Let there be light: The history of the Madisonville lighthouse
The landmark lighthouse at the mouth of the Tchefuncte River in Madisonville was built in 1837. It was badly damaged during the Civil War when Union forces reportedly blew it up to take out local snipers, but it was rebuilt in 1867 and ’68 with many of the original bricks. Humans operated it until 1939, when the U.S. Coast Guard automated the lighthouse, which has been a beacon to navigators plying the river and Lake Pontchartrain for 180 years.
The lighthouse, which was turned over to the city of Madisonville in 1999, is accessible only by boat today because erosion has washed away the road that once led to it. It is operated by the Lake Pontchartrain Basin Maritime Museum, which is in Madisonville. It can be viewed from the Tchefuncte River entrance channel or from shore at the southern end of Highway 1077, but local police enforce a strict no trespassing police on the lighthouse grounds themselves.
- Congress appropriated $5,000 in 1834 ($121,750 in 2017 dollars) to build the 36-foot tower. The original light consisted of nine lamps backed by 14-inch reflectors. It was finished in 1837.
- The first lighthouse keeper was Benjamin Thurston, whose annual salary was $500 ($10,742.65 in 2017 dollars). He had company: pet alligators.
- When the lighthouse was rebuilt after the Civil War, it was capped with the lantern room from the Cat Island Lighthouse, which had stood off the Mississippi Coast until Confederate forces destroyed it during the Civil War.
- The first post-Civil War lighthouse keeper was William A. Stewart. He had served aboard the U.S.S. Richmond, which had been part of the Union fleet under Adm. David Farragut in the Battle of Mobile Bay, which Union forces won.
- The lighthouse keeper with the longest tenure was Frederick Schrieber, who served from 1920 to 1935. He and his wife lived in the keeper’s house with their seven children, three of whom were born while he was the keeper.
- Technological advances: A telephone was installed in 1927, and electricity arrived in 1935.
- The last keeper was William Still, who left in 1939, when the lighthouse was automated.
- The lighthouse, which was added to the National Register of Historic Places in 1986, was featured in “The Curious Case of Benjamin Button” (2008), the Oscar-nominated movie starring Brad Pitt.
- When Hurricane Isaac roared through in August 2012, raging water ripped the lighthouse’s steel door off its hinges and tore away part of the spiral staircase leading to the lantern room. The door was replaced two years later.
The lighthouse played a significant role in local history of Lake Pontchartrain’s north shore, as it guided commerce from New Orleans to the region and served as a navigation aide for the barges bearing Fritz Jahncke’s ships, built for World War I, out to sea. The lighthouse is a scenic asset for the Madisonville waterfront but not much more because it is closed until it can be restored, along with the surrounding land. John Ammerman, president emeritus of the Lake Pontchartrain Basin Maritime Museum, has estimated that the project’s cost at $1.5 million; the museum has launched a crowdfunding site to help cover costs at www.gofundme.com/tcefuncte-river-lighthouse.