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.

Thursday, December 27, 2007

Reading the Morning Paper

I sat down to read the morning paper and noticed an article about the Mississippi Light-house. Of course, it was not today's paper, but a Bostonian newspaper from August 1, 1817 called "The Yankee". Although the article only briefly mentions the lighthouse to be erected on Frank's Island, it does provide a window into the past. The significance of the article is how it illustrates the pride and desire of the people of this young country to be self-reliant. Below is the article in its entirety...


In the proposals sometime since published in this paper, for erecting a light-house at the mouth of the Mississippi, the attention of persons disposed to contract for effecting this object was directed to the circumstance of the existence of quarries of free stone at the Havana. We are now favored, from the revenue office, with the following communication, made by a respectable inhabitant of the Philadelphia. Its importance, not merely in respect to this object, but generally to the country on the sea board, is manifest.

Geological Memorandum – Building Stone in Florida.

The geological base of the whole peninsula of Florida, and contiguous islands, is, what is commonly called, free stone, though it is rather an indurated marble, such as is found at Portland and Bath, England, and in the quarry in which the capitol of Washington is built, from the quarries on the Potomac.

At from eight to ten feet below the surface, this stone is found in the peninsula of Florida; the surface, or upper stratum is a vegetable mould, occasionally mixed with a delicate granite sand, and this is rarely more than two feet deep; at the depth there is a stratum of fine granite sand, white and red intermixed with a ferruginious earth, but in a small quantity; this sand rarely exceeds three feet thick, and much resembles the same kind of sand found about six to eight feet under Philadelphia. Below this second stratum of sand, is a fine stratum of whitish clay or marble, which is usually found of from two to three feet thick, and is an admirable article to mix wherever sand protrudes above the vegetable stratum.

Immediately below the mar[b]le, is a deep stratum of whitish stone, which appears to be a composition of petrified or decomposed marine shells; this has been as far as penetrated, which has been about 18 to 20 feet deep. This stone is more elevated above the general level in the island of Anastasia, directly opposite the town of St. Augustine.

This island is about 25 miles long, and separated from the main land by an arm of the sea, which is called Mantanzas river; the quarry of which the old fortifications and the houses of St. Augustine were built, is open, and directly opposite St. Augustine. The navigation round the island is good – there is only eight feet water on the bar of St. Augustine, though it was formerly as deep as three fathoms on the bar.

This free stone may be cut out of the quarry with a carpenter’s hand-saw, as soon as the upper layer is removed, as it is very soft like cheese, in the quarry; but when some time exposed to the air, becomes so hard as to turn the edge of a tempered chissel. It can be carried from the quarry to the vessels with very little difficulty, being close upon the shore. It would be well worth while to procure that stone for all our light-houses. The quality is the same as that of Havana, only reputed to be whiter, and to contain very little iron veins.