Lighthouses were once ubiquitous fixtures on the Mississippi coast, with as many as nine in operation in the late nineteenth century. Their numbers diminished because of recurrent storm damage and the increasing reliance on more modern navigational aids. After Hurricane Katrina in 2005, Mississippi’s only remaining operational lighthouse was in Biloxi.
Pass Christian Lighthouse was the state’s first. Spurred by the increasing traffic of steamers carrying cotton, Congress authorized its construction in 1829. The brick lighthouse stood twenty-eight feet high (small in comparison to others) but forty-two feet above sea level. Although briefly extinguished during the Civil War, the lighthouse continued in operation until 1882. When a nearby property owner refused to trim or cut some trees that obscured the beam from the lighthouse, the government discontinued operation.
Workers constructed a duplicate of the lighthouse in Pass Christian on Cat Island in 1831. Built directly on sand without a foundation, the thirty-four-foot brick lighthouse suffered from frequent storm damage. After Confederate troops burned the tower, the government commissioned a new structure, completed in 1871. By this time, however, most New Orleans–bound ships took a different route, and the Cat Island Lighthouse’s usefulness had diminished. The prefabricated lighthouse continued in operation until 1937, and the structure burned in 1961.
The Round Island Lighthouse, located at the entrance to the Pascagoula Estuary, three miles from the mainland, began operation in 1832. National attention temporarily focused on Round Island in 1849, when a group of men seeking Cuban independence attempted to organize an expedition from there. The men damaged the lighthouse and briefly kidnapped the keeper and his two sons before being overrun by federal forces. The government completed the rebuilding of the forty-eight-foot brick lighthouse in 1859. The Round Island Lighthouse suffered storm damage over the years and became inactive in 1944. After Hurricanes Georges (1998) and Katrina, only about a third of the structure remained intact on the island. In 2010 the City of Pascagoula relocated that portion to the foot of the Pascagoula River Bridge on US Highway 90 at the entrance to the city. Another third of the lighthouse, including most of the lantern gallery, was salvaged from the island, and by 2015 interior and exterior renovations of the structure had been completed.
In 1847 the federal government commissioned the Biloxi Lighthouse to be made of cast iron, a more durable and portable alternative to its brick predecessors on the coast. Jefferson Davis specifically asked for the appropriation, expressing resentment of the disproportionate number of lighthouses constructed along the East Coast of the United States. Built in Baltimore, the sixty-two-foot lighthouse began operating in 1848 and served as an important guide to passenger steamers visiting the area’s resorts. The lighthouse suffered hurricane damage in 1860 and began to lean during the Civil War. When officials restored it to use in 1867, they covered the exterior with black tar to prevent rust. Many coastal residents interpreted this as a gesture of mourning for Pres. Abraham Lincoln, a view many local businesses echoed in advertisements aimed at attracting northern visitors. Painted white again in 1869, the lighthouse became electrified in 1929. Women served as keepers of the Biloxi Lighthouse for most of the period before the US Coast Guard assumed responsibility in 1939. The Coast Guard deeded the lighthouse to the City of Biloxi in 1968. The lighthouse survived Hurricane Katrina, although the structures around it did not, and a flag draped over its top railing served as a symbol of hope for coastal residents. In 2007 the Mississippi Department of Transportation put the image of the Biloxi Lighthouse on license plates. It remains in operation.
The Ship Island Lighthouse received its appropriation at the same time as the Biloxi Lighthouse, but conflicts over land claims with Spain meant that construction of the fifty-one-foot structure did not conclude until 1853. The US Army Corps of Engineers began work on a fort on Ship Island in the late 1850s, but it remained unfinished at the start of the Civil War. Confederates seized the island and maintained control for a few months. When Union forces retook the island in 1861, Confederate troops set fire to the interior of the lighthouse. Union troops finished the fort and repaired the lighthouse, though they took care that it did not shine to the north, where Confederates still operated. The Union troops on the island included some of the first African American regiments of the war. After storms battered the lighthouse, officials condemned it in 1886. A new, taller lighthouse constructed on the site operated until 1964, when it was deactivated, and it burned down in 1972. In the 1990s the Friends of Gulf Islands National Seashore led a campaign to rebuild the Ship Island Lighthouse. Using the second tower’s foundation, the Navy Seabees completed a replica in 2000, but Hurricane Katrina destroyed it.
Other defunct Mississippi lighthouses were located at the Broadwater Beach Marina (1965–2005), East Pascagoula River (1854–1906), Lake Borgne (1889–1937), Horn Island (1874–1906, 1908–61), Merrill’s Shell Bank (known as the Pass Marianne Lighthouse, 1860–1943), Natchez (1828–49), Proctorsville (1858–60), and St. Joseph Island (1861–93).
- “Biloxi Lighthouse Stands as Beacon of Hope,” USA Today (20 October 2005)
- Dan Ellis, Lighthouses and Islands of the Gulf (2000)
- Donna Harris, Biloxi Sun Herald (31 December 2007)
- Round Island Lighthouse Preservation Society website, www.roundislandlighthouse.org