Digest>Archives> Sep/Oct 2012

The Pirate and the Lighthouse

By Joe Harless


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This image of the pirate, Jose Gasparilla, (also ...
Photo by: Joe Harless

Gasparilla Island starts with a toll bridge and ends with a lighthouse. By road, the toll bridge is the only way on or off the island. After paying the toll and driving over the emerald blue waters, sand bars and beach houses immediately come into view on either side of the bridge. Many of the large homes along the main road have their own boat docks, or at least ready access to one.

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Florida’s Port Boca Grande Lighthouse and its ...
Photo by: Harold C. Lyons

A visitor unfamiliar with the island would be surprised to find that the usual amenities of urban/suburban living, such as restaurant chains, nightclubs, or trendy coffeehouses featuring overpriced cappuccinos, do not exist anywhere on Gasparilla Island. With its location and sparse entertainment options, the primary attraction of the island seems to be its remoteness. Cars do hover by occasionally, although most people appear to have abandoned their vehicles in favor of walking. Bikes and golf carts seem to be the preferred mode of transportation, scooting by the storefronts at such leisurely paces that pedestrians strolling absentmindedly down the sidewalks could almost keep pace with them.

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Port Boca Grande Lighthouse Station as it ...
Photo by: Richard Clayton

Visitors usually come to Gasparilla Island either see the Gasparilla Inn or to partake in the peacefulness of the village. But every now and then, someone comes looking for clues about the mythical pirate Jose Gasparilla, and their journey invariably leads to the lighthouse.

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Vintage image of the Port Boca Grande Lighthouse ...

Standing on an eroded beach where Charlotte Harbor connects with the Gulf of Mexico, the Port Boca Grande Lighthouse offers an unrivaled view of the harbor where Jose Gasparilla was rumored to keep his treasure horde. First activated in December of 1890, the lighthouse consists of a one-story dwelling supported by pilings with a square tower protruding through the center of the roof. A circular lantern room atop the tower protects a three and half order Fresnel lens, which produces a white light interrupted by red flashes at a focal plane of forty-four feet.

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Standing near Florida’s Port Boca Grande ...
Photo by: Claire Burn

The lighthouse, dwelling, and surrounding acreage were eventually transferred to the state of Florida in 1988 and became Gasparilla Island State Park. Then, in 1989, a small group of local citizens formed the Barrier Island Parks Society, and one of their first objectives was to establish a museum in the Port Boca Grande Lighthouse. A decade later, the lighthouse opened its doors as a museum, telling the story of the island starting with the Native Americans, and covering the Spanish influence, the local fishing industry, Port Boca Grande, and the history of the lighthouse.

But while no mention of Jose Gasparilla appears in the museum, one need only look at the roads leading to the lighthouse to see the pirate’s influence: just outside Gasparilla Island State Park, a road named Gasparilla Street appears, next to Lafitte and Barbarossa Street.

From the lighthouse deck, one gets a perfect view of where Charlotte Harbor connects with the Gulf of Mexico. Looking into the harbor through the magnifying lenses on the porch, it’s easy to imagine where Jose Gasparilla might have hidden his treasure or what it might have been like to see the pirates sailing into the Harbor after a successful voyage. More than a few historians have spied the harbor from the lighthouse porch, and occasionally a treasure hunter shows up looking for the gold.

 “Our understanding of Jose’s history came from the stories that Juan Gomez told,” Tina Malasics, operations assistant, membership coordinator, and unofficial historian of the Gasparilla Inn, once said about the pirate. “He had spent the latter part of his life in the Sarasota Bradenton area and claimed to be Jose Gasparilla’s nephew. He said Jose was born in Spain in 1756 and in 1783 became a pirate. He sailed through these waters because these were Spanish waters at the time, from 1783 until 1821.”

Hanging on a wall in the Inn, a portrait of Gasparilla depicts the pirate standing on the beach after a storm, gazing out at the harbor’s waters and looking stern. The legend of Gasparilla, the mythical pirate, who would become the basis for the annual Gasparilla Invasion and Parade in Tampa, has its roots sunk into the waters of Charlotte Harbor. An angry and disillusioned young Spanish naval officer, the story goes that Gasparilla turned his back on Spain to earn fortune and glory by other means.

“The goods of this world belong to the strong and the valiant,” he told his crewmates. “And it shall be ours.”

Sailing to America, Gasparilla and the crew made landfall in Florida near Charlotte Harbor on the west coast. The newly christened pirate liked what he saw; the area had a string of barrier islands that snaked around the outskirts of the state, providing the pirates with an area to ambush unsuspecting merchant ships in the area and a defensible position should anyone attempt to come after them.

Their base of operations settled, Gasparilla began what would become a profitable 37-year career as a pirate. His crew fell upon any ship foolish enough to wander close to the outlying waters of Charlotte Harbor; the last count totaled somewhere around 50 ships taken or destroyed. He gave captured sailors the choice of joining the pirates or dying by slow and terrible means; most accepted the offer, swelling the ranks of his own navy.

Even though the lighthouse didn’t get built until 70 years after what would have been the pirate’s death, it serves as a beacon for those trying to understand more of the pirate’s story. And although Gasparilla’s story was later proven to be mythical, people still come looking.

Malasics glanced out at the window in her office. “People are still hunting for Jose Gaspar’s treasure, actually. This is supposed to be where they hid out most of the time. I’ve been told that that some treasure had been found in Punta Gorda many years ago, and just off the Boca Grande islands that a small chest had been found. That’s local lore. We’ve got three or four requests to dig on the property since I’ve been here. And they’ve all been denied.”

This story appeared in the Sep/Oct 2012 edition of Lighthouse Digest Magazine. The print edition contains more stories than our internet edition, and each story generally contains more photographs - often many more - in the print edition. For subscription information about the print edition, click here.

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