Sun Herald from Biloxi, Mississippi on March 22, 1992 · 72
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Sun Herald from Biloxi, Mississippi · 72

Biloxi, Mississippi
Issue Date:
Sunday, March 22, 1992
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THE SUN HERALD SUNDAY MARCH 22 1992 MISSISSIPPI’S GULF: Ripples of history G 8' Sound’s ever-changing nature is a constant ByKAT BERGERON THE SUN HERALD The Mississippi Sound ebbs through the lives of the Coast people supplying food commerce recreation and a history rich enough for an epic noveL From red irvn to pirates seafood canneries to hurricanes the chapters are as varied as the sea life that swim its waters The Sound is a common thread that historically binds Indian chiefs sun-loving tourists French explorers hard-working European immigrants Civil War soldiers rumrunners civil righters and fishermen Their surroundings are even more intriguing: disappearing islands 10-mile oyster reefs buried treasure sites fleets of war boats sandy beaches seawalls and stormy seas “The Gulf Coast is more than a past and a playground and the shore of a futile sea" the Mississippi journalist Hodding Carter wrote in the 1951 book “Gulf Coast Country” co-auth-ored with Biloxian Tony Ragusin “This amphitheater-like region along the Gulf of Mexico extends about 150 miles from east to west and penetrates no more than 5 miles inland- But none of this matters for the Gulf Coast is an area of the spirit and not of geography” The chronicles of the Sound its coastline and people need no embellishment But the better-than-fiction stories are seldom told by historians outside the Coast Official record-keeping began 293 years ago when Pierre LeMoyne d’Iberville anchored off Ship Island The Canadian explorer was looking for the mouth of the Mississippi River and reaffirming France’s claims In 1699 he and his men rowed across the Sound to present-day Biloxi where according to one journal they ate “some rather good oysters" Iberville chose Ocean Springs for his first fort but political intrigue moved the capital to Mobile Ocean Springs and Biloxi before New Orleans became the permanent seat “From the time that Iberville landed to now there have been people living on our Coast” said historian Charles L Sullivan of Perkinston “The Coast area is the oldest unbroken settlement on the northern Gulf rim At times there was just a handful of people but they were here living on fish from the Sound” Before them came the red men “Indian mounds were used as cemeteries by the English and Americans for the interment of soldiers and sailors” observed an 1886 writer “In prehistoric ages they were apparently employed for the same purpose as skeletons fragments of pottery stone hatchets and arrowheads are frequently excavated by shell dealers who (sell them) for paving the streets of Southern cities” Shark bones and other oyster mounds prove the Indians in their Coast farming and fishing villages took advantage of the Sound’s bounty When the French landed centuries later only small tribes maintained homes along the waterways Two of them — the Pascagoula and Biloxis — were honored when their names became map designations French and Indians mingled ‘ Life was rough for the early settlers who received scant European supplies Luckily the food of the Sound filled their bellies and Indian women helped fill the gap left by few European brides But were the French the first white men in the Sound? Historians have wondered if DeSoto and LaSalle who explored the Mississippi made it this far or if the early claims of Vickings and Portugese are true The French however did plant the roots of today’s dries Growth was slowed when the capital was moved to New Orleans but the seafood bounty gave remaining settlers hope that one day the Coast would thrive After a succession of European ownerships the American flag was raised over the Coast in 1811 Dr William Flood the magistrate sent to do the honors described the scene: “They are all along this beautiful Coast a primitive people of mixed origin retaining the gaiety and politeness of the French They plant a little rice and a few vegetables but depend for subsistence chiefly on game and fish” Rampant piracy slowed with the American takeover Before uncertain rule under the British Spanish and French flags made the Sound free game for privateers who used political intrigue as an excuse The barrier islands became hiding places for their booty so legends claim and occasional pieces of eight that have washed ashore revive the unproven tales A favorite is the story of the badless pirate ghost who guards a Deer Island treasure Much later the islands became drop-offs for booze pirates the gutsy rumrunners of the Prohibition Still later came the drug runners The islands hold names the French gave them for their shapes or objects DEEP &EA FISH CAUGHT ON THE MISSISSIPPI GULF COAST This oiio-day catch c-onsisttd of 10 Iwmitu 22 Spanish mm-korc'l 1‘ kin? nuukorol weighing: from 10 to 18 pounds a -pnnd linjLt a -to-pound ercvnlla or sea jack and 20 him runners or hardtails COURTESY OF ELIZABETH BRASH This fish catch of the 1940s was immortalized In a popular postcard or animals they found on them One 19th-century travel writer mused: “The islands seem so old so full of the dreamy sleep of another epoch in history ” In 1971 Ship Horn and Petit Bois became part of Gulf Islands National Seashore and as such are owned by all Americans Cat is in private hands while Deer and Round have several owners including municipalities The Sound as a highway Geography dictated that most of the 800 who lived on the Coast when the American flag was raised lived near the Sound Inland there were few roads and many savannas swamps and pine forests to surmount “The Sound was a main highway until recent times ” historian Sullivan said “People along the Coast couldn’t get to their own capital without taking a boat on the Sound to New Orleans then going upriver then inland “People didn’t travel much by roads here They were dangerous time-consuming Steamboat travel was much easier” Ironically descendants of those who pulled up stakes to move to New Orleans helped develop the Coast in the next century when they returned as tourists “Fine fishing good shooting elegant boating delightful bathing splendid balls and pleasant promenades — an atmosphere soft and mellow as a summer’s sun and sea breeze can make it” one happy New Orleanian penned in 1842 This first flood of tourists called the villages their “watering places” ' The Sound as a cure “In the 19th century people had the idea that salt water and fresh water from the springs were medicinal” Sullivan said “Ocean Springs had springs but so did other places Then there was the salty Sound One 1866 Mississippi City visitor crowed “Talk of the delicious pleasures of the Turkish bath Bah! It is tame beside the gloriously exhilarating delight of a revel in Gulf waters ” They had reasons to seek medicinal wonders New Orleans and other big cities bred disease in the heat of summer and those who could afford it fled to the Coast’s boardinghouses and resort hotels Whenever yellow fever surfaced they headed en masse to the Coast which until health officials wised up welcomed them with open cash registers “No Yellow Fever Here” claimed headlines beckoning them In truth the fleeing city folk brought their disease with them and the locals succumbed By the 1870s both the diseased and the healthy were arriving by train more often than steamboat When its usefulness as a highway diminished the Sound grew into a sporting paradise Giant tarpons Spanish mackerel and other fish became sirens for humans with fishing rods Imagine the delight of RH Montgomery an 1851 guest who brought in a 214-pound black drum Piers both for fishing and sea bathing jutted into the Sound sometimes for a half-mile Lumber and labor was cheap so every beachfront home and hotel boasted a pier or pavilion on stilts Their planks doubled as a vantage point for boat races Crowds gathered to watch community rivalries which were settled in the Sound when pleasure and fishing boats competed to see who was fastest Pass Christian took credit for being the birthplace of Southern yacht -racing launched with an 1849 regatta Saturday Night Seems every day something comes along to make our lives a little better Fortunately Saturday nights still come along to remind us that it's the simpfle things we hold dear So we’ll keep giving life to the technology and the changes You keep giving life to the rest Vanishing oysters Giant oyster reefs have also done disappearing acts due to overhar- vesting and meddling with nature A giant one in front of Pass Christian which in 1886 stretched 10 miles long is a mere shell of its former self In the 19th century fishermen blamed reef decimation on the opening of Louisiana’s freshwater spillways into the Sound In this century scientists have blamed overharvesting pollution and conchs The oyster more so than shrimp brought the Coast into its seafood age By the late 1800s Biloxi stole the title “Seafood Capital of the World” from Baltimore from which it also raked technology and seasonal workers to process the seafood Other Coast towns shared in the glory most with their own fleets and factories Screeching cannery whistles grimy shrimp nickels and the seafood stench were welcome for they meant posterity Giant shell piles created by canneries and shucking sheds rose everywhere The shells became landfill chicken grit or street pavement As reefs depleted' shrimping and commercial fishing gained new importance Schooners were de-masted and motorized and soon outdated by modem luggers and double-trawlers in the ever-changing Sound Conflicts affect Coast Three major wars have rattled the waters The first came at the end of the War of 1812 when the mightiest armada ever to approach the shores of America loomed off the Coast On Dec 13 1814 20000 British soldiers amassed near Cat and Ship in a fight for New Orleans lost to outnumbered Andrew Jackson Next came the Civil War When Coast Confederates were told by their leaders to abandon strategic Ship Island the Union moved in and isjand launched a successful axact against New Orleans Meanwhile on shore no supply boats could land and residents would have starved if not for the seafood From this era sprang the Sound’s famous “Biloxi Bacon” a popeye mullet that still is eaten The people also distilled sea water and used the salt as a valuable trading tooL The next upheaval World War I had less effect The incomplete Mississippi Centennial site in Gulfport was turned over to Uncle Sam and thousands of sailors trained in the Sound but that was about it During World War II the fear of German submarines took hold and the Coast Guard patrolled the Sound Private boats became war vessels and two islands were declared off limits On Horn Island a secret chemical warfare testing station bustled and on Cat J apanese-American soldiers bravely let themselves be attacked by war dogs which never did learn to recognize Japanese Unfriendly hurricanes War of another kind was ripping apart the Sound before the French arrival In recorded history at least 18 hurricanes and numerous tropical storms have divided islands eroded beaches and smashed the Coast’s -piers and buildings Like blood-letting gnats the storms pecked at the watering places as they developed In 1860 for example three hurricanes rammed through in two months causing one pious Pascagoulan to lament: “This is God’s judgment- It is a token of His wrath and displeasure for the people here drink too much whiskey play cards too much and never look out for themselves” Years and more storms passed until finally in 1915 the shoreline residents had had enough They’d Mississippi Power POWER FOR LIVING watched 400 feet of beachfront be eroded by hungry hurricanes A protective wall to keep back the Sound was the answer Harrison County residents decided at a mass meeting But World War I interfered with the project and the three-county 28-mile $34 million wall wasn’t started until 1924 Six years later the Coast claimed “the most comprehensive shore protection in the world” The seawall though was no match for the big blows of 1947 and Camille in 1969 the latter killing 141 with its 210-mph winds and surges The last big blow in 1985 — Hurricane Elena — chewed up $352 million in property but took no Coast lives Seawall helps tourism US 90 The seawall cannot stop the giants though it remains a tourism boon When Dr William Flood surveyed in 1811 the coastline was a mixture of beaches sandy bluffs bayou inlets and swampy areas with trees The seawall changed all that Erosion then ate away the existing beach and the Sound soon licked the seawall threatening to undermine it Uncle Sam footed the $15 million bill to pump in new sand in 1951 When the project was complete the Coast then boasted the “world’s longest manmade beach” Ironically the replenished sand that pleased residents and tourists became a rallying point for desegregation Blacks barred from some sections of the beach filed civil rights suits which led to years of appeals and finally the right to swim anywhere on the public beaches With the seawall also came the up- grading of the beachfront road whose intermittent sections were connected to form US 90 The Sound is no longer the “highway” of early days but its role as playground and source of livelihood remain unchallenged A 1

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