An original 1853 lighthouse led mariners to safety at Ship Island, the natural deep-water port discovered and named by French explorers in 1699. The lighthouse used an innovative Fresnel lens—a superior, multifaceted beehive of glass that refracted many prisms of light into a strong, solid beam radiating a brighter, more dependable beacon than weaker glows from other lighthouses.
In 1861 Confederate forces evacuating Ship Island attempted to burn the lighthouse and escaped with the Fresnel lens. Occupying Union troops restored the lighthouse and installed a Fresnel lens once used in the Bayou St. John lighthouse between New Orleans and Lake Pontchartrain.
In 1886 a new and now more familiar square wooden lighthouse with another Fresnel lens rose at Ship Island to replace the deteriorating brick lighthouse. Ship Island Light Station #2 shone brightly for almost 80 years, until decommissioning in 1964. The beloved Gulf Coast landmark survived the ravages of 1969’s infamous Hurricane Camille only to succumb to a careless campfire in 1972. On October 9, 1998 (Hancock Bank’s 99th birthday), Hancock and other community partners launched construction of a third lighthouse using original blueprints and regional materials.
With an estimated value of more than $800,000, the original 4th order Fresnel lens had found its way home as a featured attraction at the Biloxi Seafood and Maritime Museum when Hurricane Katrina devastated the Gulf Coast on August 29, 2005. The storm shattered the lens into 31 pieces. Workers retrieved every shard of the lens from the rubble and sent the fragments to the St. Augustine Lighthouse Museum for painstaking restoration. The lens came back to its Mississippi Gulf Coast home in 2010.
Ship Island Light Station #3 proved no match for Katrina’s unprecedented surge. However, the regional spirit the lighthouse embodied and the Fresnel lens that led generations to safe harbor and new opportunity endure as tributes to the resilient spirit, strong shared values, and promises of a shining future for the Gulf South.