Lake Pontchartrain Lighthouse has a historical component that is transcendent. In 1838 the structural beginnings were built of wood, finalized the next year. A wood lighthouse in hurricane territory? Let's see its sublime history.
Lake Pontchartrain was famed by New Orleans 1800's residents for its cooling reprieve. A wonderful place to go for recreation, and a retreat from the sultry humidity of the percolating city areas. They'd hop aboard the train - the Lake Pontchartrain Railroad route that ran alongside Elysian Fields Avenue. At the lake, they'd go to the beach to enjoy the day. Richer folk would board steamships bound for resorts near the town of Mandeville on the opposite Northern Shore of Lake Pontchartrain.1
But getting off the train at the end of Elysian Fields Ave. - you'd notice the wooden lighthouse. As protection for the lake's shore at the town of Milneburg2, then called Port Pontchartrain. Eventually renamed for Scottish brick merchant Alexander Milne. To get goods and people to the port, the Pontchartrain Railroad Co. secured a right of way from Milne along the land he owned. The first trip was April 23, 1831 - six cars drawn by horses along the track! Two years later, they were steam powered.
The original lighthouse from 1839 was certainly picturesque. The Harper's engraving is the only depiction of it that we're aware of. But with the many storms that come to this area, its basic wood structure wasn't very practical.2
Plans were in the works for a better replacement. The old lighthouse was deteriorating, especially after suffering harm during the civil war.3
The new, taller one was built nearby, finished in 1855. Built 3,000 ft. out into the lake, amidst the piers of the fishing camp structures.3
The older one was left where it was. It slowly and surely fell into disrepair. Remnants remained until the 1860s, when the more solid base was demolished.
The new one built is the one still seen today. However, that one has had some history! Not run of the mill, for sure! As we mentioned, when first built, it was a lighthouse placed well out into Lake Pontchartrain.
The area was a terrific entertainment retreat for New Orleanians. Many saloons were in the area. Fishing camps and get-away beach bungalows dotted the piers, built onto pilings. The lighthouse was needed to warn water craft from getting too close to these areas.
Another wonderful part of the history is that of the Lake Pontchartrain Lighthouse Keepers. Three of them were women. Madge Norvell was the most well-known, taking charge of operations early on. She only left this lighthouse when transferred to another beacon's station. The Coast Guard Service honored her service by naming a cutter for her.2 The Margaret Norvell was commissioned on March 28, 2013.4
Margaret Norvell's service first began as is often the case for women, as Assistant Keeper at the Head of Passes Light in 1891. With such excellent work there, she was able to become Head Keeper at Lake Pontchartrain Lighthouse in 1896. In 1924 she transferred to the West End Light, also known as the New Canal Light, as Head Keeper until 1932.5
As Milneburg grew and developed, Lake Pontchartrain Lighthouse was also referred to as the Milneburg Lighthouse. An adjacent home with a boardwalk led up to the lighthouse door. This was the Keepers' quarters, which suffered major damage in a September 1869 hurricane. Thus it was rebuilt.7 As you can see the new Keepers' residences were a great improvement.
When the new Lake Pontchartrain Lighthouse was first completed in 1855, the top was quite a bit shorter than it appeared later in 1890. We see the complete galley area is larger in 1890, and the entire tower has more of an "hourglass" shape.
There was a refurbishment completed on the tower in 1880. It extended the galley upwards, making the tower higher.7
Over the years, people of the area maintained an interest in the lighthouse. Keeper Norvell was quite active in the community. In particular she sponsored activities for local children, including orphans.
At turn of the century, Milneburg was definitely a place to get away for an enjoyable reprieve. It continued that way for a few decades. But toward the end of the 1920s, local needs were changing. What really began this thinking process was a huge hurricane in 1915 that seriously damaged much of Milneburg.1 The New Orleans Levee Board was concerned with the local flooding. Developers were looking for more solid real estate. A fire in the area also ravished many homes. The Lake Pontchartrain Lighthouse was to be decommissioned, which occurred in 1929.
A land reclamation plan began. Sand was pumped from below the lake, and filled in to areas along the shore. Forming newly created land. The shoreline now extended much farther into Lake Pontchartrain, so the lighthouse became partially buried by eight feet of lake sand. It no longer stood within the lake.2 Kind of sad, wouldn't you think?
A solid flood protection rampart was placed at the lake's edge. New home construction was planned for the land development areas.2 This project destroyed any remaining homes and fishing camps in the area, as well as lakefront restaurants and saloons.1 But there sat Lake Pontchartrain Lighthouse, without its lake surroundings. However, there were eventual plans for the area surrounding it.
In 1935, the U.S. Congress voted for the Emergency Relief Appropriation Act. This led to funds for President Franklin Roosevelt's Works Projects Administration (WPA). It helped creating needed U.S. infrastructure, while pulling the country out of the severe economic Great Depression.8
During this recovery, a WPA crew arrived in New Orleans. They worked on projects in the area, including Milneburg. There they built a new recreation area with a sandy beach, terraced steps, a bath house, and lighting. They left the Lake Pontchartrain lighthouse intact.
A beautiful park with amusements had also been constructed by the WPA within New Orleans. It became a place that developed into a wonderful area of entertainment and get-away for people to bring their families. There was one nearby to Milneburg, that was constructed in Spanish Fort.
Finally, this was moved, or was it maybe expanded - reaching out to connect with Lake Pontchartrain. We can see even more of the history of Pontchartrain Beach & Amusement Park. The amusement park used the lighthouse for a time as office space.2 But if you go there now - the amusements are all gone.
The Lake Pontchartrain Lighthouse is now the property of the University of New Orleans (UNO), technology park division. They obtained an EPA grant, using it to reinforce and clean the tower. They hope to attract further funding for more refurbishment. Plans include landscape surrounds with history signage, seating, pathways - all to honor the lighthouse and its historical setting in a celebratory manner.2
1 Campenella, R. (2019, Oct. 4). 'Where I'll just do as I ... please': a historical geography of Milneburg. The New Orleans Advocate. Retrieved from nola.com/entertainment_life/article_2fa78646-e54a-11e9-ad1d-7b6e546e8bd0.html
2 Boyd, A. (2018, Aug. 16). Port Pontchartrain's Milneburg lighthouse about to get a careful restoration. The New Orleans Advocate. Retrieved from nola.com/archive/article_5c1f4e73-8602-5da7-a505-3dd7f3e38c95.html
3 O'Brien, G.M.St.L. (1997). 1832 to present, Milneburg Light (also known as the Port Pontchartrain Light). New Orleans History -- Lake Pontchartrain. Retrieved from pontchartrain.net/491201
4 Young, S. (2013, June 3). Welcome to the fleet Coast Guard Cutter Margaret Norvell. Coast Guard Compass. Coast Guard. Retrieved from coastguard.dodlive.mil/2013/06/welcome-to-the-fleet-coast-guard-cutter-margaret-norvell/
5 Braesch, C. (2010, Nov. 1). Coast Guard Heroes: Margaret Norvell. Coast Guard Compass. Coast Guard. Retrieved from coastguard.dodlive.mil/2010/11/coast-guard-heroes-margaret-norvell/
7 Anderson, K. (2001-2020). Port Pontchartrain Lighthouse. Port Pontchartrain, LA. Retrieved from lighthousefriends.com/light.asp?ID=807
8 Library of Congress (n.d.) Works Progress Administration. Today in History - April 8. Digital Collections. Retrieved from loc.gov/item/today-in-history/april-08#works-progress-administration