Lighthouse Keeping Then & Now

Being a lighthouse keeper is maybe not as dreamy as it sounds & LPBF continues to serve as a beacon for the basin

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Located on Lakefront Drive, the New Canal Lighthouse houses a museum and education operated by the Lake Pontchartrain Basin Foundation. This month, we take a look back at what former keepers at the New Canal Lighthouse would have had to manage.

 

Imagined as a quiet and tranquil life or romantic isolation- the life of a lighthouse keeper might be a secret fantasy for many of us feeling overwhelmed by the age of pings and notifications.

In reality, the job of being a light keeper required a hearty commitment. On duty all 24 hours of the day, lightkeepers were primarily tasked with keeping their lights working, shining at night and through the fog. A light keeper's motto may have been "maintain, maintain," and depending on the time period, the task of maintenance would match the change in technology.

Though the New Canal Lighthouse has been a near constant fixture of the Southshore's skyline since 1843, its structure has changed over time. The original lighthouse to stand at the mouth of the New Basin Canal most likely would have an oil-fed flame, and it would have been the keeper’s duty to carry buckets of oil up the stairs to keep the flame lit. Cleaning the glass surrounding the cupola would have been extremely important as well to make sure the light could be seen as far as possible.

On Cabo Polonio, a remote cape located on the eastern coast of Uruguay, a lighthouse has been guiding ships since 1881. In They Are The Last, film production company Kauri Multimedia captures the daily routines of Leonardo da Costa, Cabo Polonio's lighthouse keeper. As more lighthouses become automated, da Costa is one of the few watchmen who remain.

In the early 1900s, the lighthouse was switched to an acetylene gas fed light. The keeper would be in charge of maintaining the gas lines and regularly switching out gas canisters. If a heavy fog would roll over the lake and the light could not cut through the vapor, the sound from a fog bell was used to guide ships passing by. Fog bells became commonplace in lighthouses in the mid-1800s, and like the bell in the New Canal Lighthouse, they were often powered by clockwork. It's unknown exactly what variation of clock mechanism was used at the New Canal Lighthouse, but in most lighthouses of that period, the fog bell's clock-drives would need to be wound every six to twelve hours.

 

One duty that has not changed comes as a result of the dangers of navigating across waterways. It is the most dramatic and storied duty of the keepers: water rescues. Marge Norvell, the last keeper of the New Canal Lighthouse, risked her life several times, once saving all 200 passengers aboard a ferryboat that had caught fire in the lake. We have many stories of rescues here at the New Canal Lighthouse, all of which are shared with visitors at our museum and our education center.

 

Elevated18 feet in the air and topped with a bright red roof, the New Canal Lighthouse remains a beacon for the Lakefront. In the era of satellites, the lighthouse no longer serves its original function but instead provides a place to learn about the history and conservation of the Pontchartrain Basin.

 

Visitor Services Manager, Kate Tannian on the Lighthouse:
 


While we do turn the lights on and off and change the occasional light bulb, the job of keeping the light here at the New Canal Lighthouse and Education Center has changed quite a bit. Despite the weathered eyebrow that Marge Norvell would likely raise at our kitschy interpretation, it is a different kind of light we work so diligently to provide.

 

Instead of saving people from the water, we saved the water for the people, and by shedding light on what is needed to conserve our beautiful basin, we can help our community weather the storms to come.

 

We are still a beacon on the water, drawing in people with questions about the lake, or those wanting to report environmental changes. And of course, we're always here for those who just want to watch the sailboats pass by.

 

Come visit us and see what we do! We may be less salty than the keepers of yore, but no less flavorful.


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