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Fort De Soto Park

Fort De Soto Park is made up of five offshore islands, or 'keys', known as Madelaine Key, St. Jean Key, St. Christopher Key, Bonne Fortune Key and the main island, Mullet Key, which are located at the southern tip of St. Petersburg and are accessible by a toll road from the mainland.

Fort De Soto offers a shady spot to enjoy a meal

The park is open year - round and has many things to enjoy, such as two piers where you can fish out of the Gulf of Mexico; both sell bait and tackle and have food concessions. There are two swimming areas, North Beach and East Beach, picnic areas and a camping area with a store, restrooms and laundry room. They have a seven-mile, multi-purpose trail, 2¼ mile canoe trail, 800 foot boat ramp and an area to exercise pets. There is a snack bar with gift shop at the fort and a ferry that'll take you to Egmont Key State Park on Egmont Key.

T-Shaped Fort De Soto Gulf Fishing Pier

Fort De Soto History

After surveying the area in 1849, Brevet Col. Robert E. Lee and three other US Army Officers recommended that Mullet and Egmont Keys become fortified, because both were islands and could only be reached by boat from the mainland. During the Civil War, Union troops were stationed there to help blockade Tampa Bay, but it wasn't until 1882 that official military reservations were created on the two keys; however, nothing was ever built there. In 1889, Hillsborough County set up the Mullet Key Quarantine Station, which was taken over by the Marine Hospital Service in 1901. The purpose of this station was to inspect people arriving from foreign ports for disease and infections. The station operated fifteen buildings by 1925, and was operational until 1937, when it's services where transferred to Gadsden Point near Tampa.

6-inch Armstrong Rapid-fire Rifled Guns

In 1900, Fort De Soto became the main operation on Mullet Key. Officially a subpost of Fort Dade on Egmont Key and named for the Spanish explorer Hernando de Soto, construction of Fort De Soto had actually begun in 1898, and was completed in 1906. These posts were set up to contain batteries of artillery and mortars to protect Tampa Bay from any invaders.

The main purpose for building Fort De Soto was to defend Tampa during the Spanish-American War which started in 1898. The post of Fort De Soto was active from 1898 to 1910, where at least one company was stationed on active duty. The majority of the troops were moved to Fort Morgan, Alabama, in 1910, leaving only a few caretakers to maintain the place. By 1914, only a sergeant and a game warden remained, though the force slightly expanded into the World War I era. Later in 1917, the post disassembled four of its' mortars and shipped them off to Fort Rosecrans, in San Diego, California.

Pelicans at Fort De Soto Dock

In 1922, the Army announced it would close both Forts De Soto and Dade, which eventually took place in May of 1923; the forts were abandoned with only one caretaker at each. Several buildings, such as Battery Bigelow, were severely damaged by tropical storms and hurricanes. In September of 1938, the Army sold the areas on Mullet Key to Pinellas County; however, two years later, the War Department bought it back for use as a bombing range and sub post of MacDill Field. Here's an interesting fact: during WWII, the island was used for bombing practice by the pilot who dropped the bomb on Hiroshima.

Pinellas County bought the property once and for all in 1948, and in 1962, a toll road was completed, connecting it to the mainland and allowing visitors to arrive by car. On December 21, 1962, Fort De Soto Park opened. Its facilities have been expanded over the years, such as the quartermaster storehouse, which was reconstructed and became the Quartermaster Storehouse Museum, while in December of 1977, the Fort De Soto batteries were placed on the National Register of Historic Places. In 2003, Fort De Soto was turned into a mock-up of Puerto Rico to film a portion of the Marvel comic-inspired film, "The Punisher".

Egmont Key Lighthouse

The main attractions at the completed post were the artillery and mortar batteries, Batteries Laidley and Bigelow. The post consisted of 29 buildings, including a large barracks, a hospital, a guardhouse, a blacksmith, a carpenter shop, an administration building, and a mess hall; complete with a kitchen, a bakery, and a storehouse. The site also had concrete sidewalks and a narrow-gauge railroad to which had helped move materials and supplies around the post. Fort De Soto has the only four 12-inch seacoast rifled mortars in the continental United States; they are model 1890 and mounted on 1896 carriages. There are also two 6-inch Armstrong rapid-fire rifled guns there. They are 1898 models and were originally mounted at Fort Dade; they are the last two guns of that model year in the United States.

Dog Beach at Fort De Soto

Ironically, Fort De Soto never had a major battle, and the weapons of Fort De Soto and Fort Dade were never fired at an enemy. It did, however, play a significant part in the evolution of modern weaponry. As you walk along the island today, or to the top of Battery Laidley and look out over the area, imagine the area at the turn of the century; think of the troops and the hardships they faced like mosquitoes, heat, and isolation.

Fort De Soto is a great place to bring the family to spend a day and reflect on a little history while enjoying the beach and other opportunities to have fun.

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