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They can’t turn back waves, but USF and Seminoles are preserving Egmont Key in digital form

The team is creating three-dimensional images of the historic island in case it finally disappears. Their three weeks of scanning winds up at the end of the month.
Graduate students and staff from the University of South Florida head toward the Egmont Key lighthouse. The group is producing three-dimensional images of historic sites on the island before they are lost to erosion. [SCOTT KEELER | Times]
Published May 17
Updated May 21

When it was built in the early 1900s, the electrical plant that powered the community of Egmont Key sat smack in the middle of the island.

Today, with a park ranger the island’s only resident, the plant stands partly submerged off the western shore, stranded by the erosion that has claimed about half the 580 acres that Egmont Key measured during the 1800s.

"It won't be here forever," said Jeff Stewart, who captains a ferry that carries tourists the 2 1/2 miles from Fort De Soto Park to Egmont Key State Park at the mouth of Tampa Bay. "It's disappearing."

Trinity Miller, Kiana Sladicki, and Cassie McCabe, all graduate students at the University of South Florida, set up a 3D scanner inside the Egmont Key lighthouse. The group is producing detailed images of historic sites on the island before the sites are lost to erosion. [SCOTT KEELER | Times]

The maritime disappearing act motivates some of Stewart’s most regular passengers — a team of University of South Florida faculty and graduate students and a Seminole Tribe archeologist.

They are creating three-dimensional images of Egmont Key to remember it in case it finally disappears. Their three weeks of scanning winds up at the end of the month.

"This site is in immediate danger," said Laura Harrison, director of the Access 3D Lab at the University of South Florida College of Arts and Sciences.

In 2017, the Florida Trust for Historic Preservation listed Egmont Key as one of the most threatened historic properties in the state. The trust blamed intensifying erosion on rising sea levels caused by climate change.

READ MORE: Egmont Key makes historic preservation list because it is threatened by climate change

"By 3D scanning it, we will at least have some record for future generations to experience," Harrison said. "There is a lot of important history here."

First charted by Spanish explorers in the early 1500s, Egmont Key was used as a camp in 1857 and 1858 for hundreds of captured Florida Seminoles before they were moved to reservations in Oklahoma. They were held in a 40-by-40-foot stockade that provided little protection from the elements.

Today, the Seminoles refer to Egmont Key as their Alcatraz Island.

"From a tribal perspective, we don't want the history of what happened to the tribe washed away with the island," said Dave Scheidecker, an archaeologist with the Seminole Tribe of Florida's Tribal Historic Preservation Office.

Surrounded by water at the mouth of Tampa Bay, Egmont Key has lost half its land area to erosion over the years. A team from the University of South Florida is producing three-dimensional images of historic sites on the island. [SCOTT KEELER | Times]

U.S. troops, Scheidecker said, raided Seminole camps when the men were away and captured the women, children and elderly. If the men wanted to be reunited with their families, they had to agree to go to Oklahoma, too.

From the late 1800s through the early 1900s, Egmont Key was home to a military installation called Fort Dade, protecting the Tampa Bay area against the threat of a Spanish naval invasion that never came.

An estimated 300 members of the military were stationed on the island. The infrastructure built for them included 70 buildings — suburban-style homes, a general store and even a bowling alley. Much of that is gone now or crumbling.

READ MORE: A year later, Egmont Key wildfire considered a ‘good thing’

The 3D scanning efforts focus on four sites — the lighthouse, completed in 1858; the cemetery, with 19 white crosses marking the burial sites of lighthouse tenders, U.S. armed forces and Seminoles before they were relocated off the island; and the Mellon Battery, the only part of the old fort safe for tourists to climb on.

A modern-day helipad is believed to the site of the old Seminole stockade, but records are hard to come by.

“That is our best guess where the stockade would have been," said Brooke Hansen, director of sustainable tourism for USF’s Patel College of Global Sustainability. "We don't have pictures of the actual stockade, but pictures of other contemporaneous structures from that time period show it would have been a wooden palisade with two-story houses for lookout towers on opposite corners.”

READ MORE: Seminole Tribe searches for remains of ancestors on Egmont Key

Kara Cook, graduate student, and Elliot Alvarez, research assistant, both from the University of South Florida, crank up a 3D scanner next to the Egmont Key lighthouse. They’re part of a team producing detailed images of historic sites on the island before the sites are lost to erosion. [SCOTT KEELER | Times]

Hansen hopes the images inspire interest and visits to Egmont Key.

The imaging team aims to use its work on the island to win grants so USF and the Seminole Tribe can create virtual 3D history tours. One virtual tour, said archeologist Scheidecker, could take tourists along on the ship that carried the Seminoles to the island and follow them on their march to the stockade.

Meantime, 3D renderings of island features will be available online by this fall.

Online tours, in fact, are the only way people can see inside one main attraction of the island — the red-brick lighthouse with its still-rotating beacon.

This week, USF’s Harrison split 10 graduate students into three groups, each carrying a 3D scanner. Over a three-day period, they collected 100 scans inside and outside of the lighthouse to help create a virtual climb up a spiral staircase to the top of the 88-foot structure. Visitors climb seven concrete steps then 85 metal ones.

As they climbed the 92 mostly metal steps in the stifling Florida heat, the students joked that they look forward to taking a virtual tour in air conditioning.

University of South Florida graduate students Kiana Sladicki, center, and Cassie McCabe, right, crank up a 3D scanner at the Egmont Key lighthouse. They’re part of a team producing detailed images of historic sites on the island before the sites are lost to erosion. [SCOTT KEELER | Times]

Later, as they quenched their thirst in the shade, archeologist Scheidecker shared a tale that reinforced the importance of their work.

The current lighthouse is Egmont Key's second. The original was completed in 1847 but destroyed by the storm known as "Great Gale of 1848."

"It was like a Category Five hurricane," he said.

As the story goes, Scheidecker said, lighthouse keeper Marvel Edwards survived by hiding in a rowboat tied to a palm tree.

"He rode out the storm while everything washed out around him.

Edwards didn’t remain much longer, though.

“He stayed on for six more months,” Scheidecker said, “but quit because, even after all of that, they would not give him a raise.”

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