It was the practice of the early French explorers of the Mississippi to set up crosses on the bank of the river, sometimes engraved with the arms of the King, as a symbol of the establishment of French sovereignty over the lands of the valley. These crosses were also intended to serve as landmarks to aid returning vessels and were thus, in a sense, the earliest aids to navigation. The first such cross was erected by La Salle at the mouth of the river in 1682 and another was set up by Iberville, February 14, 1700, at Fort La Boulaye, the first settlement, about 18 leagues above the mouth. These crosses did not long remain standing, however, and it was not until after the founding of New Orleans by Bienville in 1718 that any real attempt was made to establish aids to navigation at the mouth of the Mississippi.
The first action in this direction taken by the Company of the Indies, under whose jurisdiction Louisiana was at the time, was contained in the "instructions for Monsieur LeBlond de La Tour, engineer in chief of Louisiana, the Sieurs de Pauger and de Boispinel, engineers in second to the said country, and the Sieur Franquet de Chaville, also engineer," issued November 8, 1719. Among other things they were directed to "not fail to have the entrance to the said river marked by two small towers on which fires could be made at night, and high enough to be discovered from far off during the day." Thus it was intended to mark the gateway to the vast empire upon which France had founded such high hopes.
It was not until December 14, 1720, that the ship Dromedaire bearing these engineers arrived at Biloxi, then capital of the colony. In January of the following year Adrien de Pauger visited the mouth of the river to take soundings and to draw up a plan of the passes as well as to study methods for deepening the channel over the bar and, no doubt, also to investigate the situation for the establishment of aids to navigation. At the same time De Pauger ascended the river to inspect the site which had been selected for the establishment of New Orleans. Having approved the site he set to work to lay out a plan for the new city, so it was not until April that he again left "to go to visit the mouth of the Mississippi, to sound it and to have a beacon placed at the entrance." He took with him an officer, four soldiers and three carpenters to erect this first beacon, "une balise" from which the outpost he established there derived its name. Father Charlevoix, who accompanied De Pauger to the Balise in July, 1721, and renamed the island "Toulouse" remarked that it had been called "the Balise on account of a Sea Mark which they have set up for the direction of ships."
DeLorme, member of the Superior Council of Louisiana, at the end of 1721 wrote that: "Pauger after having drawn up the plan of New Orleans, traced the alignments and distributed the sites, descended aboard the Santo Christ to the lower river and built a beacon sixty-two feet high." This beacon was one of the first aids to navigation established within the present limits of the United States, being antedated only by the noted Boston light which was first built in 1716. It may properly be regarded as marking the opening of the Mississippi to navigation and the beginning of the development of the port of New Orleans, to which small ships had previously come only by way of the lakes bringing goods which had been unloaded from larger vessels at Biloxi.
One of the first of the larger ships to enter the mouth of the river was the Aventurier commanded by Captain Berenger, which brought the engineers De la Tour and De Pauger to New Orleans. This captain had declared that it would be easier to have an elephant pass through the eye of a needle than to have his ship enter the pass of the river. However, on the insistence of the engineers, he made the attempt and succeeded, the Aventurier crossing the bar July 1, 1722.
This experience enabled the engineers to study conditions at the passes and to recommend that "it is absolutely necessary to have a pilot who examines and visits the channel every week and puts there some markers according to the changes which it shall make." A brigantine captain named Kerlasiou was recommended for this position. Kerlasiou died soon after, however, and the Sieur Fiou was appointed pilot, De Pauger presenting instructions for him to the Council at New Orleans on May 26, 1724. Included were the provisions that the council shall "send to this island about ten grapnels with as many buoys in order to mark the channel, and shall oblige the said Fiou to dislodge the trees and heavy roots which strand there, as well as to dredge it to dig it out when there are dredges, as well as to lend himself at his entire best in everything which shall concern the establishment of the island of the Balise. It will also be necessary to furnish him with flags for signals and even with cannon utensils, until there shall be a master cannoneer maintained on this island for the batteries." This use of buoys to mark the channel of the river is undoubtedly the earliest recorded use of such aids to navigation, other available records not indicating buoyage of navigable waterways in this country earlier than 1767 when buoys were found in use in the Delaware River.
On March 4, 1722, Bienville, Commandant General of the Colony, reported to the Navy Minister in Paris on the "new lights which we have at the entrance of the Mississippi River." Bienville's report, however, contains no details regarding these lights as he enclosed De Pauger's report covering the subject. The engineer's letter unfortunately was not found attached in the Paris archives. It is probable that these first lights were of a temporary character, and it was not until De Pauger submitted his project for the fortification of the small island on the east bank of the channel opposite the island of the Balise, that he included a permanent light structure. This structure is shown on two drawings dated May 29, 1724, the first being a detailed plan of the mouth of the river and the other a plan, section, and elevation of the projected battery. This battery was to be a semicircular earthwork surrounded by a bulkhead of pilings. In its center was a hexagonal wooden tower with a cupola intended to contain a brazier in which tar could be burned to furnish the light. Also included in the project was a tall flagstaff on which a large flag was displayed to serve also as a beacon.
It is not known whether or not the tower was ever erected, but it was evidently intended to be one of the two towers whose erection had been ordered in the engineers' first instructions. The battery and the flagstaff were, however, definitely erected for it was here that the Ursuline nuns first landed in 1727 from their ship the Gironde which could not cross the bar. They were greeted here by Bernard de Verges, engineer and pupil of De Pauger, who had taken over the works after his superior's death in 1726. One of the nuns kept a very detailed account of their voyage and recorded that the engineer had run up a flag on the staff as a signal to the island of the Balise.
The light tower for the western side of the river entrance was included in the design which De Pauger made for a chapel, which curiously was to serve also as a warehouse for the Spanish Commerce and to which were attached lodgings for the commandant, the chaplain, and the engineer. The light was to be exhibited from a cupola similar to that on the tower on the opposite side of the channel.
The light was not to burn constantly but according to De Pauger's note "the small cupola will serve as a beacon in order to put a fire there when there shall be ships at the Coast." This cupola served as a landmark for many years and frequent references to itare made in the log books of early ships. It is also shown in an interesting sketch made from aboard the Gironde in passing the Balise on February 12, 1736. This sketch also shows many other buildings erected on the island which by then had become an important establishment. Included also was the usual flagstaff and flag.
The post of the Balise having become firmly established, the project was made for the erection of a permanent brick lighthouse. In this regard, Salmon, Intendant of the Colony, wrote to the Navy Minister on February 11, 1733:
The entrance of the river in the Gulf of Mexico is so difficult to find because the lands of the Balise are at sea level, that ship captains not accustomed to it find themselves very embarrassed to land there. The ship St. Rene of Bordeaux fell too far to the west for this reason although the captain and his second had already made voyages here, stronger reason that those who do not know should fall in this way. Several persons with whom I have conferred, have assured me that the surest means of giving a recognition to the Balise would be to maintain a fire there. That could be easily done by building on the point nearest the sea, a brick tower on the top of which there would be a great brazier of cast iron, as there are several of them here belonging to the Company, and to burn some tar there. It would cost about 150 or 200 barrels of tar a year. In regard to the expense of the tower, it would not be considerable. They make brick and lime from shells on the spot.
This proposition, with which a drawing of the proposed tower was submitted, was not received favorably at the French Court and on April 8, 1734, Bienville and Salmon again wrote to the Minister, Maurepas:
In regard to the proposal made by Sieur Salmon's letter of the tenth of May of last year for the construction of a fire tower to serve as a lighthouse for the vessels that are approaching The Balize, we shall comply with your Lordship's orders and we shall not undertake anything on this occasion. It is true that this tower might be useful in time of peace for the safety of the vessels that are approaching the entrance to the river because of the mists that prevail during a large part of the year in these regions. Mr. de Beliveau will be able to tell you that he was in this situation on his arrival at the Balise, having remained ten to twelve days on the Coast without knowing where he was and without perceiving the land which he approached as near as the range of a gun. But there would also result from it some difficulties in time of war because of the facility that the enemy would find in entering the river. That is why we entreat you, when the situation arises, to give signals to the French vessels destined for this colony to have us informed of it in advance.
Nothing further was done toward improving aids to navigation although considerable funds were expended in the erection of other buildings at the Balise. All this work, however, proved useless as the island began to sink and a survey in 1749 revealed that most of the buildings had been flooded and were. in a state of final decay, including the chapel with its lighthouse tower which was then in danger of imminent collapse. It was, therefore, decided in 1754 to abandon the Balise and to establish in its place a floating post "destined to defend in part the entrance of the river and to serve as depot for aids to navigation." A big ship would be necessary but as France was then at war with England, it would not be sent for fear of being intercepted.
During this war, the ship Opal, sent from New Orleans to Vera Cruz to replenish the colony's empty powder magazine, was pursued on returning by four English ships. Arriving at the Balise at evening, her commander succeeded in saving her by entering the pass at night by means of lanterns placed on buoys, although the stage of the river was then very low. This was in September, 1760.
This expedient placing of lanterns on the buoys of the Mississippi made of them the first known lighted buoys, nearly a century and a half prior to the putting in to service in 1881 of the first lighted buoy, burning oil gas, outside New York Harbor.
It was not long after this that the colony was transferred to Spain and the Spanish Governor Ulloa re-established the Balise farther up the pass. The Spaniards, however, did not do much in the way of improvements at the mouth of the river, which was little more than a pilot's post. At the time the colony was returned to France in 1802 the Balise was described as "consisting of a tower constructed in open work of 54 feet of height by 8 feet square. This tower is built on a house constructed in wood, serving as guard house and as quarters for the troops. It is constructed to serve as block house. In addition [there is] a house serving as lodging to the customs guard." Vinache, Chief of the Battalion of Engineers, who with Laussat, French Colonial Prefect, made a survey of conditions in the colony, said in his military memoirs:
The post of the Balise situated a short distance from the month of the Mississippi on the right bank can be considered only as serving as a recognition to the boats coming from the open sea to enter the river. A tower constructed in wood of 45 feet elevation facilitates its recognition at five leagues at sea. This tower has only existed since about eight years. It is scarcely known to our navigators, and is not even yet indicated on the charts.
While negotiation for the purchase of Louisiana by the United States was still in progress, Albert Gallatin, Secretary of the Treasury, was compiling data on the requirements for aids to navigation at the mouth of the Mississippi. On September 15, 1803, while at Commodore Nicholson's at Greenwich, near New York, the Secretary received a memoire from John Pintard who had visited New Orleans in 1801. Pintard wrote:
The Balise is a sorry watch tower on the west side of the river near its mouth not exceeding 40 feet in height, indiscernible at any great distance from the coast, and not being lighted, of no use at night. A new Lighthouse is absolutely essential—Iasked the question whether the two Governments of Spain and America ought not to have provided at mutual expense a new building with oil &c &c this could only be resolved at Madrid. Under one power it is more easily to be decided. The building can only be of wood, as no adequate foundation for a weightier superstructure can be had. As the deposits of the Mississippi continually prolong this part of the continent, it might be well to advance the new building as near the mouths of the river as possible and leave the old Balise standing to serve as a landmark to take the bearings of the coast, which ought to be minutely surveyed to ascertain the various mouths of the river, bars, water, accessibility &c of all which we are profoundly ignorant.
Pilots.—Twenty-four pilots are maintained by the Government at the Balise—they are chiefly Spaniards of course lazy in the extreme—& never go off to a ship at any distance—using rowboats only. By this negligence strange vessels suffer materially—& having nearly made the mouth of the river for want of knowing how to come to anchor, are obliged to run off at night & lose many days. Every vessel without distinction pays $20 pilotage. Each pilot has moreover a dollar per day perquisite whilst actually engaged aboard of ship, which is seldom more than one or two days. The Bar affords 12 feet of water, & a ship may drive thro' 2 or 3 feet mud. The Bar shifts continually. A customhouse officer is put on board at the Balise, who is much disappointed if he be not bribed to permit smuggling as the vessel ascends the river.
Major Amos Stoddard, who visited the newly acquired territory, wrote that in 1805 or 1806 "on the south side of the East Pass, about three miles from the bar is the pilot house, a framed look out house, about sixty feet high, where several men reside. They make use of row boats, and seldom venture out to sea except in good weather." A sketch supposed to have been made in 1804 appeared in De Bow's Commercial Review in May, 1847, and showed this tower, a square pagoda—like structure with a few scattered houses near its base.
A book on sailing directions published at Madrid in 1810 remarked that "the entrance to the pass [east] as to all the rest, is so barren of landmarks, that it could not be known but for the flagstaff, where a large flag is hoisted when a vessel is seen in the offing." Thus the same type of beacon is found still in use as was found there nearly a century before.
However, the United States had already taken steps toward the establishment of a permanent light and on May 5, 1806, Mr. Lewis Dumain (or Louis De Munn) of the office of Benjamin Latrobe, Surveyor of the United States, was directed to go to Louisiana to survey the coasts and to observe the places in which the erection of lighthouses, beacons, or floating buoys would be useful, and also to select a site for a lighthouse at the mouth of the Mississippi already authorized by law. Dumain completed his survey the following year and selected an island below the Balise, although he found the foundation near the old blockhouse superior.
Before any further action was taken, the War of 1812 intervened and the project was temporarily abandoned. As soon as peace was re-established, however, steps were taken for its consummation. A commission was appointed June 15, 1816, composed of P. L. B. Duplessis, Collector at New Orleans, Commodore Daniel T. Patterson of the Navy who had commanded at the Battle of New Orleans, and Henry S. Latrobe, son of the surveyor of the United States who had come to New Orleans in 1811 ("from the United States" according to a contemporary account of his arrival) to complete the installation of the city's waterworks for his father. His sister Lydia was the wife of Nicholas Roosevelt, who had in 1811 built the New Orleans, first steamboat on the Mississippi. This commission executed its task faithfully and Latrobe made a plan for the proposed lighthouse which was said to have been surpassed as a work of engineering only by the Eddystone Light and in architectural magnificence only by the celebrated light of the Cardouan at the mouth of the Gironde in France, erected by Louis de Fois, architect for Henry III in 1584-1610. The new Mississippi lighthouse according to contemporary newspapers was to be "on a scale and in a style commensurate with the magnitude of the trade of that river."
The commission's report submitted November 12, 1816, besides including the plan of the proposed lighthouse and a location map of the site selected on Frank's Island near the North East Pass, also included detailed descriptions of the type of foundation recommended. The soil was carefully examined and the Commission stated, without hesitation, that a building of the heaviest materials could be safely erected. The cost of the brick building proposed was estimated at $80,000 to $90,000, a sum far exceeding the cost of any other lighthouse in the United States at that time. The colonnade, the cornice of the lower story, the cap and the platform, and the stairway were to be of stone, the remainder of brick plastered, the lantern to be of iron. A building of wood was not recommended because of the hazards of fire and hurricane.
A permanent floating light was also considered inexpedient because of the danger from driftwood as well as hurricane, and the general uncertainty and insecurity of such lights. As a temporary light, it was proposed to repair the blockhouse at the Balise, which could afterward continue to serve the pilots and customs officials. The cost of such necessary repairs would not be more than a fourth of the least estimate for a temporary floating light.
The recommendations of the Commission were apparently approved and acted upon, necessary appropriations being secured and the Louisiana Legislature enthusiastically ceding the necessary land for the project. An act to authorize the Governor of the State to cede to the United States the jurisdiction over Frank's Island near the North East Pass of the Mississippi River, for the purpose of building a lighthouse, was approved March 2, 1818.
Henry Latrobe, the architect, who had received $200 for his design, died in New Orleans of yellow fever September 3, 1817, before work on the building was begun. A contract for its erection was entered into with Winslow Lewis of Boston and in April, 1818, the brig Triton from that city arrived at the Balise with materials for the structure.
In a report to the House of Representatives of March 11, 1820, the Treasury Department stated that it was expected tohave the building completed and ready for lighting by April 1. However, the structure hadbegun to show signs of dangerous settlement and large cracks had appeared in its walls. A keeper was appointed at a salary of $400 per year with the provision that his services would not be required in case the lighthouse should fall. It did fall just eight days before its scheduled completion when only the lantern remained to be set in place. The work was abandoned in this state by the builder Lewis, and it was proposed to engage Mr. Latrobe, father of the original architect who also claimed credit for the design, and who was then in New Orleans, or some other architect of reputation to examine the building and report on the possibility of safelycompleting it. Latrobe, too, after submitting his report and establishing a temporary light in the blockhouse of the Balise, died of yellow fever, and a Mr. Jenkins reported that "nothing more can or ought to be done with the lighthouse on its present foundation." It was then decided to make trial of a floating light and to use the materials to erect the lighthouse on Mobile Point, which was built in 1822, selling the stone columns and the remaining bricks.
Winslow Lewis then proposed to rebuild the lighthouse on a new foundation designed by himself which he would guarantee and for a price of only $9,750. This proposition was accepted and the tower which still stands as a beacon near the northeast pass was erected. On the face of this ruined tower which has sunk deep into the marsh is a marble slab with the following inscription.
Erected in 1823
Contracted for by Winslow Lewis of Boston
Executed by Benjamin Beale and Duncan Mac B. Thaxter
According to Robert Mills' American Pharos or Lighthouse Guide, published in1832, it was known as the Mississippi Light. Of it he says, "This light is stationary, and situated on Frank's Island, the NE pass of the Mississippi River, in latitude 29° 10', longitude 89° 03'. The light is elevated 78' above the common level of the sea and can be seen 6 leagues in clear weather." Thetower was painted white with the dome black, and was "fitted up with patent lamps and reflectors, on the plan originally contemplated for the lighthouse first erected on said island." The light list of 1942 refers to it as Northeast Pass Beacon, grayish white unused lighthouse tower on north side of the Northeast Pass.
This light, according to congressional report, continued in operation until 1855, when it was recommended that when "the tower at Pass a l'Outre shall have been lighted up, the light at the NE pass will be of no further service and should be dispensed with. I recommend that an act of Congress be passed for its discontinuance. The tower should be permitted to stand as a day beacon, and in the future change of the channels it may possibly be of service. The dwelling is of no value. The ground might be used as a garden by the keeper of the Pass a l'Outre."
It is unfortunate that due to failure of the original foundations, America should have been deprived of an important monument which must have been one of the most ambitious works of the Greek revival. It was perhaps the only building of that architectural epoch to have been built with a complete circular colonnade. Such a colonnade was included in Robert Mills' original design for the Washington Monument, and Mills may have been influenced by Latrobe's earlier design for the lighthouse which Mills, who was a pupil and associate of Latrobe's father, may have seen.
The old tower was still standing and showing no sign of cracks although all the wood lintels, stairs, etc., were entirely gone when the author visited the ruin with a group of Sea Scouts in 1934. The ruins, about which the inhabitants of Pilottown tell fantastic tales of ghosts and enormous snakes, are in fact completely infested with snakes of various kinds and sizes.
Another light was erected at South Pass in 1831 and the same year one was erected at Southwest Pass. This latter is still standing as Southwest Pass Beacon, a grayish white conical brick unused lighthouse tower on northwest side of pass. The light at Pass a l'Outre has also been long abandoned and remains as Pass a l'Outre Beacon, a black and white spirally banded tower on the north side of the mouth of the pass, 76 feet high.
It is interesting to recall that the French, who established these first aids, have for centuries been the foremost leaders in the development of aids to navigation and the dioptric system of lenses developed byFresnel in 1822 is in use throughout the world. Many of the lenses of the Mississippi River Lights of today are the products of French manufacturers.
The hopes and efforts of early pioneers to establish and maintain aids to navigation at the mouth of the Mississippi have finally been realized, this river now being among the world's best lighted and marked waterways.
Boatswain's Mate Wilson is a graduate of Tulane University's School of Architecture and a member of the American Institute of Architects and of the American Society of Architectural Historians. He has been commander of the Sea Scout ship Bienville since 1933, and is now a member of the engineering staff of the Coast Guard Reserve. His research for this article was done partly in Paris under the Edward Langley Scholarship, and partly for the National Park Service.