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, June 22, 2012

History Repeats Itself

A modern day repeat of the Frank's Island Lighthouse story...

From the June 14, 2012 Edition of the Franklin Banner-Tribune, Morgan City Daily Review

NEW CAJUN COAST VISITOR CENTER COLLAPSING

by JEAN L. KAESS




The Cajun Coast Welcome and Interpretative Center in Morgan City is in danger of immediate collapse after early reports from the scene indicate its 75-foot pilings may have given way this morning.

The building had sunk approximately 6 feet by press time. Personnel and media on the scene were moved back because of a concern that, if the building did collapse, they might be struck by glass. Officers who approached the building indicated they could still hear it creaking.

Workers notified CCVCB Executive Director Carrie Stansbury around 8:30 a.m. today that there was a problem with the building. Morgan City Police and Fire departments were notified around 9:50 a.m.

“They have no idea what happened,” Stansbury said.

Representatives from every aspect of the building’s planning or building phase were on their way to the interpretative center and expected around press time. The building appears to be sinking in the middle, and photos show water lilies at a level higher than the front door.

Stansbury said the building was scheduled to be completed July 15. The parking lot was a separate project and was due to be completed by the end of the year. She and other local officials had just completed a walk-through of the building Tuesday.

“It is very heart-wrenching to see what is happening to the building right now,” she said.

The building on Martin Luther King Jr. Boulevard was funded with $1.125 million in state money and more than $2 million in local match. Aegis Construction Inc. of LaPlace is the contractor with Washer Hill Lipscomb Cabanis Architects of Baton Rouge designing the project.