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The Enigma of Deadman’s Island

The Enigma of Deadman’s Island

Diane Skelton

    Centuries before the City of Gulf Breeze offered refuge for Pensacola residents seeking relief from the summer heat in quaint breeze-filled cottages and cabins, a nearby barrier island offered a different type of sanctuary.  Deadman’s Island provided quarantine for sick and dying seamen. But this ominous and legendary role as a place to die isn’t the source of the island’s name.
    In today’s coronavirus near-quarantine atmosphere, conversations often turn to past epidemics. Even though 300 Pensacolians died from the Spanish Flu in 1917 and 1918, it’s the tales of men abandoned on Deadman’s Island that spark legend and ghost tales.
    Nearly 150 years ago, the island, still visible on Gulf Breeze’s south side when crossing Pensacola Bay Bridge, housed the Naval Quarantine station. Here ships from around the world hoping to dock in Pensacola Bay were required to stop so officials could check the health of the crew. According to archives housed by the University of West Florida Historic Trust, this site saw yellow fever quarantines in 1874 and 1875.  When ships arrived, yellow fever victims were treated, and the vessels were fumigated. When the Deadman’s Island’s quarantine station closed in 1882, it was replaced by a new station on Santa Rosa Island.  
    Despite quarantines, epidemics, an unmarked cemetery, unearthed coffins, a ship graveyard, and tales of mourning the dead, scholars say the island’s name has nothing at all to do with death.
    Artifacts unearthed there date as far back as the Paleoindian period, approximately 12,000 years ago. The French, Spanish and British, when settling the Florida territory, all made use of the island.  The Spanish called it “Carenero,” a place to careen ships.  The Spanish and the British used the island from 1698 to 1821.  The island offered a deep water drop-off, fifteen to twenty feet, and created a natural dry dock or careening beach, where ships could be tilted or careened on land, and their hulls scraped and cleaned.
    In maritime terms, a “deadman” is a device fixed on the shore to which a cable and winch are attached to hoist a wooden ship partially out of the water.  Capt. Shirley Brown, whose grandfather built a shipyard on Deadman’s Island, explained in Pensacola Sea Stores: A Story of Pensacola’s Maritime History that a deadman was used to “restore life to wooden sailing ships at the turn of the century.”  The deadman was “usually a large tree or a huge block of concrete with the bulk of it buried deep in the sand. The free end of the cable was looped around a stout mast on the ship then brought back to the deadman where a winch was attached. This enabled the workers to slowly pull the ship over to one side exposing the underside so necessary repairs could be made.”
    In the late 1800s and early 1900s, Deadman’s Island and the Port of Pensacola were a frenzy of activity. Capt. Brown, in a 1997 talk to the Gulf Breeze Area Historical Society, says his father, who was born in 1877 near the cliffs on the bay side in what is part of Naval Live Oaks National Seashore,  described “so many ships in Pensacola Bay . . . he could have walked across the bay on the ships, if they were placed end to end.” Pensacola to Deadman’s Island is a six-mile stretch.
    In 1888, Pensacola Marine Railway and Dry Dock Company, one of the largest repair facilities in the Gulf of Mexico, was built on Deadman’s Island. A short-lived venture, the facility, which repaired snapper boats, and steam and sailing vessels up to 1,500 tons, was either destroyed by a hurricane or stopped operation when metal ships began replacing wooden ones. The remnants of the steam-powered plant were converted into a glue factory by 1906, and a fertilizer plant in 1919. During its railway years, Navy Cove and Deadman’s Island became a graveyard for ships.
    The island, now owned by the City of Gulf Breeze and undergoing an ecological restoration project, was once much larger than the sliver of sandy beach now visible.  As the shoreline dwindles and acreage is swallowed by rising tides, archaeologists, scientists, environmentalists and volunteers work to restore it.  Diminutive compared to its historic heyday, its name alone evokes an era of adventure on the high seas and ghosts of the past -- quarantined dead men and shipyard deadmen.
Appleyard, John. Pensacolans Battle Against Yellow Fever. Pensacola News Journal, Oct. 2, 2016.
Brown, Shirley, Pensacola Sea Stores: A Story of Pensacola’s Maritime History. 1997.
Davis, Charlie. Growing Up in Pensacola II. 2016.
Deadman’s Island Resurrected.” Gulf Breeze News, May 11, 2017.
Ford, Ben.  The Archaeology of Maritime Landscapes.,+florida&source=bl&ots=JDq2Fl8Vxu&sig=ACfU3U2mLJYJg1ZA0dSuB6adcfoo1wv_gw&hl=en&sa=X&ved=2ahUKEwjmka-Sq4bpAhWvT98KHSQRA2MQ6AEwAnoECAoQAQ#v=onepage&q=glue%20factory%20deadman's%20island%2C%20florida&f=false

Recipes and Remembrances: 50 Years of Food and History, GFWC Santa Rosa Woman’s Club, 2001.

Reed, Heather. A 2014 Presentation to the Gulf Breeze Library.

Univ. West Florida. “Deadman’s Island Shipwreck.”

Univ. West Florida. “Pensacola Quarantine Station.”

Life in the Time of Corona

Within weeks after March 11, 2020 World Health Organization’s declaration of COVID-19 as a pandemic, West Florida Literary Federation offered its writers a catharsis. By April, regional writers were submitting words and images to preserve this time in history. The ongoing project began with Phase I, a special edition of The Legend published in May. It featured more than thirty juried submissions. Life in the Time of Corona continues with Phase II, updated as submissions are accepted. Here are the voices of health care workers, poets, essayists, historians, and the images of artists and photographers, documenting this time in Northwest Florida's history. The ongoing project ends with the advent of a vaccine or declaration by the World Health Organization.

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