Thursday, February 4, 2010

Sabine Pass Lighthouse, LA

Out of the marshlands in the extreme southwest corner of the “L”-shaped state of Louisiana, an abandoned brick tower points skyward. Eight buttresses flare out from the bottom of the structure, like the fins on a missile. As it rises, the octagonal tower gradually tapers to a conical dome, which completes the image of a rocket poised for liftoff. The proximity of Houston’s Space Center might add further to the credibility of the picture, but closer examination reveals that this monolith is fortunate to be standing, let alone flying. During its life span of roughly a century and a half, the Sabine Pass Lighthouse has survived Civil War battles, innumerable storms, surging floodwaters, a marsh fire, vandalism, and long periods of neglect and indifference. Cameron Preservation Alliance – Sabine Pass Lighthouse, Inc. was formed in 1999 to rescue the lighthouse. The group will hopefully succeed with their ambitious project, permitting individuals to experience this unique lighthouse firsthand, rather than through one-dimensional words and photographs. Work on the eighty-foot brick tower and adjacent wooden dwelling began in the latter part of 1855, and the lighthouse went into service sometime in the late spring or early summer of 1857. As the tower was built on soft marshland, closely spaced wooden pilings were driven into the ground to provide a foundation, and eight buttresses were extended from the base of the tower to distribute its weight over a larger area. Four of the buttresses extended to a radius of ten feet, while the other four protruded an additional eight feet. A third-order Fresnel lens was employed in the lantern room, and the tower and dwelling were painted white. The lighthouse was only in operation for a little over four years, when it fell dark on August 16, 1861, and remained so for the duration of the Civil War. While Southern forces were constructing Fort Griffin on the west bank of the Sabine River, Union soldiers, who were part of the naval blockade of the Sabine River, spied on the progress of the defense works from the top of the Sabine Pass Lighthouse. Five months later, the Battle of Sabine Pass was fought practically in the shadow of the tower. Still, the lighthouse managed to survive the war remarkably well, and on December 23, 1865, it was returned to service after having been reunited with its lens that had earlier been shipped to New York by Union forces. The decision was made to keep the lighthouse active, and in 1932 two ten-foot-wide, black horizontal bands were painted on the tower to make it more visible on hazy days. By 1952, modern technology had further diminished the need for the Sabine Pass Lighthouse, and it was abandoned. In 1953, the federal government turned the property over to the Louisiana Wildlife and Fisheries Commission that planned to use the buildings as a field station for its game wardens. However, the station was underutilized and was eventually returned to the General Services Administration. In 1971, the property was given to Lamar State College of Technology at Beaumont. The college intended to use the site as a research and teaching complex, but the expense of accessing the station thwarted their plans, and they returned the property to the federal government after four years. A four mile road has been built to the lighthouse, making the lighthouse approachable by land for the first time. This improvement should aide in the restoration effort. To help with their fundraising efforts, the preservation alliance has hosted an annual hayride to the lighthouse. With continued vision and persistence and a healthy grant or two, the project just might take off. References: Lighthouses of Texas, T. Lindsay Baker, 2001. Lighthouses, Lightships, and the Gulf of Mexico, David Cipra, 1997. Cameron Preservation Alliance Historical Book, 2000.

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