Digest>Archives> August 1996

Lost in the Pages of Time - But Not Forgotten

By Mary M. White

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Featured on the cover of this month's issue is ...
Photo by: Robert Dennis

President Jefferson appointed Benjamin Latrobe to find a site in Louisiana and design a structure that would be what he called "a monumental lighthouse welcoming foreign trade."

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All that remains of Louisiana's Frank's Island ...
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LaTrobe was an important architect of his time, having created many splendid buildings (both private and public) in and around our country's new Capitol. In addition, LaTrobe had earlier studied architecture and civil engineering under John Smeaton, the builder of the famed Eddystone Light in England.

LaTrobe submitted his plans to Congress in 1807. However, while his plans were being studied, the War of 1812 intervened and his plans were either lost or destroyed when the British troops attacked Washington DC. After the War, congress appointed a new three man commission to once again select a site and design a lighthouse. One of thee men was Henry Latrobe, Benjamin Latrobe's son. They chose Frank's Island.

At that time Frank's Island stood three feet above water at high tide, high enough they believed for the Keepers to raise vegetables. The lighthouse was designed with former President Jefferson in mind. The lighthouse had huge columns around the base of the tower, similar to the those at the Jefferson Memorial. Henry LaTrobe who was supervising the construction died of Yellow Fever in 1817 and the supervision was taken over by Barthelemy Lafton. In 1819 warnings by the construction crew of cracks in the tower brought Benjamin Latrobe back on the scene. Latrobe directed that more pilings be driven into the sides of the island to prevent erosion and he had metal hoops installed around the tower. Finally the tower, which was the most expensive lighthouse ever built in America, was completed and ready for service.

However, ten days after it was first lit in March of 1820, the tower, moaned and groaned, and simply fell over.

While the debate raged as to what to do, as did his son before him, Benjamin Latrobe died of yellow fever.

Finally in 1821, Captain Winslow Lewis who had designed the original lighting system for Frank's Island Light took over. He successfully re-erected the tower on a new foundation, utilizing the existing materials. However, his design, almost identical to Latrobe's, did not include an attached keepers house and the colonnade that had surrounded the previously doomed tower.

In 1855 Franks Island Light was decommissioned and never used again. For 141 years Frank's Island Lighthouse has sat empty, abandoned, and neglected. It has stood strong through Hurricanes Betsy, Camille, Andrew and a host of other unnamed storms. Sadly there are no photographs of Keepers and family members that served at the station, nor could we located any photographs of the lighthouse with its lantern room.

Today the tower stands waist deep in water, still firmly set upon its base of invisible submerged blue clay, tipping, more than slightly now, toward the shore. Its cap of ornamental iron work, and the room that housed the beacon, are long since gone. It has been dark for 141 years, and remains a lonely sentinel, brooding over watery expanses of a vanishing estuary. The future? Our early lighthouses are once again, national monuments. Twenty years from now Frank's Island Lighthouse Station will be 200 years old, and possibly, for that anniversary, measures will be taken to salvage and preserve this monument to our nation's maritime past.

This story appeared in the August 1996 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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