Biloxi lighthouse still standing strong

By Steve Phillips - bio | email

BILOXI, MS  (WLOX) - It's the most photographed landmark on the Mississippi Gulf Coast.

For generations, the Biloxi lighthouse has directed boaters to safe harbor and welcomed residents home again.  The familiar tower has also survived countless storms and hurricanes over the past 161 years.

An American flag has been draped from atop the Biloxi lighthouse since Hurricane Katrina, making it "the symbol" of strength and resilience in the area's ongoing recovery.

For more than a century and a half, the lighthouse and its bright beacon have come to represent safety, the rich culture of a proud people and a strong sense of home.

"You can't come to Biloxi and miss it.  It's right in the middle of U.S. Highway 90," said Bill Raymond, the man in charge of historic sites in the City of Biloxi.

"After the storm, it became a symbol of our resilience and our coming back," says Raymond.

Visitors and locals have long been fascinated by the 61 foot cast iron tower that's come to represent the very essence of Biloxi.

"It is amazing. We get calls every day about people wanting to go in the lighthouse. When we were open for tours, we were busy every day. And I think it's just 'cause it's out of the ordinary. There's something romantic about it for people," said Raymond.

For Biloxi, that romance dates back to 1848.  That's the year giant cast iron sections were shipped here from Baltimore, then bolted together to form the impressive, stoic tower that stands guard along the seashore.

Four years earlier, the state legislature took formal action to create the enduring icon.

"Made a petition to Congress to have a lighthouse built in Biloxi, so that resolution went to Congress. And in 1847 they by acclamation went and did a law to put it in for $12,000. Of course, that's $12,000 of 1847 dollars," said Biloxi historian Edmond Boudreaux.

Generations of lighthouse keepers made certain the light burned bright. After all, this was a working lighthouse depended on by busy maritime traffic.

Women served as lighthouse keepers for 74 years, when firing the light meant burning lard.

"Basically animal fat, as the oil to keep the light going, with a wick of course. They had to carry it up by buckets up the stairway. Later on, they put a pulley system in and allowed the pulleys to bring it up from the outside.  Of course, the lard in winter time froze. And they had some difficulty with that. Later on they took and started using kerosene, which did not freeze in the weather," Boudreaux said.

Cast iron plates bolted together around a brick interior served the lighthouse well against countless storms and hurricanes that would threaten it over the years.

"And probably that's why it survived Katrina. Because all your brick houses and wooden houses get destroyed in hurricanes. But this one seems to have survived numerous hurricanes, including 1855, 1867. When it was undermined in 1867, almost toppled over. But they took and dug on one side of it and it righted itself. And after it was righted, they filled it all in and here it stands."

"And in 1926 they made it electric. But the oil was stand by. If the electricity failed, they had to light it with oil."

Generations of lighthouse keepers lived in the shadow of the tower. Unfortunately, the keeper's quarters was not as storm resistant at the lighthouse itself.

"Just behind the lighthouse there was a lighthouse quarters. Unfortunately, Camille took that out in 1969. The city had acquired that and the lighthouse around 1941, I believe."

The lighthouse somehow managed to survive more than a century and a half of tropical storms and hurricanes. It's symbolism is enduring and endearing.

"Between the schooners and the lighthouse, that is Biloxi," Boudreaux said.

One of the most enduring legends about the Biloxi lighthouse is actually not true. The story is that the cast iron tower was painted black to mourn the passing of President Abraham Lincoln.

Well, the tower was painted in black tar about that same time. But it was a rust proofing measure that had nothing to do with the president's death. It was painted white again after boat captains complained the black colored tower blended with the pine trees too easily.

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