Thursday, October 9, 2014

At Large in the Archive: Frank's Island Ledger

Tulane University Libraries recently acquired contractor Benjamin Beal's ledger documenting Benjamin Henry Latrobe's ill-fated Lighthouse for the Northeast Pass of the Mississippi River. After the Louisiana Purchase, the United States government appropriated funds to build a grandiose navigational beacon at one of the river's mouths.  Massachusetts sea captain Winslow Lewis was awarded the building contract and sent Benjamin Beal to oversee construction. Latrobe visited the site in April 1819. An early season hurricane battered the island three months later. Lighthouse officials were so concerned by damages that they requested an expert assessment. Major Joseph Jenkins, then constructing the New Orleans Customs House, inspected the site and recommended new construction.  After Congress received Jenkins' report, Winslow Lewis was hired to demolish the tower  and build a new lighthouse according to his own design.  The resultant "Mississippi Light" was first illuminated on 20 March 1823.

Keeping the seasonal workers -- who spent hurricane seasons in Boston -- was no easy task. According to the ledger, some were discharged, some refused duty, some stole a boat and "absconded" and some were too drunk to perform their duties.

Architect and preservationist Samuel Wilson, Jr. (1911-1993) was fascinated by the lighthouse.  In November 1934, Wilson and his fellow Sea Scouts visited the crumbling ruins and took photographs. Later Wilson conducted archival research in Washington, D.C. and developed measured drawings for the structure. His records are included in the Historic American Buildings Survey (HABS) deposited in the Library of Congress.

Wilson's scrapbook -- retained in the Southeastern Architectural Archive -- records his personal account that was never submitted to HABS:

"Far down North East Pass, once the principal pass of the Mississippi river, now long abandoned, stands an ancient brick tower as abandoned as the pass itself. Strange tales are told of this old ruin by the people of Pilot Town, tales of ghostly figures, uttering piercing shrieks and waving signals of distress from its crumbling top, figures which on closer examination proved to be giant snakes licking out with huge tongues to seize low flying pelicans, to devour them at one gulp as they utter their last agonized cry. Other snakes are said to have been so large that it required ten minutes for their great length to pass the doorway.

"It was to this desolate spot by automobile motor launch and pirogue that the Bienville went in November, 1934, and brought back photographs and data which are now filed in the Library of Congress with the records of the Historic American Buildings Survey. Of course, the fantastic snake stories were proven false, although large snakes hibernating [sic] in inner crevices of the walls. The true story of how this tower came to be here and why and when it was abandoned is as interesting a narrative as any of the wildest tales now told of it in Pilot Town."

Image above:  Benjamin Beal. An Account of the Time Building the Lighthouse on Frank Island, New Orleans. New Orleans.  1818-1823. Southeastern Architectural Archive, Special Collections Division, Tulane University Libraries.

No comments: