On a brisk warm fall morning, a boatload of lighthouse aficionados made their way out to Pass Manchac Light in Louisiana. Barely getting out of the Madisonville Harbor before the opening of the annual Wooden Boat Show, which is a huge event for the little town of Madisonville, the group first passed Tchefuncte River Lighthouse, built in 1837, a white brick tower with a wide black stripe down its side.
Within the hour, the boat arrived at Pass Manchac, a narrow watercourse connecting Lake Maurepas to Lake Pontchartrain. The brick lighthouse, which is the fourth structure at the site, and currently on the doomsday list of Lighthouse Digest, was once on a 16-acre peninsula, but is now surrounded by water, stranded about 1000 feet offshore, with debris from its former keeper’s house doubling as a pelican roost.
Guided around the structure by our boat captain, Ben Taylor, a Hammond businessman and president of the Manchac Lighthouse Committee, we noticed a definite list in the lighthouse of about 7 degrees, according to published reports. The Manchac Lighthouse Committee is a recent offshoot of the Lake Maurepas Society. Current officers are Taylor, president, Dwight Williams, vice president, Lamar Bevil, secretary and Jason Smith, treasurer.
After about five years of trying to raise funds through “poker runs,” student dances, other local activities and some donations, Taylor and his small group of volunteers helped spearhead a change in ownership of the lighthouse from the Coast Guard to the State of Louisiana on December 28, 1999. Seeking help for such a tremendous project, Taylor had taken a group of interested politicians out on a trip to the lighthouse in October, 1996, which got the ball rolling in both the federal and state legislatures.
Among his guests were state representative Henry “Tank” Powell, a field representative from U. S. Rep. Bob Livingston’s office, Ponchatoula Mayor Julian Defreche, and Port Manchac Director John Ware. Taylor credits former representative Livingston with setting in motion the transfer of ownership. Although the process dragged on after Livingston’s tenure, the issue was finally approved by Congress during the term of U. S. Rep. David Vitter, who took Livingston’s place and who called it “a late Christmas present.”
When U. S. Coast Guard Rear Adm. Erroll M. Brown signed over the title of the lighthouse and an eight-acre block of land to the State of Louisiana, the committee and many volunteers were delighted. Clay Carter of the state's Office of Land said Mississippi engineer Wallace “Wally” Burns of Waveland now has the job of studying# the structure and making recommendations on its stabilization.
Though it was suggested that it be moved back onto land, Taylor said, “That idea is out. It would have lost its historical integrity, and we didn't want that.” The lighthouse is listed on the National Register of Historic Places.
Other ideas proposed rebuilding the keeper's dwelling and turning it into a recreational site. Taylor believes that the number one priority is to secure the foundation to prevent the lighthouse from falling, and that should be Phase I. Phase II should be include a new foundation, painting and relighting.
Perhaps one reason the transfer of ownership was made was the availability of state money for the stabilization of the lighthouse. While the efforts of local volunteers had raised only $16,000, the state approved $230,000 in mid-1999 for the lighthouse. Taylor said the funds the volunteer group had raised became a local match#±h to justify the state's spending almost a quarter million on the project, and will help in the maintenance of the lighthouse, once it is restored. Helping with the state funds were Powell, State Senator John Hainkel and Governor Mike Foster.
Taylor also credits the executive director of the Lake Pontchartrain Basin Foundation, Carlton Dufrechou, for introducing him to the people who were powerful enough to help acquire the funds to restore the lighthouse.
The lighthouse was decommissioned by the Coast Guard in 1987, but its continued ownership by the federal government prevented any local historical groups from preventing its decline.
According to the late David Cipra, in his book Lighthouses, Lightships and the Gulf of Mexico, Pass Manchac was one of the sites included in the system of five Lake Pontchartrain lights conceived by the New Orleans customs collector. The others are located at The Rigolets, at the New Orleans Lakef#ront, at the West End and the aforementioned, at the mouth of the Tchefuncte River.
In 1837, $6000 became available to build a lighthouse guiding vessels to the narrow pass. Francis D. Gott of New Orleans built the tower of brick on the same generic plan as the Tchefuncte River lighthouse. The newly built lighthouse had a red light visible for thirteen miles. The first keeper, Isaac Zachary, was appointed on Jan. 16, 1839, followed by Levi Wells. Due to erosion and the “mud” mortar used, the lighthouse became unstable and was rebuilt in 1842, in 1846, and was rebuilt the fourth time in 1857.
According to Cipra, the fourth tower's brick foundation was to be three feet thick and eight feet high, laid atop a timber grillage. The light was elevated 45 feet above the lake. The lighthouse was completed in 1857 and used the old reflector lights for illumination. The Board supplied a fourth-order lens, first exhibited in February 18#59 by Bartholomew Settson. Confederate authorities removed the lens on September 18, 1861, and stored it at the New Canal station. Federal occupying forces captured it there.
Following the Civil War, during which time both the Union and Confederates bombarded the lighthouse, it was severely damaged and had to be repaired. According to Cipra, “A description of required repairs implies that a charge went off in the lantern. The four-inch-thick, granite lantern deck was shattered; the lantern required replacement. Engineer Max Bonzano reported, “As might be expected, there was all possible damage done, such as carrying away doors, windows, breaking the lantern glass by making a target of it.” He supplied a fifth-order lens; the brick keeper's quarters received new woodwork. Repairs took less than two months, completed in mid-January 1867.”
The two-story keeper's house that adjoined the tower had windows in the connecting wall#, allowing a clear view from the house through the lighthouse.
In 1868, Anthony Succow was appointed keeper and was succeeded by his wife Mary in 1873 and then by their son, Hugo in 1909. In 1915, a terrified three-year old girl, Mary Rose Succow (now Allen) huddled in her father’s arms while hurricane winds crashed against the thick walls of the lighthouse. The now 87 year old Mrs. Allen said when her mother started praying, the winds calmed. That storm is Allen's earliest memory of the Manchac Lighthouse. (Taylor said he was surprised and delighted when she showed up at one of their meetings.)
She, a younger sister and brother and her parents, Anthony and Mary Jane Succow, lived at the lighthouse until she was nine. In an earlier newspaper report, Allen is quoted as saying, “We had a garden and a small farm with chickens and cows. Now it's out in the water and it's falling down.”# She said she led an idyllic life on the island with her younger siblings. They spent their days running barefoot and gathering softshell crabs, fishing and exploring. She remembers her father rowing out to the beacons to fill the kerosene lamps weekly. Every night, he would climb the spiral staircase to light the coal oil lamp of the lighthouse. When she was nine, her parents decided their children should attend school, and moved to Manchac, but continued to go out the lighthouse to fish. She was disappointed in its condition when she took a boat trip out to see the old lighthouse in 1997.
The station was automated in 1941 with a small electrified lens, and its last keeper, Louis Barbier, was placed in charge of a nearby light attendant station. (Barbier died last year in Louisiana at age 102.)
An aerial# photo in 1943 shows the lighthouse still on land, but by the early 1950’s, it was on an island, as the land had eroded away, separating it from the mainland. In 1952, the keeper's dwelling was razed to prevent vagrants from living there.
When the Coast Guard decommissioned it in 1987, they also stopped maintaining it and it has been on a constant decline since. Although a few citizens spoke up on behalf of the lighthouse in the ensuing years, nothing was done until the Lake Maurepas Society formed in 1995. After becoming discouraged with the huge task involved in the restoration of the lighthouse, the work was turned over to a new group formed in 1999, the Manchac Lighthouse Committee, which will enter into an agreement with the state as the managi#ng agent of the restored lighthouse. The group is now a non-profit agency.
In 1999, measurements were made to determine how far the lighthouse’s foundation had sunk into the water, which was estimated at about five feet. Underwater archeologist Alan Saltus tried searching for items near the base to provide more insight into its history, but the waters were too murky from several days of rain.
Dr. Bob Hastings, a professor at Southeastern Louisiana University and director of Turtle Cove Research Center, stated at the time that “if there is something of historical value, we want to salvage it.”
Our trip out to see this historical site was one that most people on shore don’t get to see (although it seemed that everyone in the local area must own a boat, judging from the harbor traffic when we returned to port).
The endangered lighthouse, which provided safety for thousands of mariners, will now soon be saved by, perhaps, descendants of those same mariners and other interested volunteers.
One of them, Taylor, the most vocal proponent of preserving the lighthouse, is himself in the business of preserving lives, as the president of Taylortec, Inc., makers of personal flotation devices. And, while saving lives is more important than saving lighthouses, many people are happy that Taylor decided to do both, and will be delighted to see the once elegant lighthouse at Pass Manchac taken off the doomsday list and restored to its former glory.
This story appeared in the
January 2001 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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