“There isn’t anything unusual in a woman keeping a light in her window to guide menfolk home.I just happen to keep a bigger light than most women because I have got to see that so many men get safely home”
March is Women’s History month, it is also significant for being the month in which we celebrate World Water day. As many things are in New Orleans, our history and our relationship with water are closely entwined.
Since 1838 a lighthouse has stood at the mouth of Lake Pontchartrain to guide those ships that navigated the canal (for more information visit: Shining a light, at NOLA.com). The original building was funded by Congress in 1837, and wholly completed in 1839 and would stand for over a decade. However the regions tempestuous weather and decay took its toll on the location and it would need to be rebuilt several times. Dedicated Lighthouse Keepers would watch over the waters from this post throughout the next century.
While it was not uncommon for the role of lighthouse operator to pass to family members upon death, the New Basin Canal lighthouse is unique for having had the most female lighthouse operators in American history. The role passed from Thomas Beattie in 1847 (the first operator of the New Basin Lighthouse) to his wife Elizabeth upon his passing. She held the role until 1849, and would be followed by several other prominent women.
As train and rail became the dominant method of transporting goods in the North, the South depended on waterways for conveyance and lighthouse operation was a critical part of this economy. Connecting the ports of New Orleans made the New Canal Lighthouse a fixture of this system, with its only pause in 1863, when the light was ordered extinguished by General Sherman.
After the war ended, the Lighthouse would be tended by Mary Campbell’s husband Augustus before she inherited the responsibility in 1870. Upon her passing the task was given to her daughter Caroline, who said she ‘had been preparing for the responsibility her whole life’. As one of the only remaining structures, Caroline used the lighthouse to house survivors of the 1893 Cheniere Caminada storm. She also famously kept the light lit throughout the hurricane of 1915, securing the lens and hanging a lantern to guide vessels during the storm. Mary and Caroline would have the longest tenures as lighthouse keepers in the locations history, serving for 25 years and 29 years respectively. After Caroline and Mary, the role would be given to Margaret “Madge” Norvell. When her husband Louis Norvell drowned in 1891, Margaret Norvell took over as Lighthouse keeper at “Head of Passes” at the mouth of the Mississippi. From there she assumed the role of ‘official keeper’ at the Port Pontchartrain Light Station at Milneburg from 1896 until 1924, where she weathered many of the same storms as Caroline Campbell whom she would assume the role of keeper from in 1924. During the Cheniere Caminada, Margaret sheltered survivors, raised funds and helped them rebuild their homes. In 1925 she aided in the evacuation of 200 people from a ferryboat which had caught fire. For her bravery and her many accomplishments Margaret Norvell was posthumously honored by the Coast Guard with a vessel in her name, the USCGC Margaret Norvell.
Today the New Basin Canal Lighthouse is a museum, educating visitors about the Pontchartrain Basin, it’s environment, as well as its rich history of lighthouse keepers. In the Education Center, below the lighthouse, is our Citizen Science lab; here we teach volunteers field and lab methods to study plastics in the water and to track algae blooms. To learn more come out to the lighthouse, take a tour, or volunteer and become a citizen scientist!