New Orleans radio personality Bob Walker loves the dumbbell-shaped lighthouse in the Milneburg section of the city, on the southern shore of Lake Pontchartrain. The lighthouse’s long history is intertwined with Milneburg’s past as an important harbor, but its associations to the good times of his youth are what matter most to Walker. From 1939 to 1983, the lighthouse was surrounded by the Pontchartrain Beach Amusement Park. “To those of us who were young and walking the Beach midway,” says Walker, “the lighthouse just seemed like another display or attraction.” From vital trade port to jazz haven, from amusement park to technology park, Milneburg’s Port Pontchartrain Lighthouse has silently observed it all.
The origins of Milneburg and its lighthouse reach back to 1776, when Scot Alexander Milne immigrated to New Orleans. Milne had worked in England as a footman, but when he was ordered to powder his naturally red hair, Milne decided it was time to make a new life in a new world.
The hardware business Milne started in New Orleans flourished after devastating fires in the city increased the demand for brick. Milne used his fortune to buy land in Bayou St. John and the shores of Lake Pontchartrain, and around 1800 he started the settlement called Milneburg at the junction of the bayou and the lake. Milne and other investors later created the lake’s first artificial harbor at Milneburg, with a wooden pier extending out into the lake. The harbor gained prominence after being connected to the city and the Mississippi River by train in 1831.
The Pontchartrain Railroad was America’s first railroad west of the Allegheny Mountains. Its trains were originally powered by horses, soon replaced by steam engines. Legend has it that the train Pontchartrain had a sail on it in case the boilers failed, and that a boxcar served for a time as a mobile jail.
With the harbor at Milneburg and the railroad to New Orleans, shipping interests were able to bring goods to and from the city without having to negotiate the swift portion of the Mississippi River below New Orleans. The vessels entered the east end of 42-mile wide Lake Pontchartrain from Mississippi Sound. Goods like lumber, cotton and oysters were exported, while other raw materials and food were imported.
Many passengers also came by boat and train, and Milneburg eventually developed into a substantial resort with hotels, restaurants and dance halls filled with people in pursuit of the lake’s natural air conditioning that gave them respite from the city’s summer heat. Later many small wooden cottages were built along the edge of the lake. In the first part of the 20th century, early jazz flourished at Milneburg, with legendary performers like Jelly Roll Morton playing at bandstands and honky-tonks.
In 1832, the investors who created the harbor at Milneburg established the first aid to navigation in the vicinity, a light in a square lantern that was hoisted 50 feet in the air between a pair of supports. In 1836, Port Surveyor John Bingey called for a real lighthouse, pointing out that several vessels and a number of lives had been lost near Milneburg. Congress appropriated funds, and Milneburg had its first true lighthouse established in February 1839, at cost of $4,400.
The first lighthouse was a 28-foot octagonal wooden tower with a revolving light. By mid-century the tonnage of goods passing through the lake had increased dramatically, and the 1839 lighthouse needed to be replaced. A new tower was built under the direction of Army engineer Danville Leadbetter. Leadbetter also built several other Louisiana lighthouses as well as Sand Island Lighthouse (1858) in Alabama. Originally from Maine, he would later serve as a brigadier general in the Confederate army during the Civil War.
The conical brick lighthouse was completed by the end of 1855. It was built 2,100 feet offshore on a concrete slab resting on the lake’s bottom. The tower was raised by seven feet when a new lantern was installed in 1880, leaving its light 42 feet above the lake. The original system of lamps gave way to a fifth order Fresnel lens in 1857. The old wooden lighthouse tower remained standing near the new one until 1864, when it was torn down, and the wood was incorporated into a walkway connecting the light station to the railroad pier.
Keeper Charles Fagot is said to be the only lighthouse keeper on the Gulf Coast who remained at his station through the entire Civil War. He was keeper under the Light-House Board prior to the war, and served under the Confederacy. When the Confederates evacuated New Orleans after surrendering to Admiral Farragut in April 1862, Fagot was retained as keeper.
Widow Ellen Wilson, keeper from 1882 to 1896, was the mother-in-law of a clerk in the office of the lighthouse inspector in New Orleans, a fact that helped her gain the appointment. She was apparently an efficient and respected keeper, but we know much more about her successor, Margaret Norvell. Much about Norvell’s years as keeper is recounted in the book Women Who Kept the Lights by Mary Louise Clifford and J. Candace Clifford.
“Madge” Norvell came from a prominent New Orleans family. Her husband, a successful cotton broker, turned to lighthouse keeping after losing his fortune. In 1891, he drowned while keeper at Louisiana’s Head of Passes Lighthouse. Mrs. Norvell, with two small children to support, was named acting keeper. Five years later she was transferred to the Port Pontchartrain Lighthouse.
When a vessel was in trouble near the light, Madge Norvell would summon help by vigorously sounding the fog bell. During one severe storm she was able to get a rope to the crews of two different vessels, helping to get them to the lighthouse where she fed and sheltered them until the storm passed. She was also said to have given shelter to more than 200 people in the keeper’s house during a hurricane in 1903.
Madge Norvell served as keeper at the New Canal Lighthouse from 1924 to 1932. She died two years after retiring from that station. A newspaper article quoted her, “There isn’t anything unusual about a woman keeping a light in her window to guide men folks home. I just happen to keep a bigger light than most women because I have got to see that so many men get safely home.”
Port Pontchartrain Light had a third woman keeper in Minnie Coteron, who took over after Norvell’s departure and kept the light until it was discontinued in 1929. At that time the property was transferred to the New Orleans Levee Board. A decade later, the Pontchartrain Beach Amusement Park was relocated from Bayou St. John to Milneberg, and a new era in the lighthouse’s life began.
“Pontchartrain Beach was just one gaudy display after another, “ says Bob Walker, “and the lighthouse just fit into the scenery. I suppose its big attraction was that it was not only right in front of Kiddieland and to the right of the Bali Hai Polynesian restaurant and bar, but directly across the midway from the legendary Beach Stage that hosted numerous shows through the years, from Elvis, the Big Bopper, circus acts, the Cartwrights live from Bonanza, and even live rock concerts from 1957 to 1964. Behind the crowds for those shows stood the lighthouse, watching over it all.” For some years a kiddie airplane ride encircled the lighthouse, which was also reportedly used as office space for the park.
Milneburg has undergone tremendous change. The old railroad, affectionately known as “Smoky Mary,” ceased operation in 1932. The cottages and other old buildings were destroyed by a combination of development and a 1934 fire, and a new bathing beach was created by the WPA along with a bathhouse and lights for night swimming. The keeper’s house and other buildings at the light station were destroyed, leaving the light station alone and located on dry land as the area around it was filled in. The Pontchartrain Beach Amusement Park ceased operation in 1983.
Ownership of the lighthouse and surrounding land eventually passed to the University of New Orleans (UNO). The lighthouse is now on the grounds of the Research and Technology Park at their Lakefront Campus. The management of the park envisions a hotel on the grounds in the near future and hopes to incorporate the lighthouse as part of the hotel’s public space.
The lighthouse today is in good condition structurally but is in need of a major cosmetic overhaul. Alexandra Wesley-Smith, associate project manager for UNO’s Research and Technology Park, says that the university would love to restore the lighthouse. They applied for a state grant for that purpose, which was denied. Part of the problem with securing restoration funds is that the Louisiana State Preservation Officer has declared that the lighthouse as it exists today is not a historic structure, because the environment around it has changed so drastically.
UNO at this writing continues to seek funds for the preservation of this unique lighthouse, and Wesley-Smith says that she’d be happy to work with citizens who’d like to help with a restoration effort. If you’d like to help, you can contact Alexandra Wesley-Smith at 504-280-2004 or by email at firstname.lastname@example.org.
As Bob Walker rightly points out, the Port Pontchartrain Lighthouse “has survived over a century of all kinds of weather and human encroachment. If that little lighthouse could talk, it could tell us some stories about the last hundred plus years.”
This story appeared in the
April 2004 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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