Landmark of the Mississippi Gulf Coast
The Biloxi Lighthouse is a beautiful old survivor. It stood through not only the Civil War, but two of the deadliest hurricanes in American history. Even the development of a major four-lane highway could not move it from its spot on the waterfront of Biloxi, Mississippi.
The lighthouse overlooks Mississippi Sound and the Gulf of Mexico from an island formed not by water but by the east and west bound lanes of U.S. 90. It is the only lighthouse in the United States that stands in the center of a major highway.
The historic tower was built in 1848 and is one of the oldest cast iron lighthouse in the nation. Its exterior walls are made from white-painted plates of cast iron instead of stone or brick. Forty-five feet tall from its base to the lantern room, the structure cost $6,347 to build and was part of a complex that included a keeper’s house and related buildings.
The strength of the Biloxi Lighthouse was first proved in 1860 when a major hurricane hit the Mississippi Gulf Coast. Not only was the tower not damaged, it continued to operate through the storm.
A storm of a different type followed when Mississippi seceded from the Union in January 1861. The Magnolia State first became an independent country but cast its lot with other cotton states to form the Confederate States of America just one month later. In the meantime its militia forces occupied the unfinished fort on Ship Island – naming it Fort Twiggs after Gen. David E. Twiggs – and took control of the Biloxi lighthouse. Confederate troops removed the lantern from the tower on June 18, 1861, darkening the light for the first time in its history.
Efforts to prepare Fort Twiggs for battle were abandoned in September when Gen. Twiggs himself ordered Southern troops to evacuate the post. Without support from warships, the garrison was hopelessly isolated and vulnerable. The commander of the fort was Lt. Col. H.W. Allen. As his men completed the dismantling of their post he left a note for the Union soldiers that he knew would come: “In leaving to-day we beg you accept our best wishes for your health and happiness.”
Union troops did come. They occupied the fort, calling it Fort Massachusetts after the warship USS Massachusetts, completing its walls and building other facilities on the island. Among these was a p.o.w. camp where hundreds of Confederate prisoners of war died from exposure and disease. The Biloxi Lighthouse remained dark until the end of the war, but the tower could be seen from the walls of Fort Massachusetts on clear days.
Persistent legend holds that lighthouse was painted black in 1865 in a show of mourning over the assassination of Abraham Lincoln. The story is often repeated in articles and many tourists heard it in one form or another. The true story is that the tower was painted with tar to protect it from rust at the time of its reactivation in 1865. Memories of the blackened look of the tower merged over the years with memories of the Lincoln assassination and a legend was born.
The black look of the tower lasted until 1868 when the lighthouse was painted white. It survived another hurricane that year but once again its light shone through the darkest hours of the storm.
Hurricanes, in fact, have played major roles in the history of Biloxi and its beautiful old lighthouse. The October storm of 1893, for example, washed away a seawall and threatened the foundations of the tower. Twin hurricanes struck in 1916 and 1917, but the Biloxi Lighthouse survived despite more damage to the grounds and support structures.
The tower has withstood two of the deadliest hurricanes ever to hit the United States. The first of these was Hurricane Camille, which slammed the Mississippi Gulf Coast on August 17, 1969. The storm brought sustained winds of 190 miles per hour and gusts of more than 220 miles per hour. Camille killed 300 people and injured 9,000 more while destroying more than 5,000 homes. The Biloxi Lighthouse, however, survived.
The second storm was Hurricane Katrina, which brought a 28-foot storm surge to Biloxi on August 28, 2005. It was the highest surge ever recorded in the United States and ninety percent of the buildings along the coastline of Biloxi and nearby Gulfport were destroyed. Ninety percent of the buildings along the coastline of Biloxi and nearby Gulfport were destroyed. An estimated 126 people died in Harrison County, Mississippi.
The Biloxi Lighthouse was damaged but the tower stood defiant against the storm. An American flag was draped from its top and it became a symbol of survival and rebirth for residents of Mississippi. It soon adorned the state’s license plates.
The lighthouse, like much of the Biloxi waterfront, has been restored. Guided tours ($5 for adults, $2 for kids 2-12) are available daily at 9, 9:15 and 9:30 a.m. The Biloxi Lighthouse stands in the middle of U.S. 90 at Porter Avenue in Biloxi, Mississippi. See the map at the bottom of this page for directions.
Click the play buttons below to enjoy a live stream from the tower and an excellent video on its history: