Haunted History of Fort Desoto Park

Exploring the History of Tampa Bay’s Haunted Fort Desoto

May 18, 2017

By:  Rebecca Genesis

—– Every year millions of visitors are drawn to the beautiful and scenic Fort Desoto Park.   Located on the central west coast of Florida, it’s a perfect place to enjoy gorgeous white sand beaches and many other natural amenities.   Boating, camping, kayaking, fishing, picnicking, nature trails, and birding are some of the fun activities that draw in visitors from all over the area and the world.  And, some of them are also paranormal investigators, like me.  Yes, Fort Desoto is also haunted.

Aerial view of Fort Desoto Park

Aerial view of Fort Desoto Park

—– At the southernmost point of Pinellas County, Florida, Fort Desoto Park is made up of five separate Islands where the waters of the Gulf of Mexico and the Tampa Bay meet.  The North Beach location of the largest island, Mullet Key, is considered to be one of the top beaches in America and the world.  Having spent most of my life living in Pinellas County, it’s easily one of my favorite beaches to enjoy in the area.  Plus, it’s always fun to check out the haunted Fort, of course.

—– Fort Desoto is a real abandoned fort that was built in 1898 on Mullet Key to protect the Tampa Bay area from potential attacks during the Spanish-American War.  Named after the Spanish explorer, Hernando Desoto, it was a subpost to Fort Dade located on the nearby island of Egmont Key.  However, Fort Desoto was never involved in an actual battle during the war and never fired even one shot at enemies.  So, why then would it be haunted?

Two of the remaining big guns at Fort Desoto

Two of the remaining big guns at Fort Desoto

—– Mullet Key and the surrounding area has a deep history which includes an abundance of tragedy and suffering, especially over the last five centuries.  This includes the conquering of the native inhabitants by the Spanish; murderous guerrillas; infamous pirates; disease and outbreaks; and miserable and even deadly conditions for soldiers posted at Fort Desoto while it was in operation around a century ago.

—– Out of necessity, they had to make a quarantine station for those afflicted by yellow fever in the late 1800’s.  And, in more recent times, the Fort was used as a makeshift morgue after the nearby Skyway Bridge collapse occurred in 1980.  Not to mention all the suicides that regularly take place at the newer replacement Skyway Bridge, still just across the way.  This unique recipe of events makes the land (and waters, for the matter) ripe for haunted happenings, if you ask me.  So, let’s take a step back in time, shall we?

TOCOBAGA & SPANISH OCCUPATION

—– Archaeological evidence shows the first inhabitants to the area arrived around 12,000 years ago.  The Tocobaga Indians enjoyed the plentiful fishing in the Tampa Bay area.  The natives also gathered clams, conchs, and shellfish to eat from the Mullet Key area as evidenced by the many mounds and shell middens they left behind.  The Tocobaga peoples flourished with a complex society in and around Mullet Key from 1000 A.D. until the early 1500’s when the Spanish began to invade and conquer.  Eventually, genocide and disease eradicated them all.

—– Spanish Conquistador Ponce DeLeon first visited Mullet Key in 1513, reportedly anchoring off the island to remove barnacles from his ship.  One of his soldiers was killed by natives but the rest of the ship’s crew escaped.  DeLeon returned to the west coast of Florida in 1521, where he made an attempt at conquering the natives and colonization.  He was injured by an arrow and DeLeon later died from his wound in Havana, Cuba.

Ponce De Leon arrives in Florida with the intent of conquering the Natives. Photo Credit: The History Files

Ponce De Leon arrives in Florida with the intent of conquering the Natives. Photo Credit: The History Files

—– Contrary to what many people might believe, Europeans had been exploring the territory that would be called Florida for years prior to Ponce DeLeon dubbing the land La Florida.  By 1500, the peninsular shape was showing up regularly on European maps.  By the time DeLeon arrived, so many Spanish explorers had already been there, it was reported there were natives who even knew the language!

—– Other notable Spanish Conquistadors like Pánfilo de Narváez and Hernando Desoto were also said to have landed near the area of Mullet Key in the years 1528 and 1539, respectively.  Pedro Menéndez de Avilés later arrived on the east coast of Florida in 1565 to eradicate any sign of French settlers in the area and create the first permanent European settlement in the city of Saint Augustine, America’s oldest city (built by European colonies) and a ghost hunter’s playground with many haunted locations.

BRITISH, U.S. CONTROL

—– The Spanish maintained control of Florida for almost two hundred years until the British negotiated a trade of the land for the island of Cuba in 1763.   Britain later surrendered Florida as part of a peace treaty at the end of the American Revolution in 1784.  Once again, Florida fell into the hands of Spain.  It was in the year 1821 when the United States would officially gain possession of Florida from the Spanish.

Map of Tampa Bay from the early 1800s

Map of Tampa Bay from the early 1800s

CIVIL WAR & YELLOW FEVER

—– In August of 1862, during the Civil War, brothers Scott and John Whitehurst had been staying at the lighthouse on the neighboring island of Egmont Key as Union-protected refugees.  The brothers were traveling to the mainland by boat to retrieve food when they came under fire by Confederate guerrillas hiding in the woods of Mullet Key.

—– Scott was killed instantly and John was mortally wounded.  He died two days later and his remains were buried in the cemetery on Egmont Key.  Scott was said to have been buried on Mullet Key near the present day Fort Desoto.  Who knows, maybe his ghost and other unfortunate victims of these murderous men still roam around Mullet Key and the Fort?  And, Egmont Key definitely has its own ghost stories, as well.

Egmont Key's Civil War Cemetery

Egmont Key’s Civil War Cemetery

—– Florida’s mild winters and subtropical climate may have seemed enjoyable to many from colder, more northern areas.  However, over the centuries it has also perpetuated tropical endemic diseases like malaria, tuberculosis, yellow fever, and other afflictions which were incurable up until more modern times.

—– The Tampa Bay area began experiencing yellow fever cases in 1839.  The more the population grew, the worse the outbreaks became.  Many speculated it was only a matter of time before a full-on epidemic occurred.  And, they were right.  In 1889, the east side of Mullet Key had to be established as a quarantine station for incoming ships with potentially sick passengers.

Photo Credit: orangetreefla.com

Photo Credit: orangetreefla.com

—– Yellow fever was a horrible way to die.  One would initially experience fever, nausea, headache, body aches, loss of appetite and dizziness, all being symptoms during the initial acute phase.  For the lucky ones, it cleared up on its own.  However, for roughly half of those who contracted the sickness, their symptoms would evolve into the toxic phase.  The afflicted would become jaundiced causing the yellowing of the skin and whites of the eyes.  Vomiting blood and bleeding of the nose, mouth, and eyes was sure to be next, along with delirium and seizures.  Ultimately, coma and full blow organ failure would ensure their death within a week or so.

—– Yellow fever was considered a mysterious illness since the transmission of the disease was not yet understood to be caused by mosquitoes.  And, there were mosquitoes aplenty.  Especially during the excruciatingly hot and humid Southwest Florida summers.  There would be many of these agonizing summers endured by those who were stationed at Fort Desoto once it became a military base.  Especially since these were years before medical science was finally able to discover the source of yellow fever and create an effective vaccine in 1951.

Fort Desoto’s Military Days

—– Construction of Fort Desoto began in 1898, the same year the United States and Cuba entered into a conflict that would lead to the Spanish American War.  The citizens of Tampa Bay demanded military protection and so the building of Fort Desoto began.  Construction was completed on May 10, 1900.  The walls were built between eight and 20 feet to withstand direct fire and the fort was equipped with many large guns that could fire six or 12 inch rounds at any invaders.  Some of these remain at the Fort, even today.

—– As I mentioned, the soldiers posted at Fort Desoto surely endured unimaginable summers which brought unending attacks by deadly mosquitos.  These men who served may not have been affected by the Spanish American War, but some of them were surely afflicted by deadly yellow fever, causing the only troop deaths at Fort Desoto.  The post was active from the years 1900 to 1910, whereupon most of the soldiers were moved to Alabama’s Fort Morgan.  Only one caretaker and 22 troops remained to look over the Fort.

Troops at Ft. Desoto (year not shown). Photo Credit: Friends of Ft. Desoto

Troops at Ft. Desoto (year not shown). Photo Credit: Friends of Ft. Desoto

—– Fort Desoto was officially abandoned as a military post on May 25, 1923.  The U.S. Army sold the land to Pinellas County in 1938, and then leased it to a businessman who established a boat service and the Mullet Key Fishing Lodge for two years.  Although the enterprise was successful, the lease had to be rescinded since the military decided they wanted the land back to use as testing range for bombs during World War II.  The Federal Government purchased the land back for this purpose in 1941.  Years after World War II ended, Fort Desoto was sold back to Pinellas County and officially opened for public use as a county park on May 11, 1963.

May 11, 1963. The Day Fort Desoto became an official park. Photo Credit: visitstpeteclearwater.com

May 11, 1963. The Day Fort Desoto became an official park. Photo Credit: visitstpeteclearwater.com

—– Although the area was deemed safe for visitors before it became a county park, there have since been many remnants discovered from Fort Desoto’s days as a bombing and target practice area.  Bombs, bullets, land mines, and more have been discovered on the beaches of Mullet Key, although most were not live.  However, in 1988 a 250-pound live bomb was uncovered by a worker using a backhoe.  The bomb was safely detonated, leaving a 15-foot deep crater in the ground.  The area was last swept for explosives in 2013.

The Skyway Bridge Collapse

—– Looking out toward the water from Fort Desoto one can view the Sunshine Skyway Bridge which connects Pinellas County to its neighbor to the south, Manatee County.  However, it’s not the first Skyway Bridge. On the morning of May 9, 1980 an intense storm caused the freighter Summit Venture to ram the original bridge, collapsing a large 1,400 foot section of its span.

A car barely stops on the edge of the collapsed Skyway bridge on May 9, 1980. Photo Credit: Miami Herald

A car barely stops on the edge of the collapsed Skyway bridge on May 9, 1980. Photo Credit: Miami Herald

—– A bus carrying 25 college students along with six other vehicles and one pickup truck crossing the Skyway Bridge that morning plunged into the waters below.  All told, there were 35 lives lost in the tragedy.  The lone survivor,  Wesley C. Macintire, plummeted into the Tampa Bay below along with his truck, riding the falling bridge span down. Luckily for him, the broken bridge section hit part of the freighter, helping to break his fall before going backwards into the water.

—– Macintire survived the nightmarish incident and was rescued by the crew of the Summit Venture, but he lived with survivors guilt for the rest of his life until he died from bone cancer in 1989.  The less fortunate recovered bodies of the Skyway Bridge collapse were taken and temporarily stored inside some of the rooms of Fort Desoto until authorities were able to be move them to more suitable facilities.

—– There are reported hauntings at the site of the old Skyway Bridge, turned fishing pier.  One of these sightings are of a “ghost bus“.  Those who encounter this large apparition claim they can even feel a warm gust of and also smell gasoline as it passes.  Some even say they can see ghost passengers on board the bus, and one ghost rider in particular who smiles and waves, ironically enough.  With such a horrifying tragedy and so many lives lost that fateful day, could it be possible some of the spirits also still linger around the Fort where some of the bodies were temporarily kept?

The Greyhound Bus carrying 26 human lives which were all lost that fateful morning on the Skyway Bridge. Photo Credit: Tampa Bay Times

The Greyhound Bus carrying 26 human lives which were all lost that fateful morning on the Skyway Bridge. Photo Credit: Tampa Bay Times

—– A newer Skyway Bridge was built during the years of 1982 to 1987 and was officially opened on April 20, 1987.  And, it has also seen it’s fair share of tragedy.  Hundreds of people have made the Skyway their final destination in life.  These poor souls leap from it’s incredibly tall 430 foot span, hitting the Tampa Bay waters below like a brick wall within 3.5 seconds.  Of course, some do survive.  But, many more do not.  And, some have never even had their bodies recovered.  There are many legends of ghostly sightings on the bridge including hitchhikers and ghostly jumpers.  One can’t help but wonder if some of these apparitions sometimes make their way over to nearby Fort Desoto, as well …

The newer Skyway Bridge viewed from Fort Desoto Park.

The newer Skyway Bridge viewed from Fort Desoto Park.

Fort Desoto Ghost Stories and Evidence

—– There have been many reports of ghostly sightings at Fort Desoto Park since its become open to the public.  According to the book, “The Tampa Triangle” the flirty fisherman ghost is one such story.  It’s said that this specter can be seen near the shoreline after one passes through the toll booth on the road.  He is said to appear to be in his 40’s with dark hair and sunglasses and is a lean and muscular man.

—– The flirty fisherman especially likes interacting with women visiting the park.  As the story goes, after some brief conversation, he simply smiles and then disappears leaving the female beachgoers quite puzzled as to what they just experienced.  Capt. Bill Miller, the author of the “Tampa Triangle” speculates this particular ghost could’ve been the spirit of a man named Dalton Gray who was shot to death in 1994.

ghost_fisherman

—– Another older ghost story that has been passed down through the years is about a woman who cries for her dead children who all died from Yellow Fever.  According to this legend, the woman was quarantined on Mullet Key and once she found out the horrible news, she went insane.  The ghost of this mournful woman is said to still haunt, crying out and searching for her lost children.

—– Ghostly footsteps and voices, including children’s voices are said to echo off the fort walls, especially toward sundown in the southernmost bunker.  And then there is the one about the apparition of a wet soldier who drags himself out of the ocean and then walks, dripping wet, throughout the fort.  They are creepy stories, for sure, but is there any real evidence?

—– During our last trip to Fort Desoto I was able to capture some anomalies in photos along with an EVP.  So far, I seem to get the most activity when I speak Spanish to the spirits.  Indeed, the EVP even sounds like a woman with a Spanish accent saying what almost sounds like the name: “Gwendolyn.”  We were soon chased out of there prematurely that day, but not by ghosts.  Considering we didn’t bring bug spray, the mosquitoes were quite pleased with that fact.  So, the Ghost Seers will definitely have to return again at some point to see what else we can capture.

Spirit orb captured in one of the rooms in Fort Desoto after I spoke Spanish

Spirit orb captured in one of the rooms in Fort Desoto after I spoke Spanish

Two Spirit orbs in this photo. One is denser and whiter than the other.

At least two small spirit orbs in this photo. One is denser and whiter than the other and shows motion.

—– I look forward to our next visit to Fort Desoto Park and its haunted Fort.  If you would like to visit yourself, whether it’s for the ghosts or the beautiful beach surroundings, it’s located at 3500 Pinellas Bayway S, Tierra Verde, FL 33715.  The park is open from 7 a.m. to dark all year-round.  And remember, there will be $5.00 toll to pay before you can enter the park, but it’s definitely worth the extra cost.

—– There are also camping accomodations located within the park for those who want to stay overnight.  Being a local, I know you usually have to book the campsites quite a bit in advance, as it’s a popular waterfront location.  Oh, and whatever you do … don’t forget the bug spray!

—– For more information on haunted areas in Florida, click on the book images below…


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