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West Rigolets, LA  Lighthouse destroyed.   

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West Rigolets Lighthouse

The Rigolets is a bayou that connects the eastern end of Lake Pontchartrain to Lake Borgne and the Mississippi Sound. Using this winding waterway, large ships could anchor off Chandeleur or Ship Island and transfer their cargo to smaller vessels capable of reaching the three New Orleans ports built on the south shore of Lake Pontchartrain: Port Pontchartrain, Bayou St. John, and New Canal.

West Rigolets Lighthouse with outbuildings
Photograph courtesy National Archives
Early on, it was recognized that protecting this vital link from foreign invaders was crucial to the security of New Orleans. Accordingly, a wooden fort was built near the western extreme of the Rigolets. Named Petite Coquilles, the fort was manned during the War of 1812, but did not witness extensive action. The success of the British elsewhere during the war demonstrated that the U.S. coastal defenses were inadequate. This deficiency prompted President Monroe to direct the erection of numerous fortifications following the war to protect the nation’s strategic ports. One of these new forts was Fort Pike, constructed of red brick, which replaced the wooden fort on the Rigolets.

To guide friendly vessels to the Rigolets, a lighthouse was authorized for its eastern entrance in 1831, but it took a couple of years before it was actually built. A companion lighthouse for the western entrance to the Rigolets was proposed as early as 1832, but East Rigolets Lighthouse was deemed sufficient for marking the passage. Also known as Pleasonton’s Island Lighthouse, East Rigolets Lighthouse was discontinued on May 25, 1874, after it was judged to be “no longer required for purposes of navigation.”

In 1855, the recently created Lighthouse Board built three new matching lighthouses for the three New Orleans ports on Lake Pontchartrain. That same year, a lighthouse based on the same design was built to mark the entrance to the Rigolets from Lake Pontchartrain using a $5,000 appropriation made by Congress on August 3, 1854. Called West Rigolets Lighthouse, the structure consisted of a square dwelling with a hipped roof surmounted by a circular lantern room. James Cain was hired to serve as the light’s first keeper.

The lighthouse was active until July 6, 1861, when it was darkened due to the Civil War, which was being contested nearby. Union forces eventually gained control of the area, and the lighthouse was reactivated in November 1862, with a ship’s lantern being used as the light. Apparently hostilities in the area had not been fully suppressed, as keeper Thomas Harrison was found shot on the lighthouse wharf, just two days after the light returned to service. Harrison was the only keeper killed during the War Between the States, and the party responsible for the shooting was never determined.

A fifth-order Fresnel lens was returned to the lantern room in 1863, when the station was completely overhauled. John M. Read was appointed keeper and served for thirty-five years. In 1864, Captain Williams was sailing a lighthouse tender from Pass a l’Outre to West Rigolets Lighthouse, loaded with supplies for repairing that station, when the tender was captured in Chandeleur Sound by a Rebel launch manned by twenty-two men. After stripping the tender of its sails, rigging, and all of the cargo they could carry, the Rebels set fire to the tender.

West Rigolets Light Station flooded by a storm
Photograph courtesy U.S. Coast Guard
A gale in early September 1869 damaged a breakwater that ran along the bank of the Bayou Rigolet and in front of the lighthouse, and almost entirely destroyed the station’s wharf and plank walk. The cistern, which held water for the keeper and his family, settled down as a result of the storm and leaned into the west side of the lighthouse. Minor repairs were made to keep the station in working order until the following work was finished in 1888:
The breakwater was rebuilt, making it 268 feet long and 6 feet high, by driving in the breakwater fourteen piles, each 10 inches square and 15 feet long, and fourteen creosoted piles, each measuring 16 inches at the butt and 15 feet long, with stringers 6 inches square, bolted to each pile with screw bolts at the top and bottom of the piles. The breakwater was sheathed by driving sixty pieces of creosoted piling, 3 inches thick, 12 inches wide, and 15 feet long. A wharf was built, 18 feet by 21 feet in plan, in front of the station on creosoted piles, and a plank walk 54 feet long was laid from the tower to the wharf. New foundations were put under the cisterns and many minor repairs were made. All the new work was painted and the sills and foundations under the dwelling and cisterns were whitewashed.

Anna Read took charge of West Rigolets Lighthouse in 1897, following the death of her husband. During her tenure, the lighthouse received substantial damage from two hurricanes, and it was further threatened by the encroachment of the muddy water of the Rigolets. A significant hurricane struck the station in 1915, when Thomas Zettwoch was in charge of the lighthouse, and inflicted significant damaged as seen in these two photographs: 1 and 2. The following year, the lighthouse was raised six feet and placed on a new foundation of concrete pilings, and the outbuildings, wharf, walkways, and bulkhead were all repaired.

On July 25, 1922, Keeper Charles W. Heartt rescued two people from drowning after a tarpon jumped into their boat, causing the vessel to overturn and dumping them into the water.

West Rigolets Lighthouse was abandoned in 1945, when an automated electric light was established nearby. The structure was subsequently sold to a private owner, Mike Vujnovich, for the sum of $2,500. When Vujnovich passed away in 1960, the lighthouse was left to his three nephews. Anton Zanki obtained sole control of the lighthouse after he bought out the other two nephews. Zanki’s son expressed interest in restoring the lighthouse, but no work had started as of April 2003. Besides the lighthouse itself, a brick oil house, built in 1910, and two large circular brick supports that once held the station’s wooden cisterns remained standing in 2003.

Hurricane Katrina destroyed West Rigolets Lighthouse on August 29, 2005. This picture of the lighthouse was taken by Matthew White just a few weeks before the hurricane came ashore. Of the 700 homes located on the island where West Rigolets Lighthouse stood, only twelve survived Katrina. Matthew White’s house was one of those lost.

The lighthouse was located just over a half mile northwest of Fort Pike. These two historic neighbors were a reminder of the important role the Rigolets played in New Orleans’ commerce and defense, but now just one remains to tell its story.


  • Head: James Cain (1855 – 1861), Thomas Harrison (1862), John M. Read (1863 – 1897), Anna M. Read (1897 – 1915), George M. Read (1915), Thomas Zettwoch (1915 – at least 1920), Charles W. Heartt (at least 1921 – at least 1923), Louis Buras (1925 – 1926), Epps Danley (at least 1930 – at least 1940).
  • Assistant: Daniel Frazer (1864).


  1. Lighthouses, Lightships, and the Gulf of Mexico, David Cipra, 1997.
  2. “Louisiana’s West Rigolets Lighthouse,” Jeremy D'Entremont, Lighthouse Digest, May 2002.

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