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, December 17, 2010

A Piece of FILH History Hits the Auction Block

I just found out that a piece of Frank's Island Lighthouse history was up for auction last month. A leather bound ledger book containing the signature of Benjamin Beal, one of Winslow Lewis' sub-contractors, was put up for auction by a New Orleans-based auction house. The contents of this ledger contained lists of workers, organized by month, from April 1818 to April 1823, indicating the days worked per month for each worker. As a ledger, this book does not seem to contain any significantly historal information, such as a description of the first lighthouse's collapse or a drawing of the second lighthouse. There are, however, some interesting nuggets of information listed in the auction description that give a glimpse into life on Frank's Island while the lighthouses were being constructed.

According to the auction listing, the opening bid for the ledger was $400 and the auction house informs me that it sold for $800. From a research perspective, I am not certain this book contains any information that would help clarify the cloudy mystery surrounding the Frank's Island Lighthouses. I am amazed that any kind of written record that was present on Frank's Island during the construction of the lighthouses exists today! Deep down, the finding of this ledger's existence gives me hope that a personal journal from someone who spent time on Frank's Island, or letters between the sub-contractors and Winslow Lewis, will turn up during my lifetime...

Here is the description of the ledger from the auction listing:

Frank Island Lighthouse*, An Account of the Time Building the Light House on Frank Island, New Orleans, ledger with watermarked, laid paper, three quarter leather boards, manuscript entries, one month per page, covering the period from March 1, 1818 through April 17, 1823, the front paste down signed "Benjamin Beal, Hingham, 1818", each page noting the days worked by each worker, with various notes scattered throughout including; "cutting wood up the river", "stole a boat and absconded".

Here is a link to the listing containing some pictures of the ledger book...

http://www.liveauctioneers.com/item/8169137

*Notice it is referred to as "Frank Island" in Beal's ledger.