappearing 


 https://www.tampabay.com/florida/2019/05/17/they-cant-turn-back-waves-but-usf-and-seminoles-are-preserving-egmont-key-in-digital-form/?fbclid=IwAR3ElldGDqNOoAKDAr27Om-M-3ImDKT75UP1anGBEiJxd2FI2zuxA9QkNbk 


To learn more about Egmont Key, visit the site of the Egmont Key Alliance:   http://www.egmontkey.info/ 

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This is the house on Egmont Key in which my great-great-grandfather lived in the 1890s, when he was a Tampa Bay ship pilot.  One day in July, 1900, when he failed to come down from his room at the usual hour, concerned colleagues broke into his locked room and found him dead, on the floor, with a bullet hole through his head and his revolver at hand.  He had been happily married, he had appeared to be in good health, he had done well financially, and he had been very well-liked by all who knew him.  Without any real investigation, his death was said to be a suicide, a conclusion which was not accepted by his friends and associates. Appearances are often deceiving, after all, and it seems unlikely that Captain Walker would have had the only key to his room. The photograph is from 1926.  The pilots' compound on Egmont Key is not open to the public, but based upon my inquiries I believe that this house is no longer standing.

  

Egmont Key, which was also sometimes called “Pilot’s Island”, is a narrow barrier island at the mouth of Tampa Bay. The first lighthouse on Egmont Key was built in 1848 and later destroyed by a hurricane. The present lighthouse was built in 1858. One can see the island and its lighthouse just off to the west when crossing the Sunshine Skyway between Bradenton and St. Petersburg. A well-researched and comprehensive look at Egmont Key can be found in a 2012 book by Carol and Donald Thompson, Egmont Key: A History.


A ship pilot, also known as a maritime pilot, a harbor pilot, or just “pilot”, is a sailor who boards a ship hailing from another port and guides the ship through the local waters, usually a harbor or river mouth, waters that would be unfamiliar to the captain and too dangerous for the ship captain to navigate without local guidance. In 1969, Captain John D. Ware of the Tampa Bay Pilots Association described the duties of a 20th century Tampa Bay pilot as follows:

 

“The pilotage route from sea to Tampa is forty nautical miles – almost twice as long as Jacksonville, the next longest route in Florida. The shortest route – Port Everglades – is less than two miles. Reduced to its simplest terms the duties of a Tampa Bay Pilot are to board a vessel at Egmont sea buoy, nine miles offshore and provide the local knowledge, skill and ship-handling ability necessary to safely conduct or “con” the vessel over the bar, through the channels, and in most cases to dock the vessel with or without tugs as indicated… Only rarely does the pilot actually steer or operate the engine order telegraph. In short, the pilot is merely an advisor who gives the necessary information and orders to safely navigate the ship into and out of greater Tampa Harbor.”[i]


Though there were other Tampa Bay pilots before them, the Tampa Bay Pilots Association began about 1888 when two Tampa Bay ship captains, Harry G. Warner and W. A. Switzer, joined forces to provide piloting services to vessels from other ports. Captain Arthur C. Bahrt, a Tampa Bay Pilot in the 1930s, wrote the following notes based on his conversation with his older brother, Carl W. Bahrt, who served as a general helper or “cabin boy” for the pilots, including Captain Walker, when he was a boy in the 1890s, and later became a pilot himself: 


“Captain H.G. Warner and W.A. Switzer were the two who established a bona fide station at the present site in Egmont Key, having for their first boat a small sailing sloop “Gulnare”. A lookout tower was built, fifty feet high and Captain Switzer built a home and lived on Egmont Key. Captain Warner lived at Port Tampa and brought all the ships out which Switzer had taken in. The writer at that time, being about ten years of age, lived at the station and my duties were to keep a lookout from the tower for the ships approaching that required the services of a local pilot and a handy boy for everybody.  Our nearest and only neighbors were Mr. and Mrs. Charles Moore. Mr. Moore was the light keeper at the Egmont Key Lighthouse. 


After a year, we needed a larger boat. Captain Warner brought his very fast sailing sloop, “Mischief”, and was she a beauty but [a] fisherman from Cape Cod and steamship master who had run to Tampa years before as a captain of the steamers of the Miller & Henderson Line [Captain Walker] then joined our association and soon came the much larger schooner, “Belle”, from Savannah, she being built there for a pilot boat and indeed she was a beauty. “Belle” was a fast sailer, good seaboat and fixed up like a yacht.”[ii]


It was probably in late 1893 that Captain Walker joined the Tampa Bay pilots, and according to C. W. Bahrt’s recollection, above, he was one of the very earliest pilots. A report in the Harwich Independent in early 1894 indicates that Captain Walker had sent the newspaper editor a letter from which it was learned that “the grippe is prevalent down there – as much of an epidemic as it has been [here]. By the way, the Capt. Is a successful pilot on one of the Edgemont (sic) Keys…”[iii] Captain Walker’s wife lived at Egmont Key with her husband, returning each summer to Cape Cod on her own.[iv] 


Toward the end of Captain Walker’s time there, Egmont Key was also the home of Fort Dade, which had been established after the start of the Spanish-American war (1898) as part of the country’s coastal defense.  Today, Egmont Key is a National Wildlife Refuge and a state park, accessible by ferry from Fort DeSoto State Park, just to the east.


As a ship pilot at Tampa Bay, one of probably three or four pilots serving in that role at the time, Captain Walker would board vessels when they entered Tampa Bay and guide them up the bay to St. Petersburg or further up to Tampa. “The early pilots used a compass, a timepiece, navigational markers and their senses to traverse the channel from Egmont to the ports within Tampa Bay. … The earliest pilots on Tampa Bay were required to set and maintain their own aids to navigation as well as stand ready to rendezvous with any vessels needing the services of a pilot to enter the bay.”[v] With his many years of experience navigating vessels up Tampa Bay, he was definitely well-suited for this job. 


Captain Walker and his wife lived in a house on Egmont Key which they shared with two boarders. I believe the house was built between 1895 (when the first private home was built by a Tampa Bay Pilot on Egmont Key[vi]) and 1900.


While stationed at Egmont Key, Captain Walker also performed services for other entities, including the Plant System, a network of hotels, rail lines, and steamship lines operated on Florida’s west coast by Henry B. Plant. An advertisement from July of 1897, in which it is indicated that Captain Walker would be guiding the Plant System steamship “Florida” for a fishing excursion, calls Captain Walker “the star pilot of Port Tampa.” Captain Walker was presumably acquainted with the more famous Henry, who died in June, 1899. 

    

[i] Caignet, Carrie (2012) Dedication to Service: The History of Piloting on Tampa Bay Through Three Centuries. Tampa, FL: Tampa Bay Pilots Association. At page 17.


[ii] Caignet, Carrie, supra, at pages 66-67.


[iii] The Harwich Independent, 1/30/1894.


[iv] The Harwich Independent, 12/7/1897, 6/26/1900.


[v] Caignet, Carrie, supra, at pages 107-108.


[vi] Caignet, Carrie, supra.

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Egmont Key Light - photo taken in 1926 by my grandmother when she and my grandfather went to visit important places from his childhood.

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H. M. Walker's Gravestone on Egmont Key, 1926.  The inscription says "H.M. Walker  /  Civilian".  I believe that his remains are no longer on the island, and some of them may be at his gravestone in South Chatham, on Cape Cod.

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Postcard of the Pilot Station on Egmont Key, about 1900. Courtesy of Manatee County Public Library Historical Digital Collections. Around 1890 the Tampa Bay Pilots Association obtained several acres near the southern tip of Egmont Key for their pilot’s station. The station is still there today.

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The Steamer "Mistletoe" approaches the lighthouse pier circa 1890s.  The "Belle", a pilot boat, is at the end of the pier.    Courtesy of Manatee County Public Library Historical Digital Collections. 



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My grandfather (left), Frederick B. Walker, in front of the home of his grandfather (Pilot Henry M. Walker) on Egmont Key.   He was playing miniature golf with some of the Tampa Bay Pilots Association pilots and staff.  My grandfather lived with his parents and siblings across Tampa Bay on Indian Hill (a/k/a "Cockroach Key", and what I call "Walker's Key") from 1895 to 1900.  This photo was taken by my grandmother in 1926, when she and my grandfather went to Florida to visit Egmont Key, Indian Hill, and St. Petersburg.  Yes, my grandfather was tall, 6'6".  





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Here is part of the 1900 census report for Egmont Key.  My great-great grandfather, Henry M. Walker, is listed along with his wife, Louisa (my novel kills off the pilot's wife early in the story -- sorry, Louisa), and two boarders.  As indicated, Charles Moore and Thomas Moody were lighthouse Keepers on Egmont Key.