Chandeleur Lighthouse Remembered with New Web site
Accessible only by boat or by air, the 50-mile Chandeleur Island chain has a colorful history both geologically and in terms of human use.
Arching below coastal Louisiana and Mississippi, the barrier islands’ shifting sands buffer the mainland from hurricane winds and storm surge. It was the site of a yellow fever quarantine station in the 1800s. President Theodore Roosevelt established Breton National Wildlife Refuge on the islands in 1904 to protect egrets and other shorebirds that were being slaughtered for their plumage.
Sadly, a significant part of the islands was lost on Aug. 29, 2005. After weathering numerous hurricanes, the 102-year-old steel lighthouse at the northern tip of the chain succumbed to Hurricane Katrina. The land at Hewes Point where the structure stood had been eroding for years. Hurricane Katrina’s violent winds and waves scoured away the last bit of terra firma at the light’s feet and sank it to newfound depths in Chandeleur Sound.
To keep the history of this isolated locale alive, Louisiana Sea Grant has collected images and recorded recollections of its past in Reflections on Chandeleur, a Web site (www.laseagrant.org/lighthouse) featuring brief movies, photographs, oral histories and information on the islands.
“The light marked the most remote and pristine area of the Louisiana coast,” explained Rex Caffey, professor of resource economics with the LSU AgCenter and Louisiana Sea Grant. “It was more than just a structure. It was a sentinel for coastal change, an icon of maritime history – kind like our version of the Statue of Liberty.
“I felt that something should be done to document the loss, but at the time, the human toll from Katrina was far more important. It would be nearly two years until the time was right to initiate a project.”
Initially intending to document the erstwhile lighthouse, Caffey put out a call to coastal fishermen, boaters and residents in Louisiana and Mississippi requesting photographs.
“The response was incredible,” he said. “People were generous with their pictures, and each picture has a story.”
Caffey collaborated with Louisiana Sea Grant editor Paula Ouder and Web coordinator Melissa Castleberry to make the images accessible to the public. Ouder and Castleberry had already used digital photography and audio to archive the cultural history of Louisiana’s shrimping industry. The trio agreed that a similar approach could work for the Chandeleur light.
After collecting historic and more recent photos, they interviewed several coastal experts, fishermen and residents from Louisiana and Mississippi to prepare an oral history of the islands and to record what the lighthouse meant to the people who encountered it. Reflections on Chandeleur features interviews with photographer and naturalist C.C. Lockwood and the late, renowned coastal scientist Shea Penland.
“Clearly, there were many coastal residents also moved by this loss,” Caffey said. “As we developed the outline, the project evolved and became more about the landscape and the plight of our barrier islands system. Our objective is to use this as a gateway site for anyone wanting to learn more about our unique coastal ecology, geology and history.”
“We wanted to create a project that is personal and informative, so it’s great to be able to share people’s stories of the islands and the lighthouse,” Ouder said. “Barrier islands shift and change by nature, but during these interviews, I came to understand that something precious and irreplaceable was lost when the lighthouse finally fell. People truly have a sentimental attachment to the Chandeleurs.”
Not the least of whom is Caffey, who admits to becoming a bit teary eyed when he watched the Web films for the first time.
“I visited the Chandeleur Islands several time over the years, but in August 2005, I took my 10-year-old son out there for a three-day trip,” he said. “I encouraged him to keep a journal, and he wrote about fishing, seashell collecting, bird watching – and he got to see and fish around the Chandeleur light. Just a few weeks later the light was gone, along with 50 percent of the landmass of the Chandeleurs. Coastal Louisiana is in trouble, and we need to find a physical way to preserve it. In the meantime, we want to make sure a bit of that history is not lost along with the land.”
Since its establishment in 1968, the Louisiana Sea Grant College Program has worked to promote stewardship of the state’s coastal resources through a combination of research, education and outreach programs critical to the cultural, economic and environmental health of Louisiana’s coastal zone. Louisiana Sea Grant, based at LSU, is part of the National Sea Grant College Program, a network of 32 programs in each of the U.S. coastal and Great Lakes states and Puerto Rico.
Ernie Ballard | Editor | Office of Communications & University Relations