Digest>Archives> October 2008

Sentinel of Centuries: The Tchefuncte River Light Station

By Jay C. Martin, Ph.D.


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The first Tchefuncte River Lighthouse was heavily ...

Just after dusk on August 8, 2008, cannon fire and fireworks reawakened the Town of Madisonville, Louisiana, to a wonderful chapter in its maritime history. On that balmy summer night a community celebrated a 171-year connection to a long and dynamic history and over two hundred years of navigation, commerce, and culture.

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The second Tchefuncte River Lighthouse Station as ...

The Town of Madisonville (population 800), like many small port towns, has a unmistakeable connection to the water. Before European settlement, the banks of the Tchefuncte (pronounced “cha-FUNK-tuh”) River and Lake Pontchartrain were part of Native American trade, transportation, and culture. Early in American history the name of the river was spelled more or less phonetically, for for many years the U.S. Lighthouse Service and later the U.S. Coast Guard spelled the name “Chefuncte.”

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Jock Banks is shown here repairing the masonry of ...
Photo by: Jay C. Martin, Ph.D

The Tchefuncte River and Lake Pontchartrain had early strategic importance. When Bienville established the city of New Orleans in 1718, he did so on a thin stretch of low land lying between Lake Pontchartrain and the Mississippi River, about ninety miles from the mouth of the great river. The place was a portage, a relatively easy carry for goods, people, and materials shipped from upriver to the calmer, safer shipment route along Lake Pontchartrain eastward to the Gulf via the natural outlet at the Rigolets. By contrast, commerce through Lake Pontchartrain was sheltered from weather, was shorter, and did not include all of the nasty snags and changeablity inherent in the delta of the Mississippi.

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The Tchefuncte River Lighthouse as it appeared in ...
Photo by: Jay C. Martin, Ph.D

There is little surprise then that the Tchefuncte, the main tributary flowing into Lake Pontchartrain from the north shore, allowed access to the interior to the north via the port of Madisonville at its mouth and the city of Covington at the rapids above. Given the remarkable changes of hands of New Orleans among the French, Spanish, and eventually the Americans, the north shore was during much of European history a separate international sphere. No less than Andrew Jackson in his travels to and from New Orleans saw the strategic importance of the Tchefuncte as it provided an alternate inland means of transportation in the south which was less vulnerable from attack than was New Orleans, an observation that was later shown as fact at the Battle of New Orleans in January 1815. At Jackson’s request, Congress appropriated resources and in 1817 a military road was cut from the Nashville 436 miles south to Madisonville.

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The newly restored Tchefuncte River Lighthouse, ...
Photo by: Lombard Broussard

Madisonville itself is not located on the coast of Lake Pontchartrain. The shores of that great lake were originally marshland that provided important buffers against hurricanes to the gradual elevations on all sides of the shallow lake. Madisonville was located on the first convenient high ground one and a half miles up the river, and on its west bank. Important trades in brick making, lumbering, commercial fishing, and shipbuilding developed as commercial activity grew and by 1834 Congress acknowledged the importance of the community and the tricky s-shaped entrance to the Tchefuncte by authorizing construction of a lighthouse there. Today, the lighthouse tower that exists is still backed to the north, east, and west by the Tchefuncte Marsh, one of the last large undeveloped wetlands on the north shore of Lake Pontchartrain. The viewshed that the lighthouse affords is one nearly untrammelled by development on normal days. On exceptionally clear days, the Lake Pontchartrain Causeway and the skyscrapers of downtown New Orleans are clearly visible.

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Fireworks over the Tchefuncte River Lighthouse ...
Photo by: Randy Bergeron, Southeastern Louisiana University.

The Tchefuncte River Light Station as authorized by Congress 1834 was to be a conical brick tower, 30-foot in height. Construction was delayed almost three years by problems with the land title, but by 1837 the tower was under construction. The lighthouse entered service in 1838 with ten Argand lamps and a parabolic reflector.

The first keeper was Benjamin Thurston, a native of Massachusetts who lived with his family in the small keepers cottage adjacent to the tower. Thurston, like later keepers, was close enough to town that even without a road he was able to carry on a reasonable social life with nearly daily visits. The light station had frequent visitors, some of whom no doubt enjoyed Thurston’s pet alligators captured from the Tchefuncte Marsh. One of the oak trees planted by Thurston still stands north of the lighthouse.

When the Civil War erupted, Madisonville was still one of the most import ports on the north shore of the lake. Trade to and from the Gulf flowed via the Rigolets at the east end of the lake and via New Orleans canals on the south shore between the lake and the Mississippi River. Madisonville therefore channelled trade to and from inland rivers and the ocean, primarily serving the town of Covington fifteen miles upriver. Regular steamer service between the New Orleans lakefront and Covington/Madisonville helped maintain close ties between the communities.

When New Orleans fell to Union forces in April 1862, Madisonville/Covington became seperated from their primary markets by the blockade of Lake Pontchartrain’s natural outlet to the Gulf at the Rigolets as well as to the largest metropolis. Smuggling between Union and Confederate lines was a serious concern for both sides. When General Benjamin Butler, commander of Union forces in New Orleans, decided in December 1862 to deport Confederate sympathizers, it was to Madisonville that they primarily were sent by ship. Attempts to settle issues with the Confederates led Union forces to occupy Madisonville in early 1864.

Confederate forces sniped at Union gunboats entering the Tchefuncte, leading to a brief bombardment of Madisonville that is still remembered today. Confederates burned the dwelling to make the lighthouse of as little use as possible to Union forces. In return, Union forces damaged the tower beyond repair. Union forces later occupied Madisonville briefly, but Confederate forces continued to use the lighthouse property as a lookout.

After the war, a federal auditor valued the remaining improvements at the Tchefuncte River Light Station at only $3,000, tied for the lowest in Louisiana with Pass Manchac forty miles to the southwest. But the importance of the port led to its resurrection. Reconstruction began in 1867. The tower was demolished, but was rebuilt on the same foundation, using many of the same bricks. The new tower was ten feet taller than the previous one, but this time was topped by the lantern room from Cat Island, Mississippi, moved over after that lighthouse was destroyed. The rebuilt lighthouse boasted a wooden keepers cottage for the single keeper and his family. The new lighthouse with a 5th order Fresnel lens entered service in 1868. The first post-war keeper was Union veteran William A. Stewart who was recognized for his bravery in piloting the USS Richmond past the guns of Fort Morgan in August 1864. Those loyal to the Union during the conflict were considered most worthy of appointment as lighthouse keepers in the south.

The station remained manned, but in 1903 became a rear range light to assist in marking the long maintained channel into the Tchefuncte. The forward range light was placed at the end of a long dock that pushed southward from the lighthouse directly toward the first sharp bend in the inbound channel. This dock and the breakwater that surrounded the peninsula on the south, east, and west sides was a perpetual problem to maintain. The property was repeatedly damaged by hurricanes.

In a June 30, 1926, U.S. Lighthouse Service inspection report, the “Chefuncte River Range Light Station” was described as: “. . . a one-keeper station, with main light, range light and bell fog signal . . .” The inspector further reported that “it was found that in order for the keeper to send his five children to school, it was necessary for him to pay 75¢ per day for their conveyance from the light station to Madisonville, La., a distance of more than three miles.” The inspector recommended that it is cheaper for the Lighthouse Service to pay transportation costs than to hire a teacher at $30 per month to board at the station.

The station was reached by a road for the first time in the 1920s and was electrified in 1935. The first telephone was installed in 1927, with keeper Schrieber agreeing to pay the costs for monthly service so that his family-including eight children — could have better communications with town.

The last keeper was William Still, who left his post in 1939 when the station was made unmanned. Even sans keeper the lighthouse played a critical role, guiding commercial vessels and recreational boats in and out of the river. In a small way the lighthouse also played a role in major operations of World War II. Not only did ships built in Madisonville for the war effort use the beacon as a guide, but as part of Andrew Higgins’ training school for operators of his landing craft, flotillas regularly traversed the twenty-four mile Lake Pontchartrain to the mouth of the Tchefuncte River on shake-down cruises before returning and storming the beaches of the south shore in battle exercises.

In 1952 the station was fully automated with solar power and in 1955 the 1880s-vintage cottage was sold and removed by barge to town. The cottage then took on a life of its own, serving as the residence for the local doctor, as a boat yard office, and as a camp at various times. In 2004 the cottage was donated to the town by John Poole and was moved to the grounds of the Lake Pontchartrain Basin Maritime Museum to await restoration before being reunited with the lighthouse.

In 1999 the lighthouse and property was transferred from the U.S. Coast Guard to the Town of Madisonville, which then signed a management agreement with the fledgling Lake Pontchartrain Basin Maritime Museum for its resurrection. A new museum opened in 2002 and an abortive attempt at restoration began in 2003, but was interupted by Hurricanes Katrina and Rita, which damaged the brickwork around the door and steps, and heavily eroded the peninsula on which the lighthouse stands.

The current restoration effort began with examination, planning, and site preparation in 2007 in cooperation with faculty and students from Southeastern Louisiana University. In the summer of 2008 restoration of the tower began with cleaning and repair of the damaged brickwork, the spiral stair, replacement of damaged woodwork inside the lantern room, and the replication of new doors for the main entrance and the lantern room. Much of the work to date has been funded by a generous gift from Boone and Debbie Kenyon, enthusiastic Tchefuncte River Lighthouse supporters. At this writing, new glass is about to be installed in the lantern room and work on the interior brickwork is expected to begin in the fall thanks to grants from the Institute of Museum

and Library Services/Southeastern Museum Conference and the Southeastern Louisiana University Development Foundation. The end of 2008 anticipates completion of tower restoration. To date, the project is 1.5 years ahead of schedule and substantially under budget.

Work to retard shoreline erosion threatening the lighthouse tower has been aided by faculty and students of Southeastern Louisiana University and is expected to be ongoing, as is planning for establishing access for visitors. Until safe access is established, the lighthouse property is off limits to visitors and is strictly monitored by local law enforcement. There is no access to the lighthouse by land, but it may be viewed from the Madisonville Lakefront Boat Launch at the south end of Highway 1077 (Main Street).

In the interim, the Lake Pontchartrain Basin Maritime Museum has established lighthouse exhibits and has a stamp for lighthouse passport books available for lighthouse afficanados. A lighthouse overnight program using the museum and the keepers cottage is ongoing with plans that groups that participate now will have first priority in reserving overnights at the lighthouse once the cottage is returned to the grounds.

On August 8, 2008, in belated celebration of National Lighthouse Day, the 140th anniversary of the tower, and the near completion of tower restoration efforts, the Lake Pontchartrain Basin Maritime Museum hosted a free public fireworks display over the lighthouse. Fenner’s Battery of Slidell, Louisiana, a group of Civil War reenactors, brought two artillery pieces with which they helped start the fireworks display in honor of the Union and Confederate forces of the Civil War that brought the old tower down, clearing the way for the present structure. Over one thousand people attended via land and water, many making donations to support future restoration efforts.

For more information on the Tchefuncte River Light Station Restoration Project on the World Wide Web, visit www.lpbmaritimemuseum.org. The Lake Pontchartrain Basin Maritime Museum and the Southeastern Louisiana University Development Foundation are the only two entities empowered to receive donations to support restoration of the Tchefuncte River Light Station. Direct your inquiries to 133 Mabel Drive, Madisonville, LA 70447 (985)845-9200.

This story appeared in the October 2008 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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