by Ed Lallo/Louisiana Seafood News
Sitting on the shores of Lake Pontchartrain in an area a few miles north of the Superdome, the New Canal Lighthouse has had a history of battling hurricanes. Seven years to the day after being ravaged by Hurricanes Katrina, the relighting of the historic building has been placed on hold by yet another hurricane set to make landfall in New Orleans.
“The waves from Lake Pontchartrain are already lapping over the seawall,” said JoAnn Burke of the Lake Pontchartrain Basin Foundation (LPBF). “The lighthouse itself is located 19 feet above the water, so we feel confident it will be safe from oncoming Hurricane Isaac.”
In preparation for the storm the lighthouse has been secured and windows boarded, and with it the hopes and dreams of many in the Louisiana fishing industry searching for one more step toward recovery from the disasters that have plagued it during the past seven years.
“This is a symbolic step forward for the fishing community that has been delayed by yet another hurricane,” said Louisiana Seafood Promotion and Marketing Board assistant executive director Kristin McLaren.
After Hurricane Katrina the Seafood Board was awarded a federal grant to use for economic development. According to McLaren, the board saw the restoration of the lighthouse “as the perfect opportunity to to bridge the gap between Louisiana tourism and the seafood by telling the story of the Lake Pontchartrain Basin fishing community.”
“Seafood is not just about good eating,” explained McLaren, ‘it is about culture and heritage that spans many generations of families.”
The first New Canal Lighthouse was built in 1839 when the U.S. Congress appropriated money for a lighthouse at the entrance of the New Basin Canal at Lake Pontchartrain.
“The current lighthouse is a reconstruction of the one built in 1890, and will be the fourth to stand at the location,” explained Burke. “It has stood through many generations as an icon for all New Orleans. We are proud to be the group that is giving it a new light for all New Orleans to see.”
The first lighthouse in 1839 was a cypress tower set on pilings about 1,000 feet offshore with a lantern attached to the top.
By 1843 many of the lower timbers on the lighthouse had begun to rot requiring a new lighthouse to be built. In 1855 a one-story, square wood dwelling was constructed on screw piles with a lantern on top of the roof.
In 1880 the Southern Yacht Club was relocated to New Orleans from Biloxi and the building blocked the light. The Lighthouse Board sold the old lighthouse and constructed a new two-story building 16 feet higher on top of the original iron piles in 1890.
Although riddled by hurricanes over the years, the light-keepers, many of them women, have kept the light shining during even the roughest storm. Caroline Riddle, a light-keeper in the 1890’s, was commended for heroism for keeping the light lit as a hurricane swept through the city.
The Lake Pontchartrain Basin Foundation has been responsible for restoration of the new lighthouse. Before Hurricane Katrina, the LPBF was participating in the National Historic Lighthouse Preservation Program to turn the lighthouse into an education center for the public featuring exhibits about the history of the light and the ecology of the Pontchartrain Basin.
“Using the Louisiana Seafood Promotion and Marketing Board’s grant, six oral histories of fishermen will be featured in the new museum exhibit area,” said McLaren. “The histories tell the stories of families -from generation to generation – who have made a living off the basin. Today it is a lot harder making a living fishing the basin, and we want the public to understanding the importance of the community to the area and the culture.”
A new tentative date for the re-lighting has been set for September 12th, with the museum to open in January of next year.
“Having to postpone the relighting is definitely an emotional setback,” said Burke, whose organization is still seeking funds for a new educational center as well as landscaping and signage improvements. “We were really looking forward to relighting the light on the seventh anniversary of Hurricane Katrina. But in the bigger picture we are always going to have hurricanes to worry about, and the new light will shine stronger and stand higher; always being there for the people of the region.”