1906: A Caisson Lighthouse in the Gulf of Mexico First Goes into Service

March 15, 1906

A caisson lighthouse in the Gulf of Mexico was lit for the first time. (Each caisson lighthouse has a superstructure resting on a concrete or metal caisson in order to better withstand potentially severe weather conditions.) This addition to American lighthouses off the Gulf Coast of the United States was specifically installed just south of the mouth of the Sabine River in Texas. William B. Thompson was the Sabine Bank Light’s first head keeper; he served in this position until 1908 and then again between 1909 and 1911.

The Sabine Bank Light was designed and constructed in the first place to help ensure greater safety for numerous large vessels regularly making their way to and from that river. The need for such a navigational aid in the region was made all the more urgent by a series of vessels that ran aground along the Sabine River between 1899 and 1901. Not long before the Sabine Bank Light went into service, the Marine Journal asserted that it would “prove of great benefit to vessels engaged in the oil-carrying trade between Beaumont, Tex., and New Orleans.”

One of the more notable features of the Sabine Bank Light has been its foundation, which U.S. Coast Guard (USCG) photojournalist David L. Cipra discussed in this 1976 book Lighthouses & Lightships of the Northern Gulf of Mexico. “The foundation of this lighthouse was fabricated ashore and towed to the bank some 15 miles [24.1 kilometers] offshore,” according to Cipra. “Its foundation was dug by workmen — underneath in a pressurized chamber of the seabed.”

That foundation’s durability was significantly tested by a fierce hurricane that swept through the area and pummeled the Sabine Bank Light in August 1915. “The hatches to the gallery, 26 feet [41.8 kilometers] above sea level, were torn off,” recounted Cipra in describing that hurricane’s impact on the Sabine Bank Light. “Much of the lighthouse above the gallery level was carried away, but the foundation remained solid.”

The Sabine Bank Light was subsequently restored in its entirety and relit. The U.S. Department of Commerce was the parent agency of the Bureau of Lighthouses at this time, and it was U.S. Commerce Secretary William B. Redfield who officially commended the members of Sabine Bank Light’s staff for performing their duties despite the life-threatening hazards posed by that hurricane. The recipients of this commendation were Albert B. Modawell, head keeper; James Brew, first assistant keeper; Joseph W. Gauthier, second assistant keeper; and Ulysses M. Gunn, third assistant keeper.

This lighthouse, which remains in operation today, has been automated and unstaffed since 1923. During World War II, it was used as a coastal lookout station.

Photo Credit: National Archives and Records Administration

For more information on the Sabine Bank Light, please check out https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Sabine_Bank_Light

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