Digest>Archives> September 1995

Ship Island Played Vital Role in American History


Three times this Mississippi Gulf Coast seven mile long and half mile wide subtropical island has played a dramatic role in American history.

The first time was in 1699 in what is often said "the Deep South started here" when the French fleet set foot on the island. From its island base the soldiers came to the mainland on small boats and established the first white settlement in what is now the entire Mississippi Valley.

The second time was during the War of 1812, when the largest amphibious invasion force by a foreign government launched an attack on American soil in the Battle of New Orleans.

The third time was during the Civil War, when the Fort known today as Fort Massachusetts changed hands four times.

One of the more interesting stories relates to the Casket Girls of Ship Island. During the first years of the settlement there were no white women for the several hundred soldiers and sailors. To prevent the restless males from mating promiscuously with the willing Indian maidens the French government shipped groups of marriageable women from France.

Although some of the young women were carefully selected by the Church from convents and orphanages, many more were recruited from prisons, brothels, and the slums of Paris. The women were shipped to Ship Island accompanied by nuns, and each female was given a little casket containing clothing and linens and some jewelry. When they arrived at the island they were strictly supervised by the nuns until they were married off. The first group of 23 females arrived in 1704. Within a short period of time, they were all married except one, who no one would have. Because of their dowry chests they were known as "Filles a la Casette" or, in English,"Casket Girls".

One of the most historically important events in American history occurred on December 11, 1814 when an armada of 50 British War Ships, plus hundreds of transport and supply ships, boldly sailed into Ship Island Harbor and weighed anchor. On board were 10,000 sailors, 1500 British Marines and 9000 battle proven soldiers who had fought against and defeated Napolean. The British clearly believed they would liberate the Louisiana Territory, for with them were hundreds of civil servants with which they intended to set up a civil government. The Treaty of Ghent, which would end the War of 1812 was being signed at the same time the British were getting ready to attack New Orleans. Although most history books state that the battle of New Orleans was only fought because the British military leaders at Ship Island were unaware of the treaty being signed, this is not entirely true. The United States purchased the Louisiana Territory from Napolean in 1802 for $15 million. Great Britain never recognized the sale as legitimate because they had claimed that France stole Louisiana from Spain and therefore had no legal right to sell it and therefore the Peace Treaty with the United States did not cover the Louisiana Territory.

If the United States had lost the Battle of New Orleans, which was fought on January 8, 1815, there is no doubt that in spite of the already signed Peace Treaty, Great Britain would have kept and occupied New Orleans and the rest of the Louisiana Territory. This would have eventually caused another war at a later date, or the Peace Treaty would have been ignored and the War of 1812 would have continued.

In 1853 shortly after the Biloxi Lighthouse was built, the government established the first lighthouse on Ship Island. However, by 1862 water had undermined the tower so much that it looked like the leaning tower of Pisa. In 1862 extensive renovations were made. The tower then lasted until 1886 when it was condemned as unsafe. A new wooden tower was built the same year about 300 feet from the original tower. This tower had an open stairway to the lantern room. On August 28, 1886 the pedestal and the 4th order lens (which at one time at been at Barnegat Light, NJ) was moved to the new tower. However, it was not until later that year that it was agreed that the tower should be enclosed. In December 1886 the tower was sheathed inside, and weatherboard was put on the outside enclosing the tower. Doors and windows were put in and shelves were built inside to store supplies. The old tower was torn down and the bricks were use as a base around the new tower to prevent erosion and protect it from high storm waters.

During the 1890s, when the construction of the L & N Railroad along the coast started the flow of tourist traffic to Biloxi, excursions had there beginning to Ship Island. The unofficial host to the tourists was Old Dan McCall, the Ship Island Lighthouse Keeper. Old Dan was a Confederate War veteran, who had lost one leg in a train accident and was known for his unrestrained boisterous profanity as well as his hearty hospitality. Old Dan would stump around the island and spiritedly show visitors the fort and his own collection of mementoes he had collected from ships captains from all over the world who had to clear their vessels at the Ship Island quarantine station.

In the Autumn of 1898 the Lighthouse Board added two range lights to Ship Island, known as the South Channel Range Beacon Lights. Each was a brown 4 pile wooden pyramidal structure, covered with horizontal slats and supported arms from which a lantern was suspended.

In June of 1889 it was decided that operating one lighthouse and two range lights was too much of a hardship for a Keeper who had only one leg, and Keeper Dan McCall was transferred to nearby Cat Island Lighthouse where he served until his death in June 1904. In a 1922 interview, his widow recalled life at Ship Island in the 1880s and 90s as being pleasant. She went on to say, "During the warm months, many persons visited the area, there were picnics and excursions. Our quarters were neat, clean and comfortable. Aboard the revenue cutter, which made frequent calls, there was a circulating library and we were encouraged to borrow books and periodicals."

However with the threat of yellow fever, excursions to Ship Island stopped in 1905 and no organized excursion to Ship Island occurred again until 1934. In that year, through a special act of Congress, Ship Island and Ft. Massachusetts were deeded to the Joe Graham Post of the American Legion to be preserved as a tourist attraction. However, the deed did not include the lighthouse. When the Joe Graham Post sought to enlist the aid of Senator John Stennis to gain unlimited access to the lighthouse, the Coast Guard balked and refused.

On October 11, 1959 the Coast Guard granted a special use permit for the lighthouse to a Philip M. Duvic "for private use and general recreational purposes." At that time the lighthouse was is sad shape, having been neglected for years and suffering at the hands of vandals. Duvic made majors repairs to the station and in 1961 remodeled the interior of the tower. On the ground floor he installed a galley and head, the second deck became the ladies dormitory, the third deck was the men's dormitory and the top deck was made into a honeymoon suite.

In 1965 the Coast Guard announced that it would not renew Duvic's lease and the Coast Guard would take bids for the sale of the tower. The highest bidder would have to remove the lighthouse from Ship Island within 90 days after being awarded the bid.

Duvic made his bid, which was the only bid, and for $250.00 he now owned the lighthouse. However, for whatever reason, Duvic never was required to move the lighthouse and was allowed to stay, although the land was transferred by the Coast Guard to the General Services Administration.

On the evening of August 17, 1969 Hurricane Camille smashed into Ship Island and cracked part of the foundation and tore 12 feet of siding off the structure. However, as in the numerous hurricanes that had struck the station in the past, the tower survived.

Duvic, personally was not so lucky. The hurricane destroyed his home and he and his family barely escaped with their lives. Because of his personal economic loss and knowing that the lighthouse would soon become part of the Gulf Islands National Seashore, he made no effort to repair the structure.

In 1972, vandals accomplished what years of storms and neglect were unable to do. On the evening of June 27th Ship Island Lighthouse was set on fire by unknown persons. Fanned by high winds another American Lighthouse along with an important part of our nations heritage was reduced to a heap of ashes.

This story appeared in the September 1995 edition of Lighthouse Digest Magazine. The print edition contains more stories than our internet edition, and each story generally contains more photographs - often many more - in the print edition. For subscription information about the print edition, click here.

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