The history of Gasparilla Island goes back to the days of pirates and specifically to
Josť Gaspar. It has been argued for years whether he actually even existed. One artifact
that disputes his existence are old charts that predate Gaspars supposed lifetime.
They list Gasparilla Pass as Friar Gaspar Pass. The story of Gaspar, however, seemed to
grow in the early 1900s, told by fishermen. Of course, fishermen dont have a great
reputation for remembering details, and when newspapers started to write about the Gaspar
legend, it became more and more accepted as truth. Pirates certainly did exist in this
area and most likely visited these islands in the 1700s. The legend of Gaspar is so firmly
embedded in the folklore of the entire region, its best to let it live, as it adds
to the notoriety and interest of the area.
The Boca Grande Lighthouse, built in 1890 and the oldest structure on Gasparilla
Island, once helped to guide hundreds of oceangoing ships into its port for the huge
phosphate industry that sprang up in the early 1900s. Phosphate is an important element in
the making of fertilizers, which enable farmers to raise crops on the same land year after
year. Many other products, such as detergents and explosives, incorporate phosphate as
well: Its even an ingredient in soft drinks. Since Florida has approximately
seventy-five percent of the phosphate deposits in the United States, the port naturally
thrived. The railroad brought in not only phosphate, sometimes a hundred carloads at a
time, but also visitors from the North.
The Boca Grande lighthouse served as a home for the lighthouse keeper and his family, and the twin
building next to it served as home to the assistant lighthouse keeper. The keeper would
take care of the light until midnight, and then his assistant would tend to the light for
the rest of the night.
Near the Boca Grande lighthouse stood what was known as the quarantine house. Built in 1895, it was
the second oldest building in Boca Grande. It once stood next to the lighthouse and was
painted bright yellow with green shutters. It still exists but has been moved to a
different location. Since contagious diseases, especially yellow fever, were prevalent at
the time, all ships that came into the area were required to raise a yellow flag. They
would moor in a certain area, then wait for the doctor to row out, board the ship, and
inspect for sickness before being allowed to come into port.
With the opening of the elegant Gasparilla Inn in 1911, Boca Grande became known for
its good hotels that catered to a rich clientele. There was even a streetcar on the island
that provided service from downtown to the tip of the island where the port was. The hotel
to this day is still the resort of choice on the island. A bridge for cars wasnt
built until 1958 so the only way to get to the island before then was either by railroad
(built in 1909) or by ferryboat.
In the early 1970s, new terminals in Tampa with larger and more modern facilities,
along with a port to handle deeper draft vessels, left Boca Grande behind the times. It
meant the end of the railroad in Boca Grande; operations ceased in 1981. The one remaining
train terminal left here is just a hundred yards from the lighthouse and is used to
offload fuel oil for a power company. Stored in large tanks, the oil is transferred to
river barges, then towed to the power plant near Alva.
Most lighthouses around the country became automated in 1960, marking not only the end
of an era but also the abandonment and deterioration of many lighthouses. Such was the
case at Boca Grande. In 1966, the Coast Guard removed the Fresnel lens from this light and
used it at the nearby Gasparilla light, leaving the Boca Grande lighthouse dark and
discarded. For twenty years it served little purpose except as a picnic spot for tourists
and as a hangout for teenagers. By 1970, it fell into ruin and almost into the sea from
beach erosion. A year later, just before it was too late, 35,000 cubic yards of sand was
placed around the lighthouse in an attempt to save it. The federal government turned it
over to the county, and in 1980, it was placed on the National Register of Historical
Places. Five years later, the areas residents took up the cause to restore the
lighthouse with the help of the state.
The lighthouse is open to the public and has displays of earlier times. The area is
fenced, but you can see the outside of the lighthouse from the nearby park and beach. The
assistant keepers house serves as a house for the park ranger.
Tarpon fishing in this area is world renowned, and every year during the second weekend
of July, sport fishermen come from all over the world to compete for $100,000 in prizes.
Tarpon, known as "silver king," can weigh two hundred pounds. Fishermen in the
competition no longer keep these stately fish after a catch but release them after
measuring, weighing, and photographing them. Today taxidermists can create an accurate
fiberglass trophy model from that information. If youre thinking of joining in on
the competition, the entry fee is about $3,800.