Digest>Archives> Jul/Aug 2011

The Hero of Horn Island Lighthouse, Pascagoula, Mississippi

By Timothy Harrison

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The first Horn Island Lighthouse, built in 1874, was a screw-pile style lighthouse that exhibited its beacon for the first time on June 30 of that year. It was not actually built on Horn Island, but nearby. However, by the late 1880s the structure was deemed unsafe and a new lighthouse was built in 1887 on what was thought to be the safest spot on Horn Island proper. The old screw pile lighthouse was stripped of everything and left standing as a day- mark. Amazingly, even though it swayed in the wind, the abandoned structure stood another six years, until 1893 when it was destroyed by a storm.

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The second Horn Island Lighthouse was built in ...

The second Horn Island Lighthouse, built in 1887, stood until 1900 when, because of erosion, it was dismantled and moved 253 feet north of its original location. Although one of the long time early keepers of Horn Island Lighthouse was Civil War hero and Medal of Honor recipient Martin Freeman, he is not considered the Hero of Horn Island. That distinction goes to Charles Johnsson, whose last name is sometimes spelled with only one letter ‘s,’ as Johnson.

Johnson, who was a native of Poland, lived at Horn Island Lighthouse with his wife, Catherine and eighteen year old daughter. Apparently, four of his other five children had already moved out.

On the evening of September 26, 1906 lighthouse keeper Johnsson, wrote in the station’s logbook that the winds were picking up and that a hurricane was on its way. Up until that time, Johnsson and his family lived a typical lighthouse life at this quaint station. They raised chickens, had some cattle and several domestic pets.

Johnsson was an observant weather watcher and he knew the storm that evening would be a big one. In the 12 years he had been stationed there he had witnessed his share of storms and the sturdy little lighthouse had withstood them all.

Others, such as, Henry Miller, captain of the tugboat Lee Campbell, Jr., also believed the storm would be a big one, perhaps more powerful than any of them had ever previously witnessed. As the storm gained in intensity, Captain Miller went to the lighthouse and begged Johnson to come with him and evacuate the lighthouse. Keeper Johnson told Miller that he couldn’t leave his post, saying the government was paying him to do a job telling Miller that if he wasn’t there to keep the lighthouse beacon burning, ships could be lost at sea.

Miller then asked Johnsson about his family. Johnsson went inside the keeper’s quarters and conferred with his wife and daughter. A few moments later he stepped outside and simply told Miller, “They will stay.” It was a fateful decision.

In the early morning of hours of September 27, 1906, during the height of the storm, the locals on land looked out to sea and immediately realized the light from the beacon was no longer sending forth its beam. It took another day before the waters were calm enough for a rescue mission to be launched to the lighthouse. However, the would-be rescuers soon realized what they had feared the most. When they reached the location, they found that nothing was left, except some debris floating in the water and a couple of cows that had somehow survived by reaching high ground. Eventually, the searchers found the body of lighthouse keeper Johnsson. However, even after an extensive search, the bodies of the keeper’s wife and daughter were not found, not did they ever surface.

As soon as the word spread about the disaster, Johnsson was referred to as the Hero of Horn Island; a man who gave his life to keep the light burning. Unfortunately, that devotion to duty also cost the life of his wife and daughter. Johnsson’s body was brought to Mobile, Alabama for internment. Folklore has it that a surviving daughter walked the beaches of Pascagoula always looking out, perhaps, in her own way, trying to communicate with her mother and sister who lost their lives at the lighthouse

In 1908 the U. S. Lighthouse Establishment built a new lighthouse nearby. This time they built it high on pilings to withstand the high rush of water in hurricanes. Even though the new structure was named the Petit Bois Lighthouse, the locals believed that in memory of the former keeper and to honor the ultimate sacrifice made by him and his family, the government should have named the structure the Horn Island Lighthouse.

Although the official name was Petit Boise Lighthouse, named because it was actually built closer to Petit Bois Island than to Horn Island., in was never known by its new name. Locals and even future keepers of the Petit Bois Lighthouse always referred to it as The New Horn Island Lighthouse. As time went by, the word new stopped being used and it was simply referred to as the Horn Island Lighthouse.

In 1951 the Petit Bois Lighthouse (New Horn Island Lighthouse) was automated and the keepers removed. In 1961 modern aids to navigation were installed in the area and the lighthouse was discontinued altogether. Left to the elements, it was eventually destroyed.

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This story appeared in the Jul/Aug 2011 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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