Was the Calcasieu River of Southwest Louisiana an orphaned stepchild of the Federal Government; the writer thinks so? The Calcasieu light house was not completed until 20 years after the Sabine light house. In 1898 the port of Port Arthur was loading 3,000-ton freighters with cargoes of flour, rice and lumber, whereas the port of Lake Charles did not receive "deep water" until 1926, and then only via a devious route through the Intercoastal Canal and port of Sabine Pass. From 1890 until 1926 the Union Sulphur Company, located a few miles west of Lake Charles, shipped daily train loads of its product to Sabine Pass for transshipment overseas.
Both the St. Louis, Watkins and Gulf and the Kansas City Southern railroads had original plans to build to Cameron, but such plans did not materialize due to the treacherous marshes. When all Calcasieu construction on the lower river, that is, jetties, dredging and rerouting the river with a 26-foot depth, was completed, the first deepsea, 5,000-ton tanker finally entered the river through its mouth in 1941, the same year that World War II began. And during that last phase of river construction, the Calcasieu light house had to be torn down in 1939.
Efforts to erect the Calcasieu River light house began in 1854, and the Light House Board recommended that $6,000 be appropriated for it. In 1855 a U. S. Navy survey claimed that a light house at that point was unneeded, although construction of the Sabine light house began a year later. In 1860 funds for the Calcasieu River beacon were appropriated, but before negotiations for land were completed, the Civil War began, and all efforts were suspended.
On May 20, 1874 the New Orleans customs collector reported that the light's construction could no longer be postponed. In 1875-1876 the Lake Charles Echo reported that naval Commander Schoonmaker and W. L. Campbell had boarded the steamer Romeo en route to Cameron to examine prospective sites for the light house. Since negotiations for land on the east side broke down, a site on the west side of the river, already owned by the government, was chosen on Lot 32, Township 15 South, on Range 10 West.
By 1876 the Light House Service had decided that a brick or stone structure was no longer suitable for the gulf marshes, and a light house tower, made of boiler plate iron, had already been prefabricated at a locomotive works and was in storage in New Orleans. Construction began about Sept. 1876, and the first beam from its lamp was pointed seaward on Dec. 9, 1876.
Despite its iron exterior, all interior walls and flooring were lined with wood to displace the summertime heat. The building was elevated about 14 feet above the ground, and the first floor had only a fuel room, storage room, fresh water tanks and a living room. A bedroom was located on the second floor, and the third floor contained supplies and oil for the lamp. An iron spiral staircase connected each floor. By 1925 the beam extruded 490 candle power of light intensity, and was visible for 13 miles at sea.
Only 3 lightkeepers ever served at the Calcasieu light. C. F. Crossman served from 1876 until about 1910, at which time he was transferred to Sabine Pass. The second keeper was William Hill, assisted by his brother Philip, who remained until 1929. And the third light keeper was E. A. Malone, who remained until the light house was torn down in 1939. Mrs. Grace Reeves of Nederland spent some of her childhood years, living there with her mother and her uncles named Hill.
The survey for the river rerouting discovered that the old light house had to be dismantled, and today its former location is in the middle of the river. Because the structure was 75 years old, the light house could not be saved and rebuilt elsewhere. And in 1941 the first Calcasieu deepsea shipping (ie: of 1,000 tons or more) entered and exited the river for the first time at Calcasieu Pass.
(Much research for this article was done by Kathy Bordelon of Frazar Library.)