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.

Tuesday, October 23, 2007

More on the Planning for the Original Lighthouse

I had not intended to continue the discussion on this topic since I did not have any new information to provide on the planning for the original lighthouse erected on Frank’s Island. But, oddly enough, just as I had completed my last post, I came across some of the source documentation that I did not have access to prior. What I found was the original report from the 1816 study of the Mississippi Delta performed by Daniel J. Patterson, H. S. Bonneval Latrobe, and P.L. B. Duplessis, Jr. After reading this report, a few things came to light that I had not seen in other writings about the original Frank’s Island Lighthouse.

I had concluded in my prior post that the 1816 study favored Frank’s Island mostly due to its proximity to the Northeast Pass instead of the firmness of the soil. Even though the Frank’s Island location was ideal for navigational reasons, the report indicates that a thorough soil study was done on all of the proposed locations. It was the conclusion of the three representatives that “It is the most solid of those in the neighborhood, and even more so than that selected by Mr. DeMunn.” The report specifies that soil samples were taken at depths of up to fifty feet. Like DeMunn, Latrobe and company found the clay to be harder the deeper they dug. The importance of noting these observations is to point out the extensive efforts that were taken prior to construction to make certain that an appropriate location was selected for “The Lighthouse at the Mouth of the Mississippi River.”

Another observation from the report is that the chosen site for the lighthouse on Frank’s Island had strategic advantages should the structure come under attack. Shoals and other features of the island made a direct advance rather difficult. In 1816, the memories of the War of 1812 and the 1814 Battle of New Orleans were still fresh on the minds of all involved in this project. The threat of attack was very real. A complex fortification system to defend New Orleans was also being planned during this time. Therefore, it can be concluded that a structure which could withstand bombardment and fire would be preferable to one that could not. Although the report does not state the exact reasons, (but a June 15, 1817 letter from Samuel Smith to Daniel J. Patterson, et al might) it does at least show that there was a preference by Washington for a “stone or brick building” instead of a wooden tower.

It had been my impression until reading this report that Benjamin Latrobe was so obsessed with constructing a masonry lighthouse on the soft soil of the Mississippi Delta that he overlooked the obvious fallacy of such a structure’s inevitable collapse. The report prepared by Patterson, Latrobe, and Duplessis shows that the use of brick or stone was a preference by consensus. This report also defines the care taken to make sure that Frank’s Island was the proper location for the lighthouse noted by three major factors: visibility, firmness of the ground, and resistance to attack. It is interesting to note that the 1816 plans for the lighthouse now located in the National Archives were apparently submitted along with this report to Samuel Smith, Commissioner of Revenue. Therefore, all three representatives could be credited for creating the final set of plans for the Mississippi River Lighthouse.(See Addendum Below) The planning for a lighthouse at the mouth of the Mississippi River was not an endeavor that Benjamin Latrobe took lightly, nor was it an endeavor that he pursued alone. Incidentally, the efforts to fortify New Orleans resulted in numerous masonry fortifications erected on marshy wetlands – many of which are still standing!

Addendum (9/16/2009) - It appears as though the plans included with the aforementioned report were not the final set of plans. Instead, what could be considered a preliminary set of plans were submitted. Dr. Fazio speculates these plans represent an earlier design concept that Benjamin Henry Latrobe had envisioned for the Lighthouse at the Mouth of the Mississippi River. After referring back to Dr. Fazio's article, I noted that the final set of plans were sent by Henry Latrobe to his father and were received in June of 1817. Whether or not Patterson and Duplessis had any involment in the development of the final set of plans is uncertain at this point. Below is a copy of Henry Latrobe's 1816 drawing from Cipra's "Lighthouses and Lightships of the Northern Gulf of Mexico".