Heart of Louisiana: Lighthouses

Updated: Feb. 15, 2018 at 7:53 PM CST
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(WVUE) - For more than 150 years, these old lighthouses have marked the entrances to rivers and ports across coastal Louisiana. But most of the old structures have fallen victim to hurricanes, sinking land and newer technology.

If you've been around long enough to remember the Pontchartrain Beach Amusement Park, then you'll remember this lighthouse. It's one of the oldest around and it's still standing.

"The Milneburg Lighthouse was built actually in 1832," says Joann Haydel. "There was a train called the Smokey Mary along Elysian Fields, present day Elysian Fields, that would take visitors to the Lakefront."

After Hurricane Katrina, the Lake Pontchartrain Basin Foundation rebuilt this historic lighthouse at the New Basin Canal. It's the fourth structure on this site. The first was built in 1839.

"Here at New Canal Lighthouse, we've had five female lightkeepers since the 1840's. We actually boast the most female keepers of any lighthouse," says Haydel.

One of those female lightkeepers was Madge Norvell, who single-handedly rescued a downed Navy pilot in her rowboat and helped save passengers from a burning steamship.

"Margaret saw it happen and she called out to all the commercial fishermen via radio and was able to get everyone over there to rescue all 200 people," says Haydel. "She was quite the hero."

Directly across Lake Pontchartrain, the Tchefuncte River Lighthouse began operation in 1837.

"It was built before the Civil War, was destroyed during the Civil War and then rebuilt, I believe, in 1868, I believe. And it's still a functioning lighthouse. It's a privately-owned aid to navigation" says Lynn Haase.

Recent hurricanes destroyed the Pass Manchac Lighthouse and Katrina completely washed away the light tower at the Chaneleur Islands.

"The lighthouse is 85 feet tall," says Carolyn Miller.

At the southwest corner of the state, where Louisiana meets Texas, this lighthouse was built at Sabine Pass in 1856.

"The buttresses that are holding it up, it looks like a spaceship," says Miller.

With its 16-inch-thick brick walls, this octagon-shaped structure has withstood some of the strongest hurricanes to strike Louisiana.

A Cameron Parish group is trying to raise funds to stabilize and restore the lighthouse.

"It's just a piece of history that needs to be saved," says Miller.

And that's a common feeling toward Louisiana's few remaining lighthouses. They are historic, they've weathered a lot of storms and it seems like they should be saved.

You can visit a museum in New Orleans at the New Basin Canal Lighthouse on the Lakefront. And in Madisonville, there is an extensive display on Louisiana Lighthouses at the Lake Pontchartrain Maritime Museum.

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