Digest>Archives> Jan/Feb 2005

A Beacon of Hope for Madisonville

By Deb Burst

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Sitting on a tiny peninsula at the mouth of the Tchefuncte River on the banks of Lake Pontchartrain, three miles south of the town of Madisonville, Louisiana stands the Tchefuncte River Lighthouse–a beacon of hope for a small community trying to preserve a piece of their past.

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Del Lipps, a retired engineer and volunteer for the Lake Pontchartrain Basin Maritime Museum (LPBMM), was often asked for a tour of the lighthouse site. “People from up north, lighthouse keepers, or just those interested in lighthouses were disappointed because they couldn’t see this lighthouse... when it was just miles away.” Lipps began to research historical documents and surveys taken of the light station, which was built in 1938.

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“I’m a boater and decided to go examine the site myself,” he said. “The site boundaries were the same as surveys taken in 1886.” The station site occupies less than an acre of land on property that measures close to seven acres. There was significant erosion along the property shorelines forming a crescent shape on each side of the lighthouse. “The stone bulkhead preserved the site,” Lipps said. “I also took a look at the lighthouse itself... it’s in wonderful condition.”

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A handsome 38-foot conical shaped tower rests on an 18-foot diameter base spiraling to an 11-foot top crowned with a decagon shaped lantern room. Three-foot high paneling circles the room cradling a montage of glass panes capped with a conical roof. A bed of five-foot thick masonry walls edge up to a two-foot thick top. Winding its way to the top, a 45-step cast iron spiral staircase provides access to a platform with a nine-step steel ladder inching its way to the lantern room. A fifth order lens with 10 lamps, the beacon was visible for 11 miles. “It’s all cast iron construction so there’s no deterioration of that... only thing missing is the glass to the lens,” Lipps said.

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Excited about the condition of the lighthouse itself, Lipps decided to work on gaining access to the property and beginning the primary tasks of painting and general cleaning. It has now grown to a three phase project restoring the station to its original design: lighthouse, keeper’s dwelling, bell tower, a separate kitchen and a pedestrian pier 300 feet out into the lake.

The property requires nautical access after the access road was eliminated in the 30s by storm erosion. Due to the shallow waters, the new pier must be long enough to reach the ship channel for boat dockings and include a breakwater bulkhead to protect it from rough water. For now, it’s a challenge for volunteers to navigate beyond the site’s stone bulkhead. “We’re looking for a sponsor to donate a pontoon boat and ramp so we can get ashore to start working on the site,” Lipps said.

An 1888 storm swept away all the site’s buildings except for the lighthouse and keeper cottage. The cottage is in excellent condition and has been moved to the grounds of the LPBMM, just yards away from the Tchefuncte River. The keeper and his family shared a living room and bedroom with a separate building for the kitchen. Lipps feels there will be minimal construction and once the building is moved it will serve as a museum. “It’s vintage tongue and groove construction...real solid...probably cypress. People say they want to move out there to take care of it...like the keepers did.”

The lighthouse was operated by a keeper until 1935 and became fully automated in 1952. Today, the four foot wide black stripe down the south side of the lighthouse serves as the rear range marker for the channel leading to the Tchefuncte River. The U.S. Coast Guard maintains a light beacon for night navigation. In 1999, Congress passed legislation transferring the lighthouse and property to the town of Madisonville who then designated the LPBMM as caregivers.

“The lighthouse is an icon for the area,” said LPBMM executive director Nixon Adams. The museum gains the majority of its funds from the Madisonville Wooden Boat Festival held every October. Right now, the museum is the restoration project’s main source of funds. “We’re looking for corporate sponsorships,” Adams said. “It’s a major asset for the area and lighthouse history.”

And a permanent resident on the lighthouse grounds for the last 165 years, a gallant oak peeks its way above the underbrush. The first keeper, Benjamin Thurston, planted the tree in 1839, and the Madisonville Garden Club will be registering it in the National Registry as the “Benjamin Thurston Live Oak.”

Thurston kept a diary documenting the keeper’s duties of maintaining the light before electricity, including polishing the lens, resupplying the oil, trimming the wick. In the book, Madisonville Lighthouse – Its past, and it hope for a restored future, Carol Saunders Jahncke, author, described daily life as a lighthouse keeper. With a family, wife and five daughters, Thurston worked hard in developing the property into a self-sufficient homestead. He built a hen house, a hog pen, and an alligator pond for supplementing the family diet along with a tool shed, woodshed, washhouse, boathouse and built a new pier for incoming ships. It was part of his duty to render aid to passing vessels and provide lodging to travelers or caring for a sick sailor. Thurston served as the Tchefuncte Lighthouse keeper from 1837 to 1842.

The family ate well with the abundance of fresh seafood from the lake and wild game from the adjoining swamps. He also planted a variety of vegetables, trees and shrubbery for both landscaping and protection from the fierce lake winds. Apple trees provided as much as 50 bottles of cider at a time. Fresh water was either brought in from Madisonville wells or rainwater trapped in a huge cistern Thurston built himself.

There were several entries concerning maladies such as aches, fevers, and toothaches but no mention of seeking any medical help. In one account Thurston writes, “I slipped half way down the Light House stairs—it was a rapid slide and bruised left elbow and right hip badly.” He served a fruitful keeper life from 1837 to 1842. He died in 1845 and was buried in the Madisonville Cemetery.

Jachncke was fortunate to record some oral histories of how the community celebrated the lighthouse station site in the ‘30s and ‘40s. Many visited the grounds collecting fruit and swimming off the pier along with fishing, picnicking, and crabbing (a form of fishing but without a pole, a chicken neck is tied to the end of a string waiting for the crab to latch on and then slowly pulled into a net).

Today, many still hold the same passion for these nautical treasures. Being a tour guide, Lipps meets people from all over the world. “There were some people who said this was their 431st lighthouse, and another couple was traveling from the East Coast to the West in a motor home stopping to see every lighthouse on the way. They figured it would take them 18 months.”

The LPBMM continues to expand the lighthouse theme with their new exhibit by Cajun artist, Nelson Plaisance, a diorama of 25 lighthouse and keeper’s cottage models frozen in time crafted from authentic blueprints, historical books and photos, and existing

lighthouse remains. The museum is dedicated to preserving the Basin’s history. “We’re protecting the legacy... history of the lighthouse,” Adams said.

This story appeared in the Jan/Feb 2005 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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