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Legendary Lighthouses

Reconstructed New Canal Lighthouse illuminates
Lake Pontchartrain’s ecology and history.

Modern electronic navigation systems have effectively signaled the extinction of most lighthouses, but the newly rebuilt New Canal Lighthouse in New Orleans continues to serve as a beacon for sailors with an additional mission to illuminate the history of Lake Pontchartrain and the importance of coastal restoration.

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Above: Exhibits in the museum not only relate the history of the lighthouse but examine the ecology of the lake and coastal restoration efforts in southeast Louisiana. Lake Pontchartrain Basin Foundation photo

In Title: A lantern used at the lighthouse in the early 1900s is among the items on display. Lake Pontchartrain Basin Foundation photos

Below: The reconstructed lighthouse is a replica of the one built at the site in 1890.

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The lighthouse opened in the spring of 2013 after eight years of fundraising and hard work by the Lake Pontchartrain Basin Foundation (LPBF), an environmental organization that acquired the property to restore the lighthouse after it was knocked down by Hurricanes Katrina and Rita in 2005. This is the fourth lighthouse to stand at the site on the south shore of Lake Pontchartrain, with the first dating to 1839.

Several events will showcase the lighthouse this summer, including the Lake PontchARTrain Craft Fair and Summer Water Safety Day on June 7 from 10 a.m.–4 p.m. featuring craft vendors and water safety information. Also, the Save Our Lake, Save Our Coast Fishing Rodeo on June 27–28 will be based at the lighthouse.

In addition, the first-ever Lake Fest will be held on May 10 at the nearby Bucktown Marina. The primary fund-raiser for LPBF, the festival will be held from noon–10:30 p.m. and will feature live music, arts and crafts, food vendors, children’s activities, and a car show. Admission is $5 for adults and free for children 13 and under.

RICH HISTORY

The first lighthouse at the site was simply an octagonal cypress tower with a light on top. It was positioned at the end of a jetty formed by a canal dug to connect Lake Pontchartrain to the city of New Orleans and the Mississippi River for commerce and drainage. But within a few years, the lower wooden timbers rotted and the lighthouse began to lean over.

In the mid-1800s, the tower was replaced by a square wood dwelling topped with an iron lantern 33 feet above the lake. It remained operational through most of the Civil War but became useless in 1880 when a nearby yacht club was built and blocked the light. The U.S. Lighthouse Board decided to build it higher as it was still valuable for helping boats navigate along the busy New Canal.

The third New Canal Lighthouse was built in 1890 as a two-story wedding cake superstructure with the light mounted 49 feet above the lake. Then in 1926, the tower was raised up another 3 feet to 52 feet following hurricane damage. When a flood protection and development project created land around the structure, it was finally located on dry land.

Through the years, notable among the lighthouse keepers were several women who took over after their husbands died, including Elizabeth Beattie, Mary Campbell, and Jane O’Driscol. In 1915, Caroline Biddle was commended for heroism for keeping the light lit during a hurricane.

But perhaps the most famous of the keepers was Maggie Norvell, who held the post from 1924 to 1932 after having served as the keeper of the Port Ponchartrain lighthouse. She was credited with numerous rescues during her time as a lighthouse keeper, including in 1926 when she received word that a naval airplane had gone down in Lake Pontchartrain. She jumped into her rowboat and battled a merciless squall for two hours as she rowed to the survivor of the crash and then rowed the aviator back to safety.

A NEW LIFE

After standing for 115 years, however, the lighthouse collapsed after being battered by the deadly wind and waves of the hurricanes of 2005. But the Lake Pontchartrain Basin Foundation didn’t want the icon to disappear from the landscape, so it began a campaign to restore it as the New Canal Lighthouse Museum and Education Center. Raised 19 feet above the level of the lake to protect it from storm surges, the new lighthouse is a replica of the 1890 version.

The beacon shines again today as a private aid to navigation for mariners. A museum located on the first level showcases the history of the lighthouse with exhibits that include a 375mm AGA drum lens that once shined from the cupola of the lighthouse in the early 1900s to guide sailors. Some of the display cases, flooring, and other architectural elements were created using wood from that original 1890 lighthouse.

Exhibits also focus on the region and examine the role LPBF has played in helping to restore the water quality and habitats of the entire Lake Pontchartrain basin, a 10,000-square-mile watershed that encompasses 16 Louisiana parishes. Visitors also will learn about vital coastal restoration efforts in southeast Louisiana and about the recreational and economic activity in the basin, which provides many resources to the rest of the nation, from oil and gas to seafood. A balcony offers panoramic views of the New Orleans lakefront.

Tours of the lighthouse, which is located at 8001 Lakeshore Drive, are available from 10 a.m.–4 p.m. Monday through Saturday. Admission is $7.50 for adults; $5.50 for seniors, students, and military; and $3 for children 6–12.

Dennis R. Heinze is regional editor of the AAA Southern Traveler.

PLANNING YOUR TRIP

For more details about the lighthouse, call (504) 836-2215 or visit www.saveourlake.org. For maps, Triptik routings, reservations, and trip-planning assistance, visit your local full-service AAA office or click on AAA.com/travel.

May/June 2014 Issue

 


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