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.

Friday, August 29, 2008

Construction of Latrobe's Lighthouse - 1818-1820

I must first take a moment to apologize for not updating this blog for some time. The chronology of topics has finally led me to a discussion of which I have little source material to reference. I had hoped to discover more information about the construction of Latrobe's Lighthouse before I posted this article, but I have had little success in doing so. Since I was not able to discover any new information about the construction of the first lighthouse on Frank's Island, I have decided to approach this topic by establishing an accurate time line of the events that occurred between the purchasing of materials in 1818 and the halting of construction in 1820.

According to Samuel Wilson, Jr.'s report for the Historic American Buildings Survey, jurisdiction of Frank's Island was ceded to the United States on March 2, 1818. It was then reported in the March 11, 1818 edition of the "Louisiana Courier" that the contract for building the lighthouse had been signed. By April 13, 1818 materials had started arriving by way of the Brig Triton from Boston.

The next dated reference I can find is from Dr. Fazio’s report. By July of 1818, Winslow Lewis had sent his agent, Benjamin Beal, to Frank’s Island. Joining him was Captain Edward Gardner, a customs inspector, who drove a test pile and determined there was “no doubt that a permanent building may be erected with perfect safety.” Dr. Fazio’s report then states that Beal went back to Boston to confer with Lewis. During the meeting, Beal conveyed his doubts that the island’s soil could support such a masonry structure. Despite Beal’s misgivings, construction on the lighthouse had begun by January of 1819.

In a report written by Benjamin Latrobe dated May 7, 1819, Latrobe describes a personal visit he made to Frank’s Island. In his report, Latrobe conveys his disappointment with the lack of shells and other hard materials that were to be placed among the piles. During this inspection, Latrobe did approve of the building materials (bricks and stone) that had been procured for the lighthouse’s construction. He also found some of the work to be “faithfully executed”, but Dr. Fazio’s report is unclear as to specifically which work Latrobe was referencing. Included in Latrobe’s report is a drawing of the construction site showing the foundation and temporary buildings.


Frank's Island - April 1819
(Lighthouse Construction Drawing by Benjamin Latrobe)


In July of 1819, according to Dr. Fazio’s report, a hurricane struck Frank’s Island and “ravaged the site”. Despite this setback, by September of 1819, the base, including the keepers quarters, had apparently been completed and work on the tower had begun. A letter from Chew to Smith, dated September 20, 1819 states that “the tower of the lighthouse has settled perpendicularly”. This statement was taken from a report by Mr. Edward Hearsey, the resident superintendent of the lighthouse on Frank’s Island. Mr. Hearsey went on to describe the settling of the tower and contrasted its settlement with that of the outer base section and concluded “That there does not appear to have been any settlement in the wall of the columns, -- but rather, if anything a rise.”

Through the research I have located so far, things become unclear at this juncture. According to Dr. Fazio’s report, Latrobe read Mr. Hearsey’s report and met with him to discuss the building’s settling. Based on the information presented to him by Mr. Hearsey and “other evidence”, Latrobe concluded that the settling had stopped and construction continued. On March 14, 1820, The Speaker of the House laid before Congress a report from the Fifth Auditor of the Treasury, Stephen Pleasanton, regarding the progress being made on the lighthouse. Dr. Fazio’s report implies that this report contained the “bad news” of the structure’s failure. This is confirmed in Mr. Wilson’s HABS report which states, “that the building was settling dangerously, large cracks being produced in the walls”.

At this point, it appears all construction work on the lighthouse was ceased. According to Dr. Fazio's report, "By early April, the contractor of record, now a man named Duncan Thaxter, had abandoned the island". Several people, including architects and engineers, were called in over the course of the next year to inspect the damage. Eventually, the inspectors deemed the failure of the structure to be too costly to repair. Even before a consensus on the damage was reached, in May of 1820, the Secretary of the Treasury had requested that a “light vessel” be stationed at the mouth of the Mississippi according to “The Public Statues at Large of the United States of America” (Sixteenth Congress, Session 1, page 599).

2 comments:

Rick said...

Jay,

Thank you so much for a great site. I'm related to Benjamin Latrobe (1st Cousin 6 Times Removed) and wonder if you have any digital files relative to Latrobe you might be willing to share with me?

I was especially interested in the Elevation and Section drawing of the Latrobe lighthouse design seen on this page?

Anything else you might be able to provide would be greatly appreciated.

Thank you in advance and thanks again for your interest in this subject.

All the best to you and yours!

JayR said...

Rick,

It is really exciting to have a relative of Benjamin Latrobe visiting my site! You can probably gather from the tone of my writings that I feel I have stumbled upon an historical injustice against Latrobe. His Mississippi River Light should have stood to act as a monument and working navagational beacon for many years. However, certain inattentions to the construction of the foundation and base of the lighthouse caused its failure. The blame was passed entirely upon Latrobe despite evidence that pointed to its construction and not the design. I hope that this blog will serve to rewrite the history of the Frank's Island Lighthouse and clear the good name of Benjamin Henry Latrobe.

As far as my research materials go, I have listed the sources in the "Suggested Reading - Bibliography" post towards the bottom of the blog. The Elevation & Section drawing can be purchased through http://www.nascc.com/ if you would like a high quality digital copy.

Thank you for visiting my blog!
Jay