Located at the southern end of Gasparilla Island you’ll find the Old Port Boca Grande Lighthouse. Right next to the lighthouse sits its twin – a building that served as the lighthouse keeper’s assitant’s home. Originally built in 1890, these two buildings were nearly lost to the sea. By 1970, the shoreline had been eroded by hundreds of feet and the sea was beginning to reach the lighthouse foundation. Local concern grew and the government took steps ensure the lighthouse would be around for future generations.
When phosphate was discovered several miles upriver from the lighthouse’s future location in the early 1880’s, the phosphate was shipped down the river on barges to Port Boca Grande and then loaded onto ocean-going vessels. Due to the increased business of the port, Congress appriated $35,000 for the construction of a lighthouse at the southern tip of Gasparilla Island in 1888, and the Old Port Boca Grande Lighthouse was born.
Lighthouse keepers and their families lived and worked in the lighthouse from 1890 until 1951. 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.
The Old Port Boca Grande Lighthouse is thought to have two ghosts. During the lighthouse’s history, the young daughter of one of the keepers died in the dwelling, most likely of diphtheria or whooping cough. Tour guides say that she can be heard playing in one of the rooms of the building’s upper floor. A former park ranger who led tours of the lighthouse, often pointed to a doorway on the second floor and told visitors that it was one of the little girl’s favorite places to play. the former ranger also said that at midnight, the little girl can be heard upstairs playing.
The second ghost is said to be the headless spectre of a Spanish princess named Josefa. Legend says that a Spanish pirate, Jose Gaspar (aka Gasparilla), buried his treasure in the sand close to where the Old Port Boca Grande Lighthouse was to be built some ninety years later. Apparently, Gaspar fell in love with this Spanish princess he had kidnapped. She wasn’t interested and when she rejected his love, he drew his sword in a fit of rage and cut off her head. Shamed by what he had done to Josefa, Gasparilla gathered up her lifeless body and buried her in the sand on the island. Unfortunately for her, his love for her was so great that he didn’t want to leave her and legend says he carried his beloved’s head with him for the rest of his days. Reports say that her headless spirit has been seen wandering the beach on Gasparilla Island, presumably looking for her head.
The U.S. Coast Guard automated the light in 1956. Ten years later, in 1966, the Coast Guard removed the light from the building, which was deteriorating due to neglect and beach erosion. In 1972 Lee County took over ownership of the lighthouse and surrounding 13 acres, and began a long process to save the building. Funds were raised by the Gasparilla Island Conservation Association, and the lighthouse was restored.
The lighthouse was placed on the National Register of Historic Places in 1980 and in 1986 the lighthouse was relit and returned to service as a working Coast Guard light. In 1988 the lighthouse and surrounding land was transferred from Lee County to the State of Florida and became Gasparilla Island State Park.
The Old Port Boca Grande Lighthouse is open to the public. Although it’s fenced off, you can get a great view of the lighthouse from the nearby park and beach. The assistant keeper’s house is now used as a house for the park ranger.