Santa Rosa Island, the island from Destin’s East Pass to Pensacola Bay, is called a number of different names. In portions of Okaloosa County, it is known as Okaloosa Island. In portions of Santa Rosa County, it is known as Navarre Beach. In Escambia County, it is known as Pensacola Beach. But for centuries the entire island has all been, and still is, Santa Rosa Island. In this month’s History Mystery we will explain the current make-up of the island and why it has so many names.
The first fortress built on Santa Rosa Island was in 1717 when the Spanish built a small fort at Siguenza Point, the west end of Santa Rosa Island, to protect Pensacola from the French. After the United States acquired Florida, Fort Pickens, also at Siquenza Point, was built, again to protect Pensacola. Construction started in 1829 and the fort was completed in 1834. Fort Pickens is named after Revolutionary War hero Gen. Andrew Pickens of South Carolina.
The entire length of Santa Rosa Island was controlled by the War Department until 1926. On March 26, 1926, Congress declared 44 military installations across the United States surplus. Eighteen of those military installations were in Florida. They included the Santa Rosa Island Military Reservation and the Moreno Point Military Reservation – what we call Destin today.
Escambia County purchased all of Santa Rosa Island, except Fort Pickens, from the War Department on April 19, 1929, for $10,000. All of Santa Rosa Island, including what we call Holiday Isle in Destin, was then in Escambia County. The land was to be used for “public purposes” and the county was prohibited from the further conveyance of the land, except to the state of Florida or the federal government.
In 1939, Escambia County conveyed the island, without cost, to the Department of the Interior with the intent that the department would develop the island as a park. In 1939, the Santa Rosa National Monument was proclaimed by President Roosevelt. However, due to a lack of funding and then the outbreak of World War II, nothing was done.
In 1946, Congress abolished the Santa Rosa National Monument. Congressman Robert Sikes was totally dissatisfied with the National Park Service. He proposed a congressional act to allow the area to be conveyed back to Escambia County, and a portion to Okaloosa County with the concurrence of Escambia County.
On July 8, 1950, a three-mile strip on Santa Rosa Island - the old Tower Beach area and Holiday Isle, the eastern most piece of the original Santa Rosa Island where the old East Pass had been - was deeded to Okaloosa County for $4,000 by the federal government. There were restrictions in the deed that only allowed the land to be used for public recreational purposes.
In 1953, Okaloosa Island Authority was created as an instrumentality of the Okaloosa County to administer that portion of Santa Rosa Island owned by Okaloosa County. That same year Fort Walton changed its name to Fort Walton Beach to take advantage of the nearby beach acquisition and upcoming tourist trade.
In 1962, Congressman Sikes prompted Congress to remove the stipulations in the original deed because financing was difficult to obtain for both commercial and residential construction. The Corp of Engineers was required to resurvey the land to determine a fair market value. In 1963, a new quitclaim deed was presented to the island authority. The authority presented the Corp of Engineers a check for $55,000. This transaction removed all of the restrictions on the property except for a 75-foot aerial easement.
In 1975, legislation was passed by the state of Florida that abolished the Okaloosa Island Authority and transferred all duties to Okaloosa County. Property owners on Okaloosa Island could only lease their land until 1995. That year the Okaloosa County Commission allowed leaseholders to obtain fee simple title to their property.
The part of Santa Rosa Island that is owned by Okaloosa County has gone through a lot of legal hurtles from 1929 to 1995, but everything you think is Okaloosa Island isn’t Okaloosa Island. First of all, the most eastern part of Santa Rosa Island that sits to the east of East Pass and makes up the southern shore of the Destin harbor is called Holiday Isle today.
Then when you cross the Marler Memorial Bridge and leave Destin heading west you are on Santa Rosa Island for the next three and a half miles. Then notice on your right the sign that welcomes you to Okaloosa Island. That sign indicates the beginning of Okaloosa Island.
Drive two traffic lights, turn left on Santa Rosa Boulevard and go to the end of the road. If you check your car’s odometer you will see that as you approach the end of the road, before you enter Eglin Air Force Base property, you will have traveled exactly three miles from the sign indicating the beginning of Okaloosa Island. That three miles stretch and only that three-mile stretch is Okaloosa Island. Going west the rest is still Santa Rosa Island until you reach Navarre Beach.
H. C. “Hank” Klein is a Destin historian, author, and speaker. He visits often and lives in North Little Rock, Arkansas with his wife (the former Muriel Marler of Destin). Klein recently published two Destin history books - DESTIN’S Founding Father…The Untold Story of Leonard Destin and DESTIN Pioneer Settlers...A Land History of Destin, Florida from 1819-1940. Both can be obtained from Amazon.com, The Destin History & Fishing Museum, in Destin, The Indian Temple Mound in Fort Walton Beach, Magnolia House Gifts at Grand Boulevard, and Sundog Books in Seaside. Klein can be contacted directly at email@example.com.