Beacons in the Night: Lighthouses of the Gulf

 

(transcribed by Leora White, 2008)

 

by

 

Shirley Haupt

 

Port of Lake Charles

1999

 

 (*Photographs included in article are at the end of the text.)

 

          Cameron was little more than a post office and small village on the eastern shore of the Calcasieu River about two and a half miles above its entrance when the lighthouse at the mouth of the Calcasieu jetties was lit for the first time on December 9, 1879.  Three times a week a ferry brought mail 36 miles down the river from Lake Charles.

 

          The Gulf Hotel and the lighthouse were the only structures at the mouth of the river at that time.  Access to either establishment was by boat.  The Rogers family, owners of the Gulf Hotel, sent a small launch to Cameron to meet guests of the hotel or the lighthouse and to transport food and supplies back from Leesburg (present day Cameron) to the mouth of the river.

 

          The Calcasieu Lighthouse (Cameron Lighthouse) was a pyramidal structure of black sheet iron erected on screw piles. The tower was erected on a screw pile foundation in the marsh on the west bank of the river.  The light was fixed white and stood 53 feet above the water.  It was visible for 12 miles.  Two range lights provided additional illumination. 

 

          Calcasieu and Cameron interests had petitioned for a lighthouse at the mouth of the Calcasieu since the early 1860s.  They met with little success until after the Civil War when the booming lumber industry convinced federal authorities of the need for navigational aids to mark entrance to the Calcasieu River and Pass.  Vessels entering the Calcasieu Pass from the Gulf were usually small schooners in the lumber trade.  Although it was not required, mariners unfamiliar with the Pass were urged to retain a pilot to guide them through the bar.

 

          The history of Cameron and Calcasieu parishes is as rich and varied as the history of the United States.  Tales of Civil War battles and pirates abound.  Ghost stories are plentiful.

 

          Spanish explorer Cabeza de Vaca may well have landed at points along the Cameron coast and Hernando DeSoto’s survivors probably landed in Cameron on their voyage from the mouth of the Mississippi River to the Spanish colonies.

 

          The history of the United States is steeped in folklore, myth, legend and truth.  Any town, village or community in the United States can relate its own history of pirates and piracy.  South Louisiana lays claim to Jean LaFitte, his brother Pierre and their band of marauders slipping in and out of the bayous and streams. 

 

          Jean and Pierre LaFitte are said to have sailed on Cameron Parish rivers and bayous and probably made camp on some of its chenieres (oak groves). Jean LaFitte was a privateer and smuggler.  No one is really sure when he was born or died or even who his parents were.  He reportedly lived from about 1780 - 1826.  History does tell us that he was the leader of a band of privateers and smugglers who settled near New Orleans, and preyed on Spanish commerce in the Gulf of Mexico from bases in Louisiana and Texas.  He and his followers aided U. S. troops at New Orleans during the War of 1812.

 

          History also tells us that in 1814 the British attempted to buy LaFitte’s aid in attacking New Orleans.  Instead he passed their plans on to the Americans and helped Andrew Jackson defend the city in January 1815.  LaFitte later returned to privateering.

 

          He was not a native of Louisiana.  He was born in Southwest France and ultimately found his way to New Orleans.  Though no one knows for sure, many scholars believe that LaFitte took up residence on the Southwest Louisiana coast for several years toward the end of his life.  It is said that LaFitte’s schooner was finally sunk by a United States gunboat and now lies in its underwater grave at Shell Beach. 

 

          Romantic tales of pirates and privateers roaming the high seas, dashing onto the mainland for safety are surpassed by historical events leading up to the creation of the United States of America. 

 

          A major part of this history was the creation of a system of lighthouses, light ships, beacons and buoys as navigational aids to guide sailors to safety at the entrance to or within any bay, inset, harbor or port.  Because of the importance of waterborne commerce, our forefathers adopted a bill authorizing support for and construction of a system of navigational aids to shipping.  An act establishing support for these navigational aids was signed into law on August 7, 1789, making it the ninth law adopted by the First Congress of the United States of America.  This was the first bill adopted after Congress adopted the Constitution and the Bill of Rights.

 

          The Code of Federal Regulations, Title 33, Sec. 62.37 defines lighthouses as being “prominent beacons of varying size, color and appearance employed to mark headlands, landfalls, harbor entrances, channel edges, hazards and other features.  While normally identified by their distinctive appearances, some lighthouses display diamond shaped checkered day marks to facilitate their recognition.” 

 

          The first Congress recognized the need to provide navigational aids to shipping when the newly formed body met for the first time in 1787. 

 

          H. R. Journal - Monday, July 20, 1789, the House of Representatives notes that an engrossed bill for the establishment and support of lighthouses, beacons, and buoys and for authorizing the several States to provide and regulate pilots was read for the third time.  The same day the bill passed in the House of Representatives and was delivered to the Senate for Concurrence. 

 

          Sen. Journal - Monday, July 20, 1789, the Senate received a bill from the House of Representative establishing support for lighthouses, beacons, and buoys and for authorizing the states to regulate pilots.  On Friday, July 24, 1789, the Senate amended the bill to “include public piers currently in use at the entrance of or within any bay, inlet, harbor or poet [sic] of the United States for rendering the navigation thereof easy and safe, shall be defrayed out of the treasury of the United States for a period of one year unless the lighthouses, beacons, buoys and public piers were ceded to the United States. 

 

          On August 3, 1789, the House of Representatives received the amended bill from the Senate. The same day, the House concurred with the Senate amendments and sent the bill to President George Washington for his signature.  On August 7, 1789, the president signed the measure into law.  Under the terms of the bill, the U. S. Treasury Department was assigned jurisdiction for the construction and maintenance of these navigational aids.

 

          It wasn’t until 1796 that a pay scale was established to pay lighthouse keepers.  In a letter to Treasury Secretary Alexander Hamilton, President Washington wrote that he had received communication from Congress regarding, “an Act concerning the compensation of the Superintendent and other persons in the Lighthouse Service.” 

 

          Washington wrote, “The legislature of the United States by an act of the 5th day of February 1796 have encrafted the fund for maintaining & repairing the Lighthouses, beacons, buoys, public piers and sundry application have been made by persons employed in the superintendence and keeping of the same for an addition to their respective compensations, it is hereby established and declared that from the commencement of the current year….the following allowances shall be paid to the several descriptions of persons aforesaid.”  He then outlined the various amounts of compensation to be paid to lighthouse personnel. 

 

          Lighthouses had already been built and Congress authorized support of these lights as well as authorized construction of new ones as needed to guide ships to safety. 

 

          According to the United States Coast Guard archives, the Boston Light on Little Brewster Island was the first North American lighthouse.  The Boston Light was established in 1716 following designs of European lighthouses.   Other lighthouses and other aids to navigation quickly followed, and 12 had been constructed by the time the United States assumed control of these structures by Congressional Act in 1789. 

 

          These early colonial lights followed the European tradition of providing lights and navigational aids around major commercial centers.  Few remain today, but the ones that do remain provide a glimpse into the evolution of these monuments to shipping.  The early lighthouses were constructed of wood, stone or other material available locally; however, no two were constructed alike. 

 

          The first lighthouses were constructed and operated by the states in which they were established until Congress adopted legislation in support of lighthouses, beacons, buoys and other aids to navigation.  Color, shape and size of lighthouses, buoys and beacons varied widely from port to port making them almost useless as aids to navigation. 

 

          During their tenure as president and treasury secretary, Washington and Hamilton are said to have taken a personal interest in the construction of lighthouses.  Administration of lighthouse construction and repair remained the sole authority of the secretary of the Department of Treasury until 1820, when those duties were delegated to the Fifth Auditor of the Treasury, Stephen Pleasanton.  He was a bookkeeper and financial zealot who prided himself in being able to return funds appropriated for lighthouse construction and repair to the United States treasury.

 

          In 1852 Congress authorized the Lighthouse Board and charged it with creating a standardized system of lighthouses and navigational aids.  The newly formed Lighthouse Board was charged with improving navigational aids to shipping and with overseeing the construction and maintenance of lighthouses. Soon after its establishment, the Lighthouse Board recommended lighthouses at Sabine Pass and at the mouth of the Calcasieu River, and in 1853, Congress appropriated $6,000 for construction of a screw pile structure at Calcasieu Pass.  Compiled by order of the Lighthouse Board, June 30, 1855:

 

          Louisiana    - The Lighthouse Board authorized $6,000 for the construction of a lighthouse at the mouth of the Calcasieu River.

          Texas         - 2 small lights at Galveston - $ 1,000

    - for completing the buoyage of Galveston bar and bay, Sabine Pass & river, Matagorda bar & bay - $10,000

    - Lighthouse on or near Gallinipper Point, Lavaca Bay - $10,000

    - Light near Half-Moon Reef, Matagorda Bay - $10,000

    - Day Beacon to mark the wreck of the Steamboat Farmer near Pelican Island in Galveston Bay  - $3,000

    - $500 to mark the entrance into Galveston Bay, according to notes compiled by McNeese State University archivist Kathie Bordelon from       Lighthouse Board records from June 30, 1855 - August 7, 1889, at the National Archives in Washington, D. C.  The funds for the Calcasieu Light  were returned to the U. S. Treasury.

 

          Again in 1860, $7,500 was appropriated for its construction.  This appropriation also reverted back to the treasury.  A Coast Guard survey report noted that the Calcasieu River was of little significance commercially and houses in the area provided adequate lighting for the few craft capable of crossing the shallow bar at the mouth of the river.  “There is no danger for which a light would be required.  Houses mark the entrance sufficiently well for the small craft that can cross the bar, and in a commercial point of view it is of but little importance,” he concluded.

 

          “The result of hydrographic reconnaissance made by Lieutenant Commanding (now Commander) B. F. Sands, U. S. N. with reference to necessity for a light at the entrance of the Calcasieu River, Louisiana urged against the expediency of erecting a light at that point have met my concurrence.”  He signed it, Very Respectfully Yours, A. D. Bache, Superintendent Hon. James Guthrie, Secretary of Treasury.  The “bar has 5 ½ feet at low water, shoaling gradually to that depth from three fathoms and deepening inside to 12 and 14 feet in the river.”

 

          The area that now comprises Cameron Parish was a no-man’s land of disputed territory.  Groves of oak trees, walnut trees, wild plum and purple muscadine and other vegetation grew rampant.  Furbearing animals and seafood all thrived in this coastal region between the Mermentau and Sabine Rivers.  So, too, did criminals and outlaws survive in this warm moist coastal region.  The disputed area was devoid of official supervision and became a hideout for criminals.  The boundary between the United States and Mexico was not officially settled until 1819.  It was at that time the Western boundary was established at the Sabine River.  After the Sabine River was determined to be the demarcation between the two countries, the federal government sent officials to control the territory.

 

          The first settlers in the area are thought to be a family with the surname of Phillips.  Other settlers followed suit after 1830.  Congress, until 1830, reserved large tracts of live oak land as naval reserves, and when no longer needed for shipbuilding, these tracts of chenieres were freed for private ownership.  In 1862, Congress also passed preemption laws similar to the Homestead Act and used land grants to pay army veterans.  Much of this land was later purchased and drained by J. B. Watkins of Lake Charles. 

 

          A wave of immigration from Virginia, Georgia, Alabama, Mississippi and the Carolinas flooded the new territory.  Prior to the Civil War the early settlers were primarily pioneers looking for a better place to live.  There was little actual fighting in Cameron, but Union and Confederate forces saw some minor battles at Leesburg and at Sabine Pass.  Federal gunboats patrolled the Sabine, Calcasieu and Mermentau rivers.

 

          In a letter to the commanding general of the Confederate States Army, Brigadier-General, Commanding W. R. Scurry, C. S. Army reported that “schooners had been kept in port at Matagorda Bay because of the blockading squadron off the coast,” according to Official Records of the Union and Confederate Navies in the War of Rebellion.

 

          He also transmitted a report from Lieutenant Colonel W. H. Griffin, C. S. Army regarding an engagement with a detachment of Union soldiers on April 18, 1863.  He reported that on April 17, 1863 a Federal gunboat landed seven men on the Louisiana shore at the lighthouse ( the Sabine Pass Lighthouse), where they were making observations.  The invading party rejoined the Federal fleet before Griffin was able to capture them.  “I then determined to lay a plan to capture the next party that should come to the lighthouse.  I subsequently on that night placed a party of 30 men under the command of First Lieutenant W. J. Jones, of C Company and Second Lieutenant E. T. Wright of D Company, Twenty-first (Griffin’s battalion) Texas Volunteer Infantry, in the lighthouse and the dwelling house near it.”  He added the men were successful in routing the invading party, noting that it was necessary to keep men on the Louisiana side of the Sabine River in order to protect the Pass. Griffin also advised his commanding officers that “all the beef, mutton and pork used on the Federal gunboats was being procured on Lake Calcasieu, Calcasieu Parish. La.  This country is very remote from the commands of Generals Taylor and Sibley or any other general commanding in Louisiana.  It is all-important that these depredations should be stopped.”

 

          The close of the reconstruction period ushered in an era of prosperity that meant new home construction, schools and churches.  Cattle, cotton, sugar cane and oranges were grown for outside markets.  Trapping became important.  Boats made runs on the three rivers of present day Cameron Parish.  Schooners from Lake Charles and Cameron made regular runs to and from Galveston and New Orleans as well as other ports. 

 

          Efforts to light the mouth of the Calcasieu River continued.  The Lighthouse Board in 1868 reported that the river had gained importance during the Civil War because of the extensive lumber industry, and its importance increased in the years following the war. 

 

          The mid-1860s were a period of change in American history and in South Louisiana.  The Civil War had ended with General Robert E. Lee’s surrender at Appomattox, Va.   Lumber was booming, agriculture was finding its own place in the economic structure and becoming a major export for American farmers, especially in Southwest Louisiana.

 

          Oil and sulphur had been discovered. The Democratic Party had been established as an antiradical party and was holding its state convention in New Orleans.  Yellow fever was rampant in New Orleans at this time.  Indians continued to pose a threat in some areas of the state.  The state’s governor was removed from office by federal edict.

 

          Business and community leaders clamored for a railroad to connect New Orleans with Texas.  They also wanted a lighthouse, other aids to navigation and a deeper channel.

 

          On July 11, 1868 an article in the Weekly Echo reported “that 20 of the steam sawmills of Calcasieu parish furnished chief supply of Galveston lumber.  Of the 20 sawmills, 14 were located on the Calcasieu River, and the remainder were located on the Mermentau and Sabine rivers.”

 

          The writer added that, “30 schooners carry lumber from Calcasieu to Galveston and with a fair wind, the 150 mile voyage can be made in 24 hours.”  Speaking in favor of the completion of the railroad from New Orleans to Texas, the writer noted:  “it seems strange that the largest parish in the state should be restricted in its commercial intercourse almost exclusively to Texas.” 

 

          In 1870 the Weekly Echo reported that “ship building along the Calcasieu River has already become a permanent and important business.”  The article reported that lumber vessels were constantly being built to ply the lumber trade on the Calcasieu River.  According to the article more than 100 vessels had been built after the War.

 

          The Weekly Echo reported in its April 20, 1871 issue that more than four million board feet of lumber were being produced monthly at local mills. 

 

          In 1871 the Louisiana & Texas Canal Company won the right to push a canal from Schooner Bay to White Lake in present day Vermillion Parish.  According to the Lake Charles Weekly Echo, June 1, 1871, this “will furnish inside steamship all the way from Lake Arthur and Grand Chenier in Cameron Parish to Berwick Bay in Vermillion Parish.”

 

          Richard Smith of Cameron Parish, an officer with the L&TCA Company, negotiated with property owners to acquire property for 20 miles on each side of the canal.  The vast acreage would be drained and Cameron Parish would be opened to immigration.

 

          Business leaders clamored for a deeper channel.  It was reported in the April 27, 1871 issue of the Weekly Echo that Lake Charles had an ample supply of water. It was also reported “that the lake and river was sufficiently deep to accommodate large class vessels that could reach this place and go a long way up river if the bar at the mouth of this river (Calcasieu) were removed.”

         

          Engineers were looking at structures that would withstand the Gulf’s heavy tides and severe storms as early as 1870.  Storms would periodically roar through the Gulf coast wrecking havoc and destroying everything in its path.  A correspondent for the Weekly Echo wrote on September 9, 1869, discussing a recent storm that had hit the New Orleans area, “we had such floods of rain and heavy winds that we had a corresponding list of casualties,” and enumerated the amount of damage exacted by the storm.  “The lighthouse and the house of the keeper, boats and small houses were stranded in a pile,” the correspondent wrote.  The Timbalier Lighthouse in New Orleans was rebuilt and repaired several times because of storms. 

 

          Again on June 24, 1871 storms wiped out Gulf coast lighthouses.  A correspondent to the Weekly Echo wrote, “on Friday night last, a storm amounting to almost a hurricane came through the area.  One house was lifted from its foundation and transferred eight feet distant.  Trees were torn up by the roots and fences blocking the sidewalk disfigured our town for days.” 

 

          According to the article the “tempest on the 9th (June 9, 1891) wrecked havoc in Calcasieu Parish as well, destroying crops, uprooting fruit trees and blowing fences away.” 

 

          The storm was more violent in Cameron.  “The whole country was under water and nearly all the cattle, sheep, hogs and colts drowned,” the correspondent wrote.  Galveston papers reported similar disasters from the storm.

 

          It was for this reason the engineers decided that an iron screw pile structure was the only way to ensure “the proper degree of safety to life and property,” from a U.S. Light Service Clipping file for District 7 and 8.

 

          In 1873 the 42nd Congress appropriated $15,000 for improvements to Calcasieu Pass, and in 1874 the 43rd Congress appropriated $14,000 for the construction of the lighthouse.  Attempts to purchase land on the east side of the river failed.   The Lighthouse Board reported in 1875 that the owner asked “an exorbitant price.”  In the meantime, the needs of the area changed, and the public land was available on the west side of the river at what had been the naval reserve forests. 

 

          The Cameron Lighthouse was lit for the first time on December 9, 1879.  Charles F. Crossman was the first keeper. 

 

          Crossman was born in Prussia in 1824 and became a citizen of the United States in 1860.  He remained keeper until around 1908 when William and Henry Hill became keepers. The eldest son of Charles Crossman was named keeper of the Sabine Pass Lighthouse when Stephen Hill was transferred to Matagorda Lighthouse.  Lighthouses were an integral part of the community, providing refuge from storms and guiding mariners to safety, but Grace Reeves, who grew up as part of a family of lighthouse keepers, remembers that the life of a keeper and his family could be harsh and lonely. 

 

          Her grandfather Stephen Decatur Hill and great uncles William and Phillip Hill manned lighthouses along the Gulf, including Port Isabella, Half Moon Reef, Matagorda Light, Sabine Pass Lighthouse and the Calcasieu Lighthouse.

 

          Her grandfather was keeper at the Matagorda Lighthouse and the Half Moon Reef Lighthouse in Texas and was keeper of the Sabine Pass Lighthouse at Johnson’s Bayou when her parents Henry Carl Clausen and Josephine Evelyn Hill met and married at the lighthouse in 1908.

 

          Her grandmother Josephine Ainsworth Hill reared six children in the Sabine Pass Lighthouse.

 

          Clausen, who was from Sweden, had come to Port Arthur when he was in his twenties.  He was working as a diver at the Coast Guard Station in Port Arthur when he met and married Florence Evelyn Hill.  Their daughter, Grace was born and reared in Port Arthur, Texas.

 

          As a child she and her mother would visit her uncles in Cameron. Her dad went to South America, as an undersea diver to work on the construction of a refinery in Venezuela.  She was six years old when her parents separated, and she and her mother went to live in the Cameron Lighthouse with Great Uncles Phillip and Henry Hill.

 

          “Mom and I went to visit my uncles and stayed the summer and winter.  Mother got a job with the Coast Guard (taking water readings at the boat house).  Mother taught me kindergarten and first grade.  After first grade, we returned to Port Arthur for school.  We spent summers in Cameron and school in Port Arthur until I was about 11 years old. And then after Mother remarried, we returned to Port Arthur to live.”

 

          Shortly after her mother remarried, her uncles retired and E. A. Malone became the keeper and remained at the lighthouse until around 1938 when it was dismantled to make way for the dredging of the Calcasieu Ship Channel. 

 

          The trip to Cameron was long and grueling aboard the Borealis Rex, but Reeves said she loved the trips because of the attention she and her mother received.  “Mother was a young attractive divorcee, and we received a lot of attention,” she reminisced.

 

          The Rex was used to transport everything down the River to the Gulf.  Cattle and other livestock were taken down the river along with the complement of passengers and crew.  She reported that cattle were slaughtered, as they were unloaded from the ferry at various stops along the way.  Captain McCain, captain of the Rex, slaughtered cattle at each stop.

 

          The Rex stopped in Cameron. Mathilda and Jesse Rogers would send a launch to transport passengers to the Gulf Hotel and to the lighthouse.  The lighthouse and the Gulf Hotel were accessible only by boat.  Reeves noted that even their groceries were delivered by boat.

 

          William Hill was the lighthouse keeper and his brother Phillip was the assistant.  Phillip Hill was also the cook and prepared meals in the kitchen adjacent to the lighthouse tower using a kerosene or coal oil stove.  A cistern under the lighthouse provided water.  The kitchen had a sink, which used a hand pump to draw water.  The family also bathed in the kitchen, which was a large open room adjacent to the lighthouse.  A breezeway connected the kitchen to the tower.  The bedrooms were in the lighthouse.

 

 Downstairs was the platform for the wharf from the lighthouse to the river.  The wharf was high enough to drive a horse under.  The area was also fenced to keep straying cattle from coming too close to the lighthouse structure.  “The strangest thing in the winter time the base of the lighthouse was fenced because the Gray cattle would come up to the lighthouse sometimes.  They would get stuck and have to be pulled out.  If they were not removed, they could remain stuck and die where they lay,” she noted.  Reeves also said she remembered a cemetery being near the end of the dock.  She also remembered large fig trees being grown in the area.

 

Reeves said the lighthouse always had company.  When the Coast Guard boat came by to get readings they would stay for dinner, and after dinner everyone sat around, talked and listened to an old phonograph with round cylinder records.

 

“Sometimes the mosquitoes were so bad we had to beat them off to keep them from getting into the tower.”   William Hill echoed her sentiments in a letter to the superintendent of lighthouses in New Orleans.  In his letter of July 1922, he wrote “that the lantern had been overrun with bugs and other insects.”  He noted that is was impossible to keep the lantern clean and that insects settled on the glass so thickly “it is doubtful the light is visible for three miles.”  He reported constantly cleaning and scouring to keep the lantern clean.  He noted this condition was likely to continue “as long as the westerly winds prevail."

 

The keeper was responsible for keeping the lantern clean.  Each morning and evening he polished the lantern and prism with a soft cloth and closed the chamois curtain surrounding the light.  Each morning the keeper extinguished the light, cleaned and polished the glass inside and out.  The keeper lit the lanterns every day at dusk.  Reeves said the lantern was kept spotless because lighthouse inspectors frequently checked its condition. 

 

          Reeves said the lighthouse also had its tales of ghosts.  One in particular she remembers as the ghost in the marsh.

 

          Whenever the west wind would blow in the winter, it produced a mournful noise that sounded like a woman crying. “The first time my mother heard it, she insisted someone check on it.  No one ever found anything.”  It became known as the ghost in the marsh until one winter when John Gray came by the lighthouse.  It seems he had discovered that wind blowing over reeds higher than a man’s head was making the sound. 

 

          Her uncles and grandfather were also keepers of the Sabine Pass Lighthouse.

 

          The Sabine Pass Lighthouse was authorized in 1851 and completed in early 1857 at a cost of approximately $30,000.  Its tower was built on a mud bank only three feet above the water at high tide.  At 85 feet above sea level, it became the tallest lighthouse on the Gulf coast.  It is considered a sister to the Aransas Pass and Timbalier lighthouses.  The Sabine Pass Lighthouse was first lit in 1854 and abandoned in the 1950s. 

 

          The Sabine Pass Lighthouse was the site of numerous skirmishes between Union and Confederate forces during the War Between the States.  Federal gun boats blocked passage to the lighthouse and to the Calcasieu and Sabine Passes.  At this time, Texas forces assumed jurisdiction for keeping Calcasieu Pass open for water traffic.

         

          The Sabine Pass Lighthouse with its 45.56 acres of property was put up for sale on June 24, 1986 and was purchased by private interests.  It is near Johnson’s Bayou in Cameron Parish.

 

          Sabine Pass Lighthouse, Louisiana joined Sabine Bank, Texas and Franks Island Light, Galveston Jetty Light, Pass Manchac, Ship Shoal Light, Southwest Pass Light and West Rigolet Light and other Gulf lights on the Doomsday List of lighthouses nearing extinction. 

 

          A group of Louisiana and Texas residents have formed an organization for the preservation of the Sabine Pass Lighthouse.

 

          The Sabine Pass Lighthouse was the first constructed in Cameron Parish, but neither the Sabine Pass Lighthouse nor the Cameron Lighthouse were the first Louisiana lighthouses. 

 

          The Timbalier Lighthouse was reported completed in 1857, making it the first lighthouse on the Louisiana coast.  Congress authorized $15,000 on August 3, 1854 for its construction to mark the entrance to Timbalier Bay.  The light was discontinued during the Civil War. During the Union occupation in 1864, efforts were made to reestablish the light. 

 

          By 1867, the light had fallen victim to a hurricane.  Congress approved four appropriations totaling approximately $165,000 for the construction of another lighthouse at the site. In January 1875 a new iron screw pile lighthouse with focal plane 125 feet above sea level was completed.   By January 1894, it had again fallen prey to the harsh coastal weather, and Congress reevaluated the need for a lighthouse at this location.  The lens was removed and used in the existing structure, which was rebuilt in 1917.

 

          After the Mexican War, Fort Polk was transferred to the Treasury Department and on September 28, 1850, Congress appropriated $15,000 for a lighthouse and beacon at  Brazos, Santiago.  The Port Isabel Lighthouse tower was completed in 1852.  It was lit by four lamps, 57 feet above the ground and 82 feet above sea level.  By 1854, the light had 15 lamps and 21 reflectors and was visible for 16 miles.  A third-order lens was installed in 1857.

 

          After the Civil War, the light was refitted, overhauled and relit on February 22, 1866.  In 1879, the Lighthouse Board reported the tower in a dilapidated condition and that is was impossible to keep the light burning during rain.  A new lantern was erected, but by 1887 a question had arose regarding the ownership of the property. General Taylor had occupied the site as a camp and depot at the outbreak of the Mexican War, but the United States government had no title to the land.  In 1888, the lighthouse was abandoned.

 

          Local citizenry presented the Lighthouse Board with evidence that a light was needed at this location but it was not until 1895 that it was reestablished only to be discontinued permanently in 1905.  It is now privately owned.

 

          The Tybee Light, Tybee Island, Savannah River, Georgia appears to be one of the earliest lighthouses in the Southern region.  It was under construction when the State of Georgia joined the Federal Union in 1788.  The lighthouse under went renovation and changes over the years, and in 1866 $20,000 had been appropriated.  The Lighthouse Board reports that work was progressing satisfactorily until the 18th of July 1866 when all labor was interrupted by panic among the workmen, caused by the arrival of a detachment of U.S. troops on the island.  Some of the soldiers had cholera and work was suspended at this time.

 

          The Lighthouse Board requested and received an additional appropriation of $34,400 in 1867.  The existing light was replaced with a first-order light having a focal plane 150 feet above sea level.  In 1869 the beacon was moved back 165 feet because gale winds caused extensive damage to the coast.  The lighthouse was moved several times over the years.  The octagonal brick tower now rises 145 feet above the ground and 144 feet above the water.  It has a fixed white electric light of 70,000 candlepower from a first-order lens visible for 18 miles.

 

          The Cape Florida Lighthouse was completed in 1825.  It was 65 feet high, of solid brick, five feet thick at the vase.  It guided mariners through the Florida Reef and led then into Cape Florida Channel to safe anchorage from violent gales in the lee of Cape Biscayne.

 

          During the Seminole War, on July 23, 1836, the assistant lighthouse keeper reported that the Seminole Indians had attacked and set fire to the structure.  According to records, the assistant keeper, who had gotten inside the iron railing of the lantern survived only because the wind changed direction.  The Indians apparently thought him dead and left.

 

          The light was rebuilt in 1846 and raised to a height of 95 feet in 1855.  The lighting apparatus was destroyed in 1861, during the Civil War and not restored until 1867.  Its use was discontinued in 1878 and the tower and property sold. 

 

          Lighthouses were built, destroyed and rebuilt, but business interests in Southern Louisiana focused their attention on a deeper channel.  They petitioned the Department of War to approve deepening and widening Calcasieu River and Pass to accommodate larger vessel traffic.

 

          The Lake Charles Echo reported that on Saturday June 18, 1887, “The Excursion to the Gulf:  A Beautiful Day and a Pleasant Trip” reported that a group of media and local citizens, business, civic and community leaders took a group from the Press Association to tour the river.  The group included S. A. Knapp, M. A. Baily, C. C. Duson and Professor A. Thompson.  They looked at the N. A. L. & T. Canal (about 1 ½ hours from Lake Charles) and proceeding to the government works at the inner bar at Calcasieu Pass where a small force of men were building a revetment.

 

          “The work was begun nine months ago by Captain W. A. Junker who died in this city a few weeks ago, after taking the contract.  The work was finished by his son.  We confidently expect he will succeed in obtaining the depth of six feet required under the contract, but it is safe to say the appropriation is entirely insufficient.”  The press Association expressed concerns that without a larger congressional appropriation the work would not be lasting.  It was reported that the issue of deep water on the outside of the bar would be beneficial not only to Calcasieu Parish, but to all of Southwest Louisiana and would be of national importance. 

 

          The Lake Charles Echo, March 30, 1888,”Rivers and Harbor Improvements,”  from New Orleans Picayune reported that a total bill of $19,432,000 had been recommended by the committee for river and harbor improvements.  Included in the recommended appropriation:

 

          $2,500,000 for improvements to the Mississippi River

          $300,000 for rectification of the Red and Atchafalaya rivers

          $200,000 for New Orleans

          $250,000 for Mobile

          $500,000 for Galveston

          $150,000 for Sabine Pass

          and a limited appropriation for LaFourche, Plaquemine, the mouth of Calcasieu and other local projects in Louisiana.  Other improvements to the Calcasieu River and Pass channel would come.  By 1941, a deeper and wider channel was dredged through the Calcasieu River to the Gulf of Mexico.

 

Bibliography

 

The following is a list of sources of reference materials used in researching this publication.  All efforts have been made to make the bibliography as complete as possible.  Any omissions are accidental.

 

1. United States Coast Guard Archives.  Http [Online] http://www.usalights.com/gulf.htm

 

2. Lighthouse Digest. Http [Online] http://www.lighthousedigest.com/archives/199_July_1999/domesday.htm

 

3. George Washington Papers Series 2 Letterbooks, George Washington, March 10, 1796, Lighthouses, Letterbook 34. Http [Online]

    http://memory.loc.gov/cgi-bin/query/P? mgw:1:/temp/˜ammem_fjja::@@@mdb=cwar,consrvbib,bdsbib,coolbib,mgw,hlaw,presp,nfor,runyon,mtj,suffrg,nawbib

 

4. American Memory, A Century of Lawmaking, 1774-1873, Journal of the House of Representatives of the United States, 1789-1873.
Http [Online] http://memory.loc.gov/cgi-bin/query/D?hlaw:1:./temp/˜ammen_CzxW:

 

5. American Memory, A Century of Lawmaking, 1774-1873, Journal of the Senate of the United States Senate, 1789-1873. Http [Online] http://memory.loc.gov/cgi-bin/query/D?hlaw:15./temp/˜ammen_CzxW:

 

6. Stewart, Charles W., Official Records of the Union and Confederate Navies in the War Rebellion, published under the Direction of the Hon. Charles J. Bonaparte, Secretary of the Navy, Series I-Volume 20, West Gulf Blockading Squadron from March 15 to December 31, 1863.

 

7. The Lake Charles Weekly Echo.

 

8. The Weekly Echo.

 

9. The Lake Charles American.

 

10. McNeese State University Archives.

 

11. Annual Report of the Lighthouse Board -8th District 603.  National  Archives.

 

12. Roberts, Bruce and Ray Jones, Let There Be Light, Ocean, 1984.

 

13. Cipra, David L., Lighthouses, Lightships, and the Gulf of Mexico, Cypress Communications, 1997.

 

14. Cipra, David L., Lighthouses & Lightships of the Northern Gulf of Mexico, Department of Transportation, United States Coast Guard.

 

15. Cameron Parish, Louisiana’s Gateway to the Gulf, Cameron Parish Police Jury.

 

16. 34th Congress, First Session.  Senate Ex. Document No. 22 Report of the Superintendent of the Coast Survey showing the progress of survey during the year 1855, Washington, A. O. P. Nicholson, Printer 1856 PP 413-414 U.S. Congressional Document 826, Letter from B. F. Sands, Lieutenant Comg. (commanding now Commander) & Assistant U.S. Coast Survey, Appendix No. 81, Letter from Superintendent to the Secretary of the Treasury, transmitting the report of Lieut. Comg. B. F. Sands U. S. N. Assistant in the Coast Guard Survey, Coast Survey Office Feb. 2, 1855.

 

 

*Photographs from article:

 

 

      

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