Legacy of Light: Florida light illuminates local legends

Written by Walter T. Ham IV

Boca Grande Light. U.S. Coast Guard photo.

Boca Grande Light. U.S. Coast Guard photo.

According to local legend, a Florida lighthouse guides mariners around a very unusual navigational hazard: an island rumored to be haunted by pirates.

The Boca Grande Lighthouse is on Gasparilla Island, a barrier island that is reportedly named after Spanish pirate Captain Jose Gaspar who allegedly buried treasure there that remains undiscovered to this day.

The notorious pirate roamed around the island until a career ending encounter with the USS Enterprise sent him and his fellow marauders to the bottom of the sea in 1821. Ghosts of the pirates are rumored to frequent their old haunts on the island.

Almost two centuries after the buccaneers fired their last shots in the waters around the island, danger still lurks there. Bull sharks, hammerheads and jellyfish call the Gulf Coast waters home.

None of this deters Coast Guard Aids to Navigation Team St. Petersburg, Florida, from keeping the light shinning.

Petty Officer 1st Class Nicholas J. Kukets, the team’s training petty officer, said Boca Grande is one of four lights the team maintains, along with the Egmont, Gasparilla and Sanibel Lighthouses.

The lighthouses are among the 1,350 navigational aids the team covers along Florida’s Gulf Coast from Horseshoe Beach to Fort Meyer.

For Kukets, taking care of Coast Guard navigational aids is his way of paying tribute to his father.

“We spent summers taking vacations to the (North Carolina) Outer Banks and visiting Cape Hatteras and his favorite, the Ocracoke Island Lighthouse,” said Kukets, a native of Pittsburgh.

U.S. Coast Guard photo.

U.S. Coast Guard photo.

Completed for $35,000, the Boca Grande Lighthouse was lit in 1890 to guide ships between Charlotte Harbor and the Gulf of Mexico.

“The light was built to help mariners bring cattle to Cuba, and more importantly, export phosphate out of the State of Florida when the Port of Tampa could not handle the influx of traffic during the turn of the century ‘Phosphate Rush,’” said Sharon R. McKenzie, the executive director of the Port Boca Grande Lighthouse and Museum.

Phosphate, a primary ingredient in fertilizer, was discovered in central Florida in the late 19th century.

By the late 1960s, Boca Grande was the fourth busiest port in Florida. However, decades after the phosphate companies packed up and moved their shipping operations elsewhere in Florida, the Boca Grande Light primarily guides fishermen and recreational boaters.

Part of the Gasparilla Island State Park, the lighthouse is located in the 7th Coast Guard District, the Miami-based command that ensures the safety, security and stewardship of the ports and waterways in and around South Carolina, Georgia and Florida.

The lighthouse is an active aid to navigation, one of more than 48,000 navigational aids that mark the 25,000 miles of waterways that make up the U.S. Marine Transportation System, or MTS.

The coastal, intracoastal and inland waterways of the MTS are vital economic arteries that enable the continuous flow of overseas trade, sustain 13 million jobs and facilitate $3.2 trillion in commerce.

Listed on the National Register of Historic Places in February 1980, the Boca Grande Lighthouse is one of nine lighthouses honored in the U.S. Coast Guard Headquarters in Washington, D.C. Lighthouses from the Coast Guard’s nine districts have elevators named after them.

Thousands of tourists visit the Boca Grande Light every year, said McKenzie, who has served as the executive director for 10 years.

“I have become enamored with all lighthouses, especially those in Florida,” said McKenzie. “Our lighthouses are full of history, intrigue, and perhaps for some, even ghosts.”

While Kukets hasn’t seen in any pirate ghosts around the lighthouse, he hasn’t given up on the buried treasure.

“I’ve yet to find it,” he said.

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