In the early morning hours of Sept. 1, 2016, a violent hurricane raged in the Gulf of Mexico off Hernando County. Hurricane Hermine eventually would make landfall in the panhandle, but she left many scars on the Nature Coast. One notable casualty was the Bayport pier, a popular fishing and sight-seeing spot at the mouth of the Weeki Wachee River.
The pier and Bayport Park are owned by the county, which closed the damaged pier for safety reasons. But almost four years to the day the storm dashed the wooden pier, Hernando County officials held a grand reopening Sept. 24.
Residents wasted no time returning to the popular overlook and fishing spot, with many dropping lines over the railing for in hopes of hooking sheepshead, trout, mangrove snapper and other species. Others have been showing up around sunset, cameras in hand.
Bayport Park is not as large and lacks the beachfront of nearby Pine Island Park to the north, but it does have its devotees, and unlike Pine Island, it has a pier, which has been its star attraction for many years.
The long delay in rebuilding the pier was the result of budget issues and concerns about disturbing an archeological site in the water beneath the pier — the remains of a Confederate ship sunk by Union raiders during the Civil War. The issue was that building a new pier could disturb the remains of the old ship, but after much planning, it was decided that the new pier would be rebuilt by sinking pilings in the precise locations of the previous pilings, ensuring the ship’s remains would not be impacted.
Archaeology students from the Spring Hill campus of Pasco-Hernando State College observed the site and logged historical finds last summer ahead of reconstruction to preserve a record of the site. Their results were recorded with the Florida Public Archaeology Network.
“Bayport is significant in Florida and national history with respect to its pre-Civil War development as a port, Civil War importance as a contraband port and point of entry, the battles with Union blockade picket ships, and as one of the last ports to surrender,” said Gary Ellis, the archaeologist of record for the site.
PHSC Archeology Professor Annette Doying said there are four archaeological components to Bayport: the remains of two Civil War ships sunk there, an early pioneer village, the point’s use as an important coastal port, and well before the historical record, an archaic Native American encampment.
Bayport was an important port during the Civil War and became the target of 240 Union soldiers who landed there July 3, 1864. Their mission was to disrupt Confederate supply lines and destroy enemy goods. It culminated in a skirmish with Confederate home guard and today is known as the Brooksville Raid. The event has been reenacted annually for four decades in Brooksville.
Bayport Park began as a 1.5-acre site but now is 7 acres with expanded parking and a bigger boat ramp, popular because it offers instant access to the open Gulf. It’s a favorite debarkation point during the annual summer scalloping season, the grass flats just off the park home to the tasty shellfish.
The Federal Emergency Management Administration initially estimated the damage to the pier from Hermine at $335,000, but the project ended up costing more than $90,000. Like the previous pier, the new one is built of treated lumber designed for saltwater emersion and should, barring another hurricane, last many years, according to county officials.