Hurricanes Rita and Ike took a toll on the Sabine Pass lighthouse, damaging the structure’s foundation.
Unfortunately, the hurricanes also took their toll on the group that oversees the lighthouse and grounds.
Cameron residents have had a bevy of more pressing post-hurricane problems, securing structures for their own housing and schooling not the least of those, leaving little time for much else.
Thus, membership in the Cameron Preservation Alliance-Sabine Pass has fallen from 300 before Hurricane Rita hit in 2005 to fewer than 100, said President Carolyn Thibodeaux.
“It disrupted people’s lives in Louisiana and Texas who were the workforce in our organization,” Thibodeaux said. “In 2008, with Ike, that just disrupted it a little further.”
First lit in 1857, save for a pause during the Civil War, the lighthouse guided travelers until 1952, when technology made it obsolete.
The lighthouse isn’t forgotten. Both the Cameron Parish and Johnson Bayou libraries “support the lighthouse greatly,” Thibodeaux said.
The Calcasieu Historical Preservation Society included the lighthouse on its most recent list of the area’s most endangered structures. Where the lighthouse sits was part of Calcasieu Parish when it was constructed in the 1850s.
“The people of Cameron Parish had to deal with so many other issues just to survive and live, the lighthouse has sort of fallen off the radar,” said Adley Cormier, a preservationist with the Calcasieu society. “It’s my belief that we need to expand and work with them and see how we can best help them.”
The lighthouse and the 45 acres of land surrounding it were transferred to the Cameron preservation group in 2001, allowing the organization to seek more grants.
Thibodeaux said the association accomplished a lot to stabilize the lighthouse before 2005.
In 2004, the association was in the process of seeking stabilization grants, but “that’s pretty much stopped,” she said.
There is work still being done on the lighthouse, which sits four miles off U.S. 82 and can now only be reached by boat. There is a road that travels from U.S. 82 to Lighthouse Bayou, which runs around the lighthouse.
Thibodeaux said Cheniere Energy, a Houston-based company that she calls a great financial contributor, is working to build a footbridge over the bayou.
She said the Cameron preservation organization has also applied for a grant with BP to build a pull-off along the highway, so travelers could stop and look through a lens to view the lighthouse.
Though it has seen its share of hurricanes and is need of repair, the lighthouse still stands tall.
“It’s still a great symbol of the resolve of this area,” Cormier said. “We really believe it is a very important building to tell the story of Southwest Louisiana. It’s a whole lot easier to tell history if you have a visual. That building is a survivor.”
According to the lighthouse’s website, an 1886 hurricane killed 150 residents in Sabine Pass and “blew away everything except the lighthouse.”
The lighthouse base is flared with eight buttresses, which cause it to look like a rocket when viewed from the sky.
Hurricane Rita damaged the bricks of those buttresses, “making it more vulnerable to destruction, deteriorating faster than it was before,” Thibodeaux said.
She believes that $3 million is needed to stabilize the lighthouse. In 2004, the association was seeking $10 million that would have stabilized the base and built a museum, education center and gift shop.
Thibodeaux believes there is still plenty of interest in the lighthouse.
In March 2012, the preservation association hosted the U.S. Lighthouse Society, and in 2009 the lighthouse was one of five Gulf Coast lighthouses featured in a series of U.S. postal stamps.
“We still have a lot of interest, people calling and wanting to go out to the lighthouse,” Thibodeaux said. “There are lots of people who are really into historic lighthouses, just the romantic idea of lighthouses.”
Cormier called them “lighthouse groupies,” who go from state to state seeking out lighthouses.
“There are all sorts of wonderful possibilities, but unfortunately it’s in a very remote part of Louisiana,” he said of what could be done with the property.
Thibodeaux said the largest amount raised for the lighthouse was $48,000 at an event at the Museum of the Gulf Coast in Port Arthur, Texas.
“Texas has always claimed the lighthouse as their lighthouse, and they’ve really worked the hardest to get it stabilized,” she said.
Ami Kamara, curator for the Gulf Coast Museum, said East Texans still consider the lighthouse a part of their history as well.
“When you live on the Gulf, you consider the whole Gulf your home,” she said. “The lighthouses were such an important part of living on a coast and keeping it safe for the shipping industry.
“It’s a shame they fall into disrepair. History needs to be preserved.”
Funding is not a new issue for the lighthouse. According to its website, the deed to the lighthouse was transferred to the Louisiana Wildlife and Fisheries Commission in the 1950s, but reverted back to the federal government because funds for upkeep were unavailable.
A similar situation happened in the 1970s, when the deed was transferred to Lamar University, but again reverted back to the federal government.
Cormier said he would like the structure to be thought of as Southwest Louisiana’s lighthouse, with the five-parish area, as well as Southeast Texas, chipping in.
“We need to be aware that it is a shared resource and help might come from both sides of the river,” he said. “It’s part of our history, too. It’s an opportunity for all Southwest Louisiana to come together.”