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 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…

BENJAMIN LATROBE’S LIGHTHOUSE:
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.

WINSLOW LEWIS’ 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.

6 comments:

JayR said...

I am looking for scale drawings of Winslow Lewis lighthouses. It would be really nice to find one with a "birdcage" lantern.

Thanks,
Jay

Kristin said...

Hi,

I found 1934 photos of the Frank's Island Light & the extant island on Louisiana's own digital archive site. I was saddened to read that it completely collapsed in 2002.

Here's the link:
http://64.233.169.104/search?q=cache:1i5T_yQYMY4J:louisdl.louislibraries.org/cdm4/results.php%3FCISOOP1%3Dany%26CISOFIELD1%3DCISOSEARCHALL%26CISOROOT%3D/LHP%26CISOBOX1%3Dnorth%26CISOSTART%3D1,81+%22frank%27s+island%22+lighthouse&hl=en&ct=clnk&cd=5&gl=us&client=firefox-a

Thanks!

Kristin

Kristin said...

p.s. The 1934 photos show evidence of the Lewis Birdcage at the top. Your theory seems correct!

JayR said...

Kristin,

I had stumbled upon the Frank's Island webpage of the Louisiana Digital Archive about a year-and-a-half ago. Samuel Wilson, Jr.'s report and accompanying photos are what led me to searching for the current location of the "missing" cornerstone from the lighthouse. I also used Mr. Wilson's scale drawing to render a concept drawing of Winslow Lewis' 1823 lighthouse with a complete lantern.

Thank you for reading my blog!
Jay

Anonymous said...

last few days our class held a similar discussion about this subject and you illustrate something we have not covered yet, thanks.

- Laura

JayR said...

Laura,

I am glad to know that classroom discussions about the Frank's Island Lighthouse are taking place!!!

Take Care,
Jay