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 ongoing effort to save Louisiana’s few remaining lighthouses.
From its earliest days, the town of Madisonville, Louisiana, was focused on water. The town was settled on the banks of the Tchefuncte River, two miles upstream from the northshore of Lake Pontchartrain. You can see the importance of the area’s waterways at the Lake Pontchartrain Basin Maritime Museum.
The museum has displays of models and historic pictures that tell the history of shipping in Southeast Louisiana, from skiffs to schooners, and naval vessels to steamships.
The museum houses a replica of the Steamship Louisiana that transported people back and forth across Lake Pontchartrain from New Orleans to Madisonville. The Maritime Museum stands on the shore of the Tchefuncte River on the site the old Jahncke Shipyard. In the early 1900s, Jahncke was a massive shipbuilder that employed more than 2,000 people, who built large wooden ships for the U.S. Navy to use in World War One.
The Jahncke Shipyard in Madisonville received a government contract to build six of the wooden-hulled transport ships. The World War 1 vessels were 300 feet in length.
During the Civil War, the South built and tested an early submarine which sank in Lake Pontchartrain. The museum features a replica of that sub.
The Maritime Museum’s most famous landmark is a working lighthouse at the mouth of the river. It is one of the few Louisiana lighthouses not destroyed by hurricanes.
According to Maritime Museum board member Lynn Haase, “The Coast Guard gave that lighthouse to the town of Madisonville, and 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”. Volunteers at the museum are trying to raise funds to preserve the aging structure.
The Madisonville Lighthouse was built in 1837 and fell victim to the Civil War, Haase says, “It was destroyed during the Civil War and then rebuilt using the same brick”. The museum has a collection of artifacts from one of the early light keepers, who lived with his family at the lighthouse.
The Maritime Museum has parts of other Louisiana lighthouses that are no longer standing, like the Fresnel lens from the Chandeleur Lighthouse, and the iron light housing from the Pass Manchac Lighthouse. Both structures were lost to Hurricane Katrina in 2005.
The Madisonville Lighthouse is now a rare structure. “It is still a functioning lighthouse”, Haase says, “it’s a privately-owned aid to navigation and everything works on it”. There is a sense of urgency to shore up the eroding lighthouse property and make the structure safe so that one day, visitors may experience a nearly two-centry old relic of Louisiana’s maritime history.