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Beacon of Hope 

The Lake Pontchartrain Basin Foundation will restore a lakefront icon in the New Canal Lighthouse.

The New Canal Lighthouse, a historic lakefront beacon that was nearly destroyed by Hurricane Katrina, is about to get a new lease on life. The iconic West End lighthouse was recently leased by the Lake Pontchartrain Basin Foundation, which will rebuild and preserve the old wood-frame structure — and reopen it as a museum and educational center. When finished, the restored lighthouse and former U.S. Coast Guard station will feature environmental and historical programs focusing on the ecology of the Lake Pontchartrain Basin, coastal restoration and the maritime history of New Orleans. Foundation officials hope it will attract local students, history buffs and tourists.

The foundation already has raised enough money to begin renovation of the adjacent building and to establish a new foundation for the lighthouse itself. Money has come from individual as well as corporate donations, with Shell as the lead local sponsor. As of last week, the organization was about $500,000 shy of its goal, which includes enough money to restore the lighthouse and its essentials but not items such as landscaping or exhibit pieces in the museum. Those will require additional fundraising efforts.

The Coast Guard used this historic lakefront landmark as a safety and rescue station from the 1960s until 2000, long after other area lighthouses had been converted to electric power sources and no longer needed light keepers. In 1999, the Coast Guard announced it would move its Lake Pontchartrain station to the new Bucktown Marina. Since then, the Lake Pontchartrain Basin Foundation (LPBF) has worked to acquire the lighthouse in order to restore and preserve its architectural and cultural history.

In 2000, the federal Historic Lighthouse Preservation Act allowed the Coast Guard to decommission the lighthouse, making it available for public or nonprofit ownership. Having begun the long and tedious process of acquisition before Hurricane Katrina, LPBF asked the Coast Guard for permission to shore and stabilize the structure after it was badly damaged in the storm, says Ann Rheams, deputy director of LPBF. That permission didn't come until after a cold front in November 2005 caused further damage to what remained.

Layers of bureaucratic red tape and governmental restructuring in the aftermath of Katrina still stand between LPBF and ownership of the lighthouse property, says Rheams. Meanwhile, the foundation leased the site from the Coast Guard in September 2006 and thereby got authority to reconstruct and operate the facility. LPBF began dismantling and salvaging as much of the existing structure as possible in 2007 and has now begun the restoration with the aid of local architectural firm AMS.

"The thing is, we could not get FEMA money or any of that because the Coast Guard still owns it," Rheams says. "That's why it's so much harder for us. We don't qualify for any of the federal granting programs or even some of the state granting programs. It's a hindrance for us."

The foundation likes its current arrangement with the Coast Guard, but its ultimate goal is ownership. Rheams says the Coast Guard shares that goal and has been supportive of LPBF's restoration efforts.

Frank Glaviano, vice president of production for Shell, says the oil giant decided to support the LPBF's efforts in recognition of the importance of preserving New Orleans' cultural icons after Katrina. The company's donation will help launch repairs on both the lighthouse and the auxiliary building. Shell also is the lead sponsor of Jazz Fest.

"New Orleans can't just be a great place to visit; it has to be a great place to live," Glaviano says. "It is a great tourist destination, but those of us who want to have businesses here also want a great place to live and to raise our families, and that means more than just bricks and mortar. We have to preserve and promote the culture of New Orleans, because that's what makes us who we are."

Glaviano compares the lighthouse's significance in West End to that of the Carousel or Storyland in City Park. It's an essential part of New Orleans' culture and the memories of those who live here, he says.

But even before the lighthouse became a symbol, the small, white structure with cypress siding and a slate roof played a major role in local commerce. On dark and stormy nights, it guided ships safely in and out of the waters surrounding its peninsula. It weathered many storms for decades, and during that time bore witness to the rise and fall of maritime commerce on the New Basin Canal. It saw the development of marinas and businesses around it, and eventually it played host to scores of sailors, yachters, fishermen, children and teenagers on the shores of Lake Pontchartrain.

The original New Canal Lighthouse was completed in 1839 via an Act of Congress that authorized the construction of lighthouses across the country for the purpose of aiding in navigation. As a result, lakefront property was transferred to the federal government and the new lighthouse was established at the New Basin Canal, shortly after it was dug.

"It was basically a cypress tower with a light on it," says Rheams. "[Back then], everything out here was pretty rough."

The area around the lighthouse consisted almost entirely of cypress swamp in the early years. There were no neighborhoods or businesses, or even a seawall (that was built in the early 1930s). Though there were a few farmers, lakefront activity consisted largely of shipping.

Boats needed a safe harbor at the mouth of the New Basin Canal, says Rheams. The canal ran along what is now West End Boulevard almost all the way to where the Superdome sits today. "It was phenomenal," she says. "When this was the New Basin Canal, you'd just see tremendous amounts of lumber and cotton and all these different products coming through here, and that's why the lighthouse was built."

The New Basin Canal was dug by hand. Workers removed more soil along its route than came out of the Panama Canal, Rheams says. More than 8,000 Irish immigrants are said to have died of malaria and cholera during its construction, she adds.

"It was a huge undertaking back in the mid-1800s," says Rheams. "[The lighthouse] is a piece of our history that was lost in Katrina, and it's a very important piece, not just for the whole Lakeview community that was so devastated, but also because at one time, this was a major part of the shipping industry and maritime commerce."

Many people associate the Mississippi River with New Orleans' shipping industry, Rheams says, but the lake is just as important. "Without this lake, the city wouldn't even be here. That's how Bienville got here — he didn't go up the river, he came in through the lake."

By 1855, the original lighthouse structure began to rot. It was replaced by a one-story building that survived until 1890, when it was dismantled and replaced by a taller structure. The taller, "modern" lighthouse was needed because the Southern Yacht Club had moved into the area and blocked its light.

The 1890 lighthouse consisted of a two-story, square structure with a slate roof and black lantern. It rested on an iron-pile foundation. That lighthouse survived a series of storms, including the 1915 hurricane, which brought a 12-foot storm surge and 130-mph winds. Damage from a 1926 storm triggered a decision to put the light on concrete piers. "It went through several storms, including the storm of 1947, which was a tough one," Rheams says, adding that the old building also survived Hurricane Betsy without sustaining any damage.

"Remember, back in the 1940s and 1960s, there were tons of wetlands out there protecting us from storm surge. [Now] everything is much more vulnerable," she adds.

Over the decades, lighthouse operators made a series of repairs and renovations. Finally, Katrina knocked the lighthouse onto its side. Since then, the LPBF has tried to salvage the old landmark. The foundation plans to restore the building as closely to the original 1890 design as possible, including the wraparound porch and the "crowning feature" — an original cupola made entirely of cast iron, says Rheams.

Before the advent of electricity, and before the Coast Guard took over their operation, lighthouses were manned by families who made sure the lanterns stayed lit. Rheams says the New Canal Lighthouse was managed by a series of five women light keepers over the years — an interesting detail that makes this lighthouse unique. Among the historical anecdotes that the LPBF will feature in its museum are the stories of Caroline Riddle, who was commended for her heroism in keeping the lamp lit during the 1924 hurricane, and Maggie Norvell, a light keeper who single-handedly saved more than 200 people from a burning ship by rowing them to shore.

The New Basin Canal was closed in the 1960s to make way for the Pontchartrain Expressway, around the time the lighthouse was transferred to the Coast Guard and light keepers were no longer deemed necessary. Like other beacons around the globe, the New Canal Lighthouse was rendered obsolete by newer technologies such as GPS tracking systems that improved waterway navigation, and electrical power, which made many lighthouses self-sufficient.

Fortunately, unlike many other lighthouses that were sold to private families or dismantled before the National Historic Lighthouse Preservation Program was established, the New Canal Lighthouse was preserved by virtue of the Coast Guard's continued presence there. That presence, like the lighthouse itself, has meant a lot to lakefront families, businesses and organizations.

"We see it every day," says Troy Gilbert, a member of the New Orleans Yacht Club's board of directors. "It's a huge icon for our lives. It's something that's missing that needs to be brought back. It's just little things like that that actually show progress for the entire city."

To be sure, the rebuilding of the lighthouse won't by itself revive the West End economy, which remains stagnant because the public marinas have not yet reopened. But, as a symbol of the lakefront, its revival will be very significant, Gilbert says. "The lighthouse is a symbol of recovery, and we need symbols."

Rheams agrees.

"It's part of our maritime history that could easily be lost," she says. "The Lake Pontchartrain Basin Foundation has a perfect home [at the lighthouse], because we are the sentinels of the lake — and that is what the lighthouse represents."

click to enlarge Built in 1890, the New Basin Canal Lighthouse survived several intense storms, including Hurricane Betsey, but collapsed following Katrina. - LAKE PONTCHARTRAIN BASIN FOUNDATION
  • Lake Pontchartrain Basin Foundation
  • Built in 1890, the New Basin Canal Lighthouse survived several intense storms, including Hurricane Betsey, but collapsed following Katrina.
click to enlarge The 2005 hurricane almost destroyed the lighthouse, which was further damaged during inclement weather later that year. - KANDACE POWER GRAVES
  • Kandace Power Graves
  • The 2005 hurricane almost destroyed the lighthouse, which was further damaged during inclement weather later that year.
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