Mississippi River Lighthouse - Frank's Island, Louisiana - 1820

Mississippi River Lighthouse - Frank's Island, Louisiana - 1820
Architectural Drawing by Henry Latrobe - 1817 - National Archives

A Brief History of the Frank's Island Lighthouse

In 1804, President Thomas Jefferson, having recently purchased the Louisiana Territory, envisioned a grand monument to serve as a navigational beacon to mark the entrance of the mighty Mississippi River. Benjamin Henry Latrobe, the renowned architect and engineer, was selected to design such a lighthouse. On paper, Latrobe’s “Lighthouse at the Mouth of the Mississippi River” was magnificent! The building materials consisted of brick, marble, and other stone; but the foundation of this heavy structure would have to be laid upon the soft clay that lines the entrances of the Mississippi River.

The site chosen for the lighthouse was a small island located north of the Northeast Pass of the Mississippi River called Frank’s Island. Although engineers determined the soil of the island to be adequate for the structure, no contractor at the time was willing to undertake such a foreboding task. After some prodding, the designer of American lighthouse reflector systems of the day, Winslow Lewis, finally accepted the challenge; but only under certain contractual terms – Congress agreed that he would be paid in full should the structure’s foundation fail. Finally, in 1818, construction on the lighthouse began.

In March of 1820, just days before the lighthouse was to be completed, the foundation settled and cracks began to form throughout the structure. The internal arches could no longer support the massive weight of the stone parapet. The columns fell to the ground and the walls of the Keepers Quarters collapsed. Without any support at its base, the lighthouse tower began to list. Deemed too costly to repair, the lackluster remains of what was to have been a magnificent structure were abandoned.

After spending over $85,500, a tidy sum in those days, and with no lighthouse to mark the entrance of the Mississippi River, Congress once again turned to Winslow Lewis, who made an offer they could not refuse. For just under $10,000, Lewis offered to build a second lighthouse on Frank’s Island and guarantee its foundation. On March 20, 1823, the lantern was lighted for the first time at the Northeast Pass Lighthouse. Lewis’ lighthouse served as a working navigational beacon until 1856. Over time, the lantern gallery was destroyed and the tower was in disrepair. By the 1950’s Frank’s Island itself eroded away and the lantern-less tower stood alone in the waters of Blind Bay. In 2002, encroached by the powers of a hurricane, the ruins of the second lighthouse fell over into the water. Unless the tides are extremely low, no sign of either lighthouse erected on Frank’s Island remains today…

Frank's Island Lighthouse - 1823

Frank's Island Lighthouse - 1823
Concept drawing of Winslow Lewis' lighthouse by author using scale drawing of tower by Samuel Wilson, Jr.

Wednesday, September 26, 2007

Planning for the Original Lighthouse

Thomas Jefferson’s vision of a monument to mark the entrance to the Mississippi River was not ill-conceived. The need for a navigational beacon was obviously inherent. There are some issues of practicality regarding the “monument” aspect that have come to light by this day and age; but at the time America was young and little was known about the new Louisiana Territory. According to “Benjamin Latrobe’s Designs for a Lighthouse at the Mouth of the Mississippi River”, upon being assigned the task to erect such a lighthouse, the Secretary of the Treasury, Albert Gallatin, immediately focused on two critical areas – “visibility and ‘firmness of the ground’”. Barthelemy Lafon proposed a practical and realistic wooden tower made of cypress timber that would have sufficed as a navigational beacon. However, his design for a lighthouse or “phare” fell quite short of being a “monument”.

Gallatin then turned to Benjamin Henry Latrobe for assistance in this matter. It is believed that Latrobe studied under John Smeaton, builder of the famous Eddystone Lighthouse. My impression is that Latrobe looked upon Smeaton as a mentor. If it is true that Latrobe studied under Smeaton, therein lies an interesting contrast. Whereas the challenge of the Eddystone Lighthouse was to adhere a masonry structure to a small rock inundated by harsh seas, Latrobe faced an equally difficult but somewhat different challenge – to secure and “float” a masonry structure on an ancient deposit of soft blue clay. Dr. Fazio’s article covers Latrobe’s design process and evolution in detail. For the sake of this discussion, we should concentrate on Latrobe’s final lighthouse design and focus on the foundation, sub-structure, and steps that Latrobe took to reduce the weight of his tower.

In addition to the lighthouse design, the soil conditions of Frank’s Island are of equal consideration. Frank’s Island was deemed to be a suitable location for a masonry lighthouse on two different occasions. According to Dr. Fazio’ article, in 1806 a man named Louis De Mun took soil samples from several possible locations for the proposed lighthouse. Although Frank’s Island was not his first preference, he concluded:

“I like the ground of the island well. It will bear anything that can be put upon it. The alluvium of which it consists, - Blue clay - is the alluvium also of our Atlantic Rivers, and like the clay on the Mississippi, the deeper you dig the harder it becomes. - The foundation of a stone building may be laid deep, and yet put up on piles, - for the clay is perfectly watertight.”

At this point, I as a blogger have to admit my own limitations… I am not a civil engineer, nor am I a geologist familiar with the alluvium that forms the Mississippi Delta. Therefore, I cannot begin to suggest how accurate De Mun’s conclusions are by today’s science. It would be great if a qualified individual could step in and offer an educated opinion.

In 1813, as reported in Dr. Fazio’s article, Frank’s Island was once again selected as the location for the Mississippi River Lighthouse by a group of three representatives, including Latrobe’s son, Henry. This decision appears to have been based mostly upon the accessibility and navigability of the Northeast Pass and not upon the soil conditions of the island. The final documented inspection of Frank’s Island was done by an engineer after the failure of the original structure. His analysis indicated that the “solid blue clay strata” “weighed 95 lbs. to the cubic foot” according to the Fazio article.

With a general consensus that the soil of Frank’s Island would support a masonry structure, Latrobe worked on a design that would allow for the weight of the tower to be spread across a much-wider base. His tower and base designs used a series of “inverted arches” to hollow out, and thus lighten the structure as much as possible. Latrobe also specified a unique and integral design for the structure’s foundation using a cypress piling and planking system. One of Latrobe’s greatest concerns was that the U.S. Congress, through its policy of awarding bids to the lowest bidder, would end up hiring a contractor not qualified to execute the lighthouse’s construction in accordance with his design. Therefore, Latrobe drafted the bid with excruciating detail – possibly warding off any prospective bidders. This opened the door for Winslow Lewis to enter the picture. What is most important to note is that Latrobe specifically designed his lighthouse with the soil conditions of Frank’s Island foremost in his mind. One notices, with a simple glance at the drawing of his lighthouse, its uniquely wide base. Despite the failure of the original structure, if there is any evidence to indicate that its builders did not follow Latrobe’s design to the letter, one should at least contemplate the possibility that the Mississippi River Lighthouse would have been a success had it been constructed properly.

 Half-section View of Lighthouse from Original Plans -1817

Monday, September 10, 2007

U.S.C.G. Website Update

The United States Coast Guard has updated the information about the Frank's Island Lighthouse on their website. Some of the new information includes a list of lighthouse keepers and a picture of Latrobe's Lighthouse. I would like to sincerely thank the U.S.C.G. Historian's Office for continuing to update their website as they uncover new information about American Lighthouses.
Link - http://www.uscg.mil/history/weblighthouses/LHLA.asp

Wednesday, September 5, 2007

Descriptions of the Frank's Island Lighthouses

There are some discrepancies in regards to the height, color, and other appearance factors of the two lighthouses that occupied Frank's Island. I believe my research has yielded enough information about the physical appearance of both structures so as to end the debate; but I leave that to your discretion…

When one thinks of buildings designed by Benjamin Henry Latrobe, the thought that comes to mind is “White and Majestic!!!” The original lighthouse erected on Frank’s Island was no exception. Even though the tower was made of brick, according to Samuel Wilson’s report, Latrobe specified that plaster be used to cover the brick. This would have served two purposes. First, it would have smoothed out the surface of the tower. Second, it would have made the tower white in appearance. If you do not believe me, please refer to the picture of the Mississippi River Lighthouse on the main page of this blog. That picture is taken straight from the plans drawn in 1816 by Henry Latrobe. If you look closely at the flag above the lantern gallery, you will notice the color of the flag has a blue tinge. That is not an alteration. The original plans were drawn in color! Depending on the natural shades of the stone used for the cap and the outer walls of the base, these areas may have had a slightly grey color; but the overall appearance would have been white. The plans also show that the height of the lighthouse, measured from the bottom of the base to the top of the cap above the lantern gallery, was ninety-three feet tall. The tower itself was fifty-seven feet tall, measured from the base of the tower to the bottom of the platform. At its base, the tower was twenty-two feet wide; and at the top it was fifteen feet wide. It is important to note these dimensions for comparison to the second lighthouse.

Since there are no known drawings or photographs of the second lighthouse erected on Frank's Island depicting it with a complete lantern gallery, one can only speculate about its overall appearance. It has been written in several places that Winslow Lewis designed his tower by closely following Latrobe's design. It has also been stated that Lewis reused the materials from the original structure to build his lighthouse. Based on my research, I would have to mostly disagree with these two assertions. Congress instructed Lewis to reuse as much material as possible from the first lighthouse to build his tower. It is certainly possible that Lewis reused brick and left-over mortar from the original structure; but considering his testimony was that the weight of the original tower caused its failure, I am certain that Lewis was not inclined to reuse all of the original materials, particularly stone, with the exception of the original cornerstone since it bore his name. I am also not inclined to believe that Lewis borrowed heavily from Latrobe’s design. Lewis’ tower was rather simplistic in its design with practically none of the ornamentation and structural engineering that Latrobe incorporated into his design. Congressional Serial Sets from 1850 to 1859 describe Lewis’ tower as being white in color with no day-mark. The top of the lantern gallery has been described as having a “dome”. Based on the pictures included in Wilson’s report, the railing system was typical of a Winslow Lewis “Birdcage” lantern. Therefore, I would suggest that the North East Pass Light-House looked similar to most all of the Lewis’ lighthouses of that era. The closest example I could find (less the wing lights) is the 1840 Southwest Pass Lighthouse as shown on the United States Coast Guard web site.

The 1840 Southwest Pass Lighthouse

The architectural drawing included in Wilson’s report gives some approximate measurements of Lewis’ tower - estimating its sunken height at seventy-one feet, six-inches tall from water level to the base of the platform. Although historical records vary, Mr. Cipra’s book states that its "fixed light" was elevated "eighty-two feet above sea level.” Based on these facts, one can project Wilson’s scale drawing and estimate that the overall height of the lighthouse was ninety-three feet tall from the base of the tower to the top of the dome. The tower itself was seventy-five feet tall. It measured twenty-eight feet across at its base and twenty-two feet across, just below the platform. Even though the overall height of both lighthouses may have been similar, it is obvious that the two towers had totally different dimensions. In addition, Lewis’ tower had six large windows placed placed asymmetrically. Latrobe’s tower had four smaller windows placed symmetrically on each face. One final note… If my estimations are correct, the second lighthouse had only sunken about three to four feet by the time Samuel Wilson, Jr. surveyed the structure in 1934.

Addendum (1/15/2008) - I have added Elevation & Section drawings to the bottom of the main page.

Monday, September 3, 2007

The Many Names of the Frank's Island Lighthouse

In 1805, one of the first Mississippi River lighthouse designs was submitted to Washington by Barthelemy Lafon. He named his proposed tower "Phare du Mississipi" (misspelled in original), which essentially translates to “Mississippi [River] Lighthouse”. In a reference located on page 186 from an 1839 publication called "The Colombian Navigator; or Sailing Directory for the American Coasts and the West-Indies" it contains a brief description of the two lighthouses built on Frank's Island under a footnote titled "Missisipi Lighthouse" (misspelled in original). Once again, I would suggest the word "River" to be implied in the name. In some of the plans submitted to Congress by Benjamin Latrobe and his son, Henry, the structure was referred to as “The Lighthouse to be Erected at the Mouth of the Mississippi River”. In a book titled "The Domestic Architecture of Benjamin Henry Latrobe” by Michael W. Fazio and Professor Patrick A. Snadon, there are named references to the "Mississippi River Lighthouse". This moniker would have been appropriate since there were no other lighthouses being planned for on or near the Mississippi River at the time the first lighthouse was being constructed.

The first references I have found for Winslow Lewis’ lighthouse erected in 1823 refer to the tower as "North East Pass Light", “North East Pass Light-House”, or “North East Pass Light Station”. This naming is, for the most-part, consistent through 1859 as found in naval journals, Congressional Serial Sets, and excerpts from periodicals of the day. One reference in the 1858 edition of "The Merchants' Magazine and Commercial Review" refers to the tower as the “North East Pass Day Beacon” - confirming that the lantern had been extinguished in 1856. As far as I can tell, Samuel Wilson, Jr., by way of his HABS report, was the first person (at least in written form) to have referred to the “Frank’s Island Lighthouse” as it is known today. This is, of course, speculation on my part, and is certainly up for debate. I have also seen references to "Frank's Island Light", "Franks Island Light" or "Franks Island Lighthouse". The last two references are missing the apostrophe; but the proper name of the island, according to historical records, is Frank's Island.

Suggested Reading - Bibliography

One good way to get this blog going is for me to post a bibliography. That way we can all be on the same page regarding the history of the Frank’s Island lighthouses.

1. “Benjamin Latrobe’s Designs for a Lighthouse at the Mouth of the Mississippi River” by Professor Michael W. Fazio of Mississippi State University is perhaps the most comprehensive and best researched document I have found regarding the original lighthouse erected on Frank’s Island. This article is written from the perspective of historical architecture; but it covers the planning, construction, and failure of Latrobe’s lighthouse. One of the most revealing pieces that Dr. Fazio uncovers in his research is a written report from a man simply known as “Mr. Ruddock” from “Carolina”. This report makes a very compelling case that the builders failed to adhere to Latrobe’s design – thus casting doubt on the popular belief that the original lighthouse was a failure from the start. Dr. Fazio’s article can be downloaded from JSTOR, which is accessible through many university libraries. Here is the article citation – JSAH XLVIII:232-247, September 1989.

2. The report on the Frank’s Island Lighthouse, prepared by Samuel Wilson, Jr. for the Historic American Buildings Survey, is another valuable resource for the history of these lighthouses. It is most probably one of the first written studies about this subject. To me, the pictures taken in 1934 of the ruins of the second tower are most intriguing. Mr. Wilson also includes an architectural drawing of the tower as it stood at that time. His report can be downloaded from the Library of Congress website - just do a search on "Frank's Island Lighthouse".

3. "Lighthouses, Lightships, and the Gulf of Mexico" is a book written by David L. Cipra. Mr. Cipra has been remembered as being one of the most knowledgeable people on Gulf Coast lighthouses. His book is well-researched and very informative. It is available for purchase online from Cypress Communications.
Mr. Cipra also wrote a book called "Lighthouses & Lightships of the Northern Gulf of Mexico" for the Department of Transportation in 1976. This book is now out-of-print, but well worth having if you can purchase a used copy at a resonable price.

4. "Plan Elevation & Section of a Lighthouse Proposed to be Erected at the Mouth of the Mississippi River" is a single sheet plan of Latrobe's lighthouse drafted by Henry Latrobe. This document is kept at the National Archives Cartographic Division in Maryland. The full citation for Latrobe's plans are as follows:
RG 26 ~ Records of the United States Coast Guard ~ Louisiana ~ Mississippi River: Title: "Plan Elevation 1/2 Section of a Lighthouse to be Erected at the Mouth of the Mississippi River." Date: 1816. Size: 15 inches by 24 inches. Manuscript.
A copy of this document can be purchased through National Air Survey/Visual Image Presentations. They really went out of their way to provide me with a great copy of Latrobe's plans! I would highly recommend their services for National Archive reproductions.

5. American State Papers, Commerce and Navigation, Volume 2, pages 43-46 - Contains report from Henry Latrobe dated 1816

6. There are numerous "Letters from Lighthouse Superintendents" (Chew to Smith, Chew to Pleasanton) kept at the National Archives dated from 1818 to 1823 referenced in the other recommended reading materials. Unfortunately, I am not able to get to the National Archives at this time in order to copy these letters. If anyone has access to these letters and is willing to share, please let me know by way of a post.