In the April 2002 Lighthouse Digest, a short article was published about Louisiana’s 1855 West Rigolets Lighthouse with the title “West Rigolets: Owner of Doomsday Light a Mystery.” Just after the April issue went to press the mystery was solved, raising some hope for the dilapidated structure.
Located just north of Highway 90 where the bayou known as the Rigolets joins Lake Ponchartrain, the West Rigolets Lighthouse has fallen into severe disrepair since its deactivation in 1945. The building is one of only five remaining lighthouses of nine that were built in inland Louisiana, and in 1998 the New Orleans Historic District Landmarks Commission declared it “worthy of our recognition and protection.”
There have been claims that the wooden lighthouse, originally constructed at a cost of $5,000, was designed by Louisiana native Pierre G. T. Beauregard of the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers. Beauregard later achieved fame as a general during the Civil War for winning a nearly bloodless victory for the Confederacy at Fort Sumter. Before that, he served on a special Board of Engineers for the improvement of the Delta of the Mississippi River and the construction of a harbor on Lake Pontchartrain. He was promoted to Captain, Corps of Engineers in 1853.
Bill Hyland, the historian for the Civil Parish of St. Bernard, which borders Lake Ponchartrain, says that it’s entirely possible that Beauregard designed the lighthouse. “He was almost certainly the supervisor of its construction,” says Hyland. He calls the engineering work done by the Corps of Engineers in the area “absolutely superb.”
The Civil War history of this lighthouse is fascinating, as detailed by David Cipra in his book Lighthouses, Lightships and the Gulf of Mexico. The light was extinguished in July 1861. That October a temporary lantern was hung in the lighthouse to support U.S. Navy operations on Lake Ponchartrain. During this period, Keeper Thomas Harrison was shot dead on the wharf during his second night on the job. It was not clear who killed Harrison, but he is said to be the only lighthouse keeper killed at his post during the Civil War. The next keeper, John M. Read, stayed at the station for 36 years and was succeeded by his wife, Anna.
The lighthouse, which originally held a fifth order Fresnel lens, was severely damaged in an 1869 storm and was subsequently repaired. A late 19th century wharf and a walkway connecting the wharf to the lighthouse are now gone. In 1917 the building was raised six feet and placed on a new concrete foundation.
Keeper Charles W. Heartt was credited with the rescue of two men in July 1922. The fishermen had been dumped into the water when a tarpon jumped right into their boat.
The lighthouse was transferred to the Farm Credit Administration by the U.S Coast Guard in 1946 for disposal as surplus government property. The Louisiana State Parks Commission wanted the lighthouse given to them, and a congressman even introduced a bill to have it given to the Parks Commission. Despite these efforts, the lighthouse was sold to Mike Vujnovich of New Orleans for $2,500.
Local resident Mike Caswell has taken an active interest in the lighthouse. “I fell in love with this neglected little structure a few years ago,” says Mike. “I had casually noticed this lonely looking, isolated building numerous times, but never paid much attention to it, thinking it was just a fishing camp or something. It wasn’t until I came across it while boating with my wife and kids and saw it up close that I realized it was actually an abandoned lighthouse.”
Mike’s curiosity grew over time. “From then on,” he remembers, “I more frequently chose to take this longer route home from work, which involves going around the lake instead of across it, just to catch a quick glance of the lighthouse.” Not satisfied with viewing the structure from a distance, Mike went out in his boat on a pleasant Saturday in February 2002 and took the photos you see with this article. He struggled through mud and managed to get into the lighthouse.
“The first thing I noticed,” Mike says, “was that the wood beams on the underside of the structure were charred. My guess is that some people had camped out in the building sometime after its deactivation, and came up with the brilliant idea of building a campfire on the wooden floor. Also, the concrete pilings on which the structure rests appeared to be in poor condition, with many cracks readily apparent, and eroded concrete revealing parts of the reinforcing iron.”
Behind the lighthouse Mike saw two rather large brick cylinders. These are apparently were once the bases for a pair of large wooden cisterns. He also found a small brick building, the station’s oil house.
Next Mike climbed up onto the deck of the lighthouse. “I chose to enter at the rear of the building,” he says. “The floor felt fairly sturdy, though I still took very careful steps, just in case. There was a small room off to the right. The other two rooms were approximately the same size, with one having a doorway facing the Rigolets, and the other having a ladder made of 2x4 lumber leading up to where the lamp used to be.”
The ladder “first brings you to a small space underneath the lamp room,” he says. “This appeared to be a storage area, with some cubbyholes and a little door that opened, revealing attic space. Up just a few more steps on another small ladder is the cramped lantern room. Obviously any traces of the lighting equipment have long since vanished. The view is quite nice from the top.”
Mike Caswell and other residents have expressed an interest in working to save this lighthouse. Seamond Ponsart Roberts of New Orleans, grew up at lighthouses in Massachusetts including the lost lighthouse at Cuttyhunk Island, where her father was keeper. She explains her interest in West Rigolets Lighthouse by saying, “I love lighthouses because I lived on them for the first 17 years of my life. I hope that someone somehow can save this one.”
When Mike Vujnovich, the first private owner, died on February 22, 1960, he left the lighthouse to his three nephews. One of those nephews, Mr. Anton N. (Tony) Zanki of New Orleans, eventually bought out the others to obtain full ownership. Tony Zanki’s son Anton has now taken a strong interest in the lighthouse. He says that he will be happy to speak with anyone who has a sincere interest in restoring it, and believes that the first steps should be an engineering study and the construction of a new dock. Anton points out that the lighthouse has to be structurally sound to have withstood the brunt of so many storms in its exposed location. Giving credit to the strong wood used in its construction, he says, “Never underestimate the power of cypress.”
The lighthouse is isolated and unglamorous, but it is historically important. As historian Bill Hyland puts it, “These structures are all very important to the ‘warp and woof’ of the area. These physical, tangible remnants of our past are being lost too rapidly.”
This story appeared in the
May 2002 edition of Lighthouse Digest Magazine. The print edition contains more stories than our internet edition, and each story generally contains more photographs - often many more - in the print edition. For subscription information about the print edition, click here.
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