From early Native Americans to present-day fishermen and recreational boaters, Lake Pontchartrain has a long maritime history. A Madisonville museum has that history on display, including the building of naval ships for the First World War, and an effort to save one of the state’s few remaining lighthouses.
From its earliest days, the town of Madisonville was focused on water. It was built on the banks of the Tchefuncte River, only two miles upstream from the northshore of Lake Pontchartrain.
"People don't understand the importance of the history of the waterways being the only mode of transportation,” said Cabell Mouton.
Mouton is an educator at the Lake Pontchartrain Basin Maritime Museum, which tells the history of shipping in Southeast Louisiana from skiffs to schooners, and naval vessels to steamships.
“This is a replica of the steamship Louisiana that actually transported people back and forth from New Orleans to Madisonville,” Mouton said.
The museum is on the site of the old Jahncke shipyard. In the early 1900s it was a massive operation. It employed more than 2,000 people. And they were building large wooden ships for the Navy for use in WWI.
“Jahncke shipyard received a government contract from the U.S. Navy to build six ships with wooden hulls. These boats were 300 feet,” Mouton said.
The museum also features a replica of a Civil War-era submarine that sank in Lake Pontchartrain.
But the museum’s most famous landmark in the lighthouse at the mouth of the Tchefuncte, one of the few Louisiana lighthouses not destroyed by hurricanes.
“The Coast Guard gave that lighthouse to the town of Madisonville, the town of Madisonville in turn gave it to the museum to protect, and hopefully we can bring the general public out there once we get it safe,” said Lynn Haase.
Haase volunteers at the museum, which is trying to raise funds to preserve the lighthouse.
“It was built before the Civil War, it was destroyed during the Civil War and then rebuilt using the same brick,” she said.
The museum has a collection of artifacts from one of the early light keepers, who lived with his family at the lighthouse. The light keeper’s cottage is preserved at the museum. There are models of other Louisiana lighthouses that no longer exist. You can see the original light housing from the Pass Manchac lighthouse, and the Fresnel lens from the Chandeleur lighthouse. Both structures were lost to Hurricane Katrina, making this lighthouse at Madisonville a rare site
“It is still a function of the lighthouse,” Haase said. “It's a privately owned aid to navigation, and everything works on it.”
But there is a sense of urgency to shore up the eroding lighthouse property and make the aging structure safe, so that one day, visitors may experience a century-and-a-half old relic of the state’s maritime history.