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, January 10, 2008

A View of the Second Lighthouse

You may have noticed a drawing of the 1823 Frank’s Island Lighthouse towards the top of the main page. One of the things that first drew me to the Frank’s Island Lighthouse was the aerial photograph of the tower ruins taken in 1995 by Bob and Sandra Shanklin. What intrigued me about the photograph was the fact that the lantern was missing. As I began researching the structure, I discovered that no known drawings or photographs existed which depicted a complete lantern. For the longest time, I questioned whether the original lantern had been reused or whether Lewis’ tower was capped with one of his signature “birdcage” lanterns. The photographs from Samuel Wilson’s 1935 report for the Historic American Buildings Survey show the remains of a railing system consistent with a “birdcage” lantern. A report from the 1855 U. S. Congressional Serial Set states that the “dome” was painted. Since the lantern from the first lighthouse was equipped with a stone cap, my conclusion based on these findings is that the 1823 lighthouse erected on Frank’s Island featured a “birdcage” lantern.

Once I came to this conclusion, I began searching for a scale drawing of a Lewis “birdcage” lantern. This was more difficult than I originally thought considering it has been noted that Lewis had a canned set of tower designs. I eventually discovered such a plan in David Cipra’s first book, “Lighthouses & Lightships of the Northern Gulf of Mexico” published for the Department of Transportation in 1976. This book is now out-of-print; but if you can locate a copy at a reasonable price, I would recommend purchasing it. There are pictures and information contained in this 62-page publication that were not included in his second book.

With scale drawings of both the Lewis’ tower and lantern in hand, I was able to overlay the two images in scale to generate a single image. I then projected the submerged base of the tower from Wilson’s drawing and added the remaining few feet at the bottom. The "Frank’s Island Lighthouse – 1823" drawing towards the top of the blog’s main page is the result. I hope this drawing serves to give future generations a fairly accurate representation of the lighthouse that stood at the Northeast Pass of the Mississippi River for 179 years.