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.

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.

3 comments:

JayR said...

Zachary has confirmed for me the naming of the two lighthouses. According to David Cipra's first book on the subject (now out-of-print), "Lighthouses and Lightships of the Northern Gulf of Mexico", the first lighthouse was known as the "Mississippi River Light". This moniker was inherited by the second lighthouse until other lighthouses were erected at the South and Southwest passes. It was then known as the "Northeast Pass Light". After its lantern was extinguished in 1856, the lighthouse was officially renamed to the "Northeast Pass Day Beacon." The name "Frank's Island Lighthouse" was probably a locally given name.

Gainell said...

Keep up the good work.

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