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Secrets in the sand: The strange pandemic history beneath Deadman’s Island in Gulf Breeze

Annie Blanks
 
| Pensacola News Journal

Deadman’s Island in Gulf Breeze isn’t a lot to marvel at to the naked eye.

It’s a quiet, 10-acre sandy peninsula, tucked around a southern corner of the greater Gulf Breeze peninsula that looks like nothing more than another sandbar at the foot of the Pensacola Bay Bridge. Deadman’s Island can be seen from the bridge, though it only can be accessed by the public via boat or kayak. It looks like a salt marsh on one side, a desolate sandbar on the other and an eco-habitat from another angle.

Despite that, local historians and environmentalists say Deadman’s Island is more than just a sandy peninsula. Folded into its salt marshes are various species of endangered migratory birds and mice that thrive in the undisturbed habitats. Wandering through its sand and in its shorelines are a menagerie of sea and land life, and reef habitats just off the beach provide homes for oysters and fish while also serving to protect the peninsula from further erosion. 

But as the COVID-19 pandemic continues to rage across the United States and beyond, it’s the historical aspects of Deadman’s Island that have been of particular interest lately.

While the peninsula is important for its ecological benefits to the area, the rich history lying just beneath the top layer of sand sheds light on waves of previous pandemics that circled the globe and were brought into the Pensacola area during the colonial shipping boom of the 1700s and 1800s.

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Deadman’s Island was originally established as one of two “quarantine stations” in Pensacola Bay at the turn of the 20th century, when the yellow fever epidemic was raging. The other is located on what is now Santa Rosa Island, where the Pensacola Beach Environmental Protection Agency office sits now. 

“A quarantine station was a place on the coast where all ships coming into the harbor had to anchor. It wasn’t in town, and it was a remote and separate location where ships, once they enter, had to go and wait,” said Judy Bense, an archaeologist at the University of West Florida, as well as the university’s former president, and one of the leading experts on Pensacola Bay shipwrecks.

“First, everyone on board was monitored for coming down with a disease, like malaria or smallpox or yellow fever. Just like we have to quarantine today for the COVID virus.”

While the sailors were quarantining on Deadman’s Island, the ship would be fumigated with a sulfur gas to rid it of any germs it might have picked up while traveling the world. Pensacola was a booming shipping port for the Gulf of Mexico in the 19th century, and Deadman’s Island was the first stop for thousands of sailors and travelers each year — not all of whom, unfortunately, made it off Deadman’s Island alive. 

“After a couple of weeks of quarantining, if anybody came down with a disease, they wouldn’t be allowed to enter the city,” Bense said. “There was a hospital there, and if people got sick, they were treated like patients, and if they got better, they went back into society. If they died, they were buried.”

Centuries later, an unknown number of graves and coffins containing the remains of yellow fever and other epidemic and pandemic victims, are still buried on Deadman’s Island. Six coffins were unearthed after Hurricane Denis walloped the island in 2005, and Bense personally examined two of them. They were full of roots and human bones, she said, and gave important insight into the human toll that epidemics like yellow fever took on everyday laborers and travelers.

Ground penetrating radar studies performed after the coffins were unearthed in 2005 showed even more graves buried deep within the island’s sandy trenches.

“The sound waves picked up evidence of more coffins and graves under the ground,” said Heather Reed, a marine biologist and project manager of the Deadman’s Island restoration project. “That validated the history that was given by Judy Bense after the coffins were dug up.”  

From the archives

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►Phase of Deadman’s Island restoration nears end

► Deadman’s Island group proposes no challenge on bridge

But despite its sinister-sounding name, Deadman’s Island is not named so because of the pandemic victims buried there. A quick walk across the island won’t turn up any human skulls sticking out, and there are no marked graves — although its dark twisty trees can certainly add a spookiness factor under the right shade of moonlight. 

Its name origin is much more simple, and has to do with a colloquial marine term called a “deadman” that helps sailors right ships if they’re stuck or careening.

“They would clean a lot of boats here, and when you put the boat on its side and clean the barnacles off, there are these poles that they would take and use to help pull the boat back over with,” said Bobby Switzer, a Pensacola businessman who has lived in a home overlooking Deadman’s Island for 30 years. “That’s why they call it Deadman’s Island.”

Deadman’s was the site of Pensacola Bay’s first shipwreck discovery

Aside from being a quarantine station, Deadman’s also was coveted for how deep the water gets so quickly from the shoreline. Its shores were perfect for ships at the turn of the 20th century to stop and clean or repair before continuing on their voyage. 

Switzer, who has familiarized himself with almost every nook and cranny of Deadman’s Island over the past three decades, motored up to the isthmus on the northern part of the peninsula on a recent sunny weekday. He craned his eyes and shielded his vision with one hand while pointing with the other toward the direction of three large dark objects lurking just beneath the shallow water, a stone’s throw from Deadman’s beach. 

“Those are from the old shipping days, that was part of the railway,” he said excitedly. 

A marine railway was installed at Deadman’s Island in the late 1700s to help hoist large ships out of the water and onto the shoreline so they could be cleaned. Remnants of the centuries-old railways still can be seen today as waves break over the tops of the rails at low tide. 

Given that Pensacola was such a busy port, it isn’t surprising that almost 40 shipwrecks have been found in and around Pensacola Bay during the past several decades. The first shipwreck of Pensacola Bay was discovered just off the coast of Deadman’s Island in 1988, by some young boys snorkeling after a storm came through.  

Bense, the archaeologist, was out excavating Deadman’s Island on that August day for a separate project. She was commissioned by the city of Gulf Breeze to do an archaeological survey of the island for its 25th incorporation anniversary.

“There was a storm that day that had a waterspout in it right by the site, so we all went home because it was stormy,” Bense said. “The next day we came back and I noticed that there were some boys out in the water, about waist or shoulder deep, and they were diving and coming up with things and talking about what they were finding. I asked a boy, he was a 14-year-old neighborhood boy who was volunteering with us, to swim out there and see what they were doing.

“He came back and said, ‘Well, they found a shipwreck,’” Bense recalled. “And I said, ‘Yeah right.’”

But the boys actually had discovered a shipwreck, the ancient remains of a narrow colonial English vessel that is estimated to have been built between 1760 and 1780, during the British occupation of Pensacola. The ship’s bones sat undisturbed off Deadman’s Island for at least two centuries before the waterspout brought it back to light in August 1988.

Bense and her archaeology team excavated the entire ship, and Bense credits its discovery with offering legitimacy to underwater archaeology in Pensacola and jumpstarting the discovery of between 30 to 40 more shipwreck sites throughout Northwest Florida waters. 

“Underwater archaeology in the 1980s was not accepted by the professional academic community,” Bense said. “They called us treasure hunters, cowboys, not professional. Nobody liked them, they were banned or not accepted. But you know, thank goodness for this shipwreck. It was quite a shipwreck.”  

Why Deadman’s Island is a ‘time capsule’ 

The Deadman’s Island of today, of course, doesn’t see anywhere near the hustle and bustle that it saw in its Pensacola shipping boom glory days. 

Most people don’t even know Deadman’s Island exists, or they think it’s just a random sandbar at the foot of the Pensacola Bay Bridge, one that will wash away over time. 

The only way to access Deadman’s Island by land is via private properties that happen to be lucky enough to connect to the peninsula via sand or a small isthmus. Otherwise, the peninsula itself is a small piece of public land accessible by boat or kayak that can be used for fishing, snorkeling, kayaking, sunbathing or just scenic recreation. 

“It’s one of the nice little treasures of Gulf Breeze,” said Switzer, idling in his boat along the northern bend of the island. “It’s a nice public water access point. But in one aspect, you don’t want too much access to it, or it’ll tear it all up. But it’s an asset that everybody should have, if they can get over here to enjoy it.” 

The peninsula continues to take a beating with each major hurricane, causing erosion issues that threaten the protected habitats and shorelines. Deadman’s has also become an unwitting gathering point for about 1.5 tons of Hurricane Sally debris since the Sept. 16 storm blew through Pensacola, thanks to its location along several currents that have funneled dock and construction parts, derelict boats, storm debris and other housing items straight into the peninsula’s waiting embrace. 

Reed and others will take a barge out to Deadman’s on March 6 for a massive community cleanup effort in an attempt to rid it of its Sally debris.

After the coffin incident in 2005, the city of Gulf Breeze launched a special initiative to protect and preserve the island, both in its historical capacity and its environmental importance to the local ecosystems. Reed leads the Deadman’s Island Restoration Project and has conducted more than 200 projects on the island since 2007, including historical excavations, wildlife catalogs, erosion control measures and dredging efforts. 

“It’s a very unique gem of Pensacola Bay,” Reed said. “You have salt marshes, people like to kayak in that area, it’s very close to other accesses and to other boat ramps. People just enjoyed coming to Deadman’s because of the solitude. For years, it was a nice little place to walk and get away.”

People like Reed, Switzer and Bense hope that more people knowing and appreciating the history of the island will encourage them to treat it better, and to marvel at the history that can be present in such an unassuming place. 

“I think one of the most important things that most people realize is Pensacola has such a long history, way back to Tristan de Luna in 1559, so people are sensitive to history here. We have historic forts, like Fort Pickens and Fort Barrancas, and we jostle back and forth with the city of St. Augustine about who was the first city or settlement,” Bense said. “We have been here from the get-go. That’s why the history of Deadman’s Island is so important. It was a big part of the colonial days of Pensacola, and it’s sort of living history. It’s still with us, it’s not gone, and we know a lot about it, so it has real historical significance like no other place does. It’s really quite unique. It’s a time capsule.”

Annie Blanks can be reached at ablanks@pnj.com or 850-435-8632. 

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