It is not uncommon for us, from time to time, to publish photos of lighthouse facsimiles; however, for the most part, only a very small number of these structures have any kind of “real” history behind them.
One of those exceptions is Biloxi, Mississippi’s Baldwin Wood Lighthouse that we briefly mentioned in Lighthouse Digest a number of years ago. I had almost forgotten about the structure, until I received an old photograph of the lighthouse from Suzanne Giaimo, which really captures the essence of the lighthouse much better than the vintage postcard we had in our archives. The photograph was taken either by Suzanna Giaimo’s great grandfather T.P. Dulion, or by her grandfather Theodore Roy Dulion. It shows a horse drawn carriage passing the very impressive lighthouse and its well manicured grounds.
The receipt of the old photograph led me on a search to get the story behind the lighthouse. This research took me down many different roads that uncovered many conflicting stories. It also proves that information found on the Internet is only as good as the person who posted it there and what can often be taken from secondary and sometimes unreliable sources.
A number of accounts indicate that the lighthouse was built by engineer and inventor Albert Baldwin Wood (1879-1956) the man who spearheaded the reclamation of the swampland to develop much of the land that is now occupied by the City of New Orleans, Louisiana.
According to Wikipedia, Wood invented “flapgates” and other hydraulic devices, most notably the Wood Screw Pump in 1913 and the Wood Trash Pump in 1915. He also worked with the Zuiderzee Works, which reclaimed large areas of land from the Zuider Zee in the Netherlands. All in all, Wood held 38 different patents for his inventions. In researching Wood, I found his life story and accomplishments to be nothing short of amazing, and obviously more than I could write about in this story, which is supposed to be about the lighthouse. But, Albert Baldwin Wood’s life story should be required research reading by every engineering, maritime and history student.
In researching the lighthouse, I found that it had a strong connection to Wood’s avocation as a sailor on his historic sloop, the Nydia, that he purchased in 1903 and kept moored by his home in Biloxi, Mississippi. According to a report by the American Society of Mechanical Engineers, the Nydia was named for the blind girl in “The Last Days of Pompeii.” Wood was an excellent sailor and navigator, and frequently cruised alone and away from everybody and everything, “communicating with nature,” as he termed it.
An interesting story is told about one of those sailing trips when he found what he thought was a quiet cove on the coast of Florida where he pulled in for the night. However, he was rudely awakened in the morning with explosions in the waters all around him. He had mistakenly stumbled onto a restricted area that was a bombing range. He barely escaped with his life as he sailed out of the area.
An article in American Heritage by Sebastian Junger reported that it was after escaped convicts stole Wood’s boat, the Nydia, which was later recovered, that Wood decided to build himself a lighthouse with a beacon that would shine directly on his vessel at nighttime. However, the vintage postcard of the Baldwin Wood Lighthouse in our archives claims on its written description on its reverse side that the lighthouse was built about 1875. If this were true, the lighthouse would have been built four years before Wood was born, so he couldn’t possibly have built the structure. A description on other old documents found in our research indicated that the architectural design of the lighthouse blended in with the architectural design of the Howard home and its carriage house. This would mean that the lighthouse, which has often been referred to in some old documents as the Howard-Wood Lighthouse, might have been built by the Frank T. Howard who owned the estate before Wood purchased it in 1912.
However, old descriptions and the use of the name Howard-Wood Lighthouse still didn’t prove that Howard built the lighthouse, because names of previous owners of large estates are often carried forward by new owners, reporters and public officials of the time. The lighthouse could also have been built by Wood at a later date to blend in with the property, so the mystery was still not solved about who built the lighthouse or when.
Although it is unlikely that the postcard manufacturer made up the approximate date of 1875; we have seen, over the years, a number of old postcards with incorrect information. Unfortunately, many of Biloxi’s old historical records had been destroyed in the various hurricanes that devastated the area over the years, especially Hurricane Camille in 1969 and later Hurricane Katrina in 2005; which can sometimes make research difficult.
Then, while searching through on-line documents from Tulane University, which up until recently had care of the Nydia, they reported that Wood purchased a large search light to shine upon the Nydia at nighttime. Then I discovered a story in the August, 1972 edition of New Orleans Magazine, from research done at that time by Ray Thompson, which confirmed that a floodlight was indeed installed in the lantern room of the lighthouse to shine its beam upon the Nydia at night. But, because of the conflicting reports, we still didn’t know who built the lighthouse or when.
However, that all changed when we received an 1889 Sanborn Insurance Map of Biloxi which was supplied by Edmond Boudreaux of the Mississippi Coast Historical and Genealogical Society, which shows the lighthouse on its survey. So we now knew the lighthouse was standing in 1899. This would now lead us to believe that the postcard was likely correct is its construction date of approximately 1875. Further documentation located and supplied to us by Mr. Boudreaux confirmed that the Howard family acquired the property in 1861, which would mean that, although the lighthouse bore the Wood name, it was not built by A. Baldwin Wood, but was built most likely by Frank T. Howard.
Because of these uncovered facts, one could easily state that the original name “Howard-Wood Lighthouse,” which was used for many years, should in fact be the true name of the lighthouse, rather than the name “Baldwin Wood Lighthouse,” which is the name we know it as today.
It was widely reported that Wood often said that when he died, he hoped it would be on his boat the Nydia. Proving once again that fact is stranger than fiction, that is exactly what happened on May 10, 1956 when Wood suffered a fatal heart attack while sailing. A Biloxi newspaper, in reporting his death, said that he had “A long life filled with accomplishment, the engineer who will always be known as the creator of the largest pumps in the world – the executive whose integrity was so sharply defined that he would not accept, no matter how small, the usual seasonal gifts or tokens of esteem from salesmen, manufacturers, or contractors with whom he did business – a man whose dislike for personal publicity was so pronounced – a citizen whose steadfastness would not permit him to budge an inch from what he considered right and ethical.”
Wood’s will, in bequeathing a large sum of money to Tulane University, provided that his boat the Nydia be preserved by the University for 99 years. The vessel, which amazingly survived the area’s many hurricanes, will soon go on display at the Biloxi Maritime and Seafood Industry Museum that is being rebuilt after having been destroyed by Hurricane Katrina. Interestingly Wood’s Biloxi home was less than a mile from the new home where the rebuilt museum will be located.
Also interesting is the fact that the Baldwin Wood Home, once owned by Frank T. Howard, was eventually acquired by the City of Biloxi to use as a cultural attraction, and it became known as The House of Treasure and was sometimes referred to as The Treasure House. The Victorian style home had a valuable collection of silver, china, porcelain, tapestries and valuable objects of art. When the restored house opened to the public in 1964, reporter Catherine Campbell wrote, “Travelers along Highway 90 are invited into the grounds by a sign announcing the place and by an attractive lighthouse, freshly restored with natural finished siding and white trim, at the front of the property.”
However, the Baldwin Wood Lighthouse and the Treasure House did not have the same fortune as the sloop Nydia. In 1969, only a few years after having been restored, Hurricane Camille smashed the lighthouse to pieces and washed its remains out to sea. Accounts of the time also reported that the Treasure House, although left standing, was gutted by the storm surge and many of its artifacts were lost or totally ruined.
Although the lighthouse is gone, having been lost to the pages of time, its story and memory have now been saved for future generations.
Perhaps, just perhaps, sometime in the future, the day will come when a replica of the Baldwin Wood Lighthouse can be rebuilt near Wood’s beloved vessel, the Nydia, and their history will again be reunited.
This story appeared in the
Mar/Apr 2011 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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