By Renée S. Gordon
Five states have coastlines along the Gulf of Mexico, (Alabama, Florida, Louisiana, Texas and Mississippi) and for more than 300-years the resident’s fortunes have been closely tied to the Gulf of Mexico and the Mississippi River that flows into it.
Pierre le Moyne D’Iberville set sail from Brest on October 24, 1698 with orders from King Louis XIV of France to establish a colony on the lower Mississippi River to maintain free access to the waterway. His flotilla consisted of two frigates and more than 200 people. On March 2, 1699 he discovered the mouth of the Mississippi and in April established the settlement of Fort Maurepas on a bluff on the northeastern shore of the Bay of Biloxi at what is now Ocean Springs, MS. This was the first non-native settlement in the lower Mississippi Valley.
The people of Mississippi’s Gulf Coast would, from the time of their earliest settlements, prove to have been gifted with resilience, persistence and a strong streak of individuality that permeates everything they do. Phoenix-like Mississippi’s coastal cities have arisen from the devastation resulting from three of the country’s worst disasters. Four years of Civil War damaged an economy largely dependent upon the transport of southern goods, Hurricane Katrina in 2005 caused billions of dollars in damage and last year’s Deepwater Horizon (BP) oil spill’s toll is still being tallied.
Coastal Mississippi has rebounded and they are extending an invitation to visitors to come and take advantage of all that they have to offer. The Gulf is home to more than 40,000 dolphins, the 26-mile beach is the longest man-made beach in the world and is considered among the best beaches for shells, more than 400 varieties, in the nation. On land there are 11 casinos, museums, historic homes and numerous outdoor activities.
Biloxi, a 12-mile peninsula, was the site of the first colony in 1699 and the name itself is an Indian word meaning “first people.” New Biloxi was founded in 1719 and was the capital of French Louisiana for three years. Six flags have flown over the territory, France, Spain, Great Britain, the West Florida Republic, the Confederacy and the United States and a ride along scenic Beach Boulevard is a visual historical orientation.
The cast iron Biloxi Lighthouse arrived in the city in 1848 aboard a ship from Baltimore. The 65-ft. structure is open for morning tours but visitors should be aware that there are 57 spiral steps and, because it is brick lined, it can be very warm. The interior is marked to indicate storm levels. It was once bounded by water on three sides but is now completely on land just off the highway. In an unusual move women were the main keepers of the lighthouse. Beach Blvd & Porter Ave.
An historic marker has been placed on the beach directly in front of the lighthouse to denote the site of protests to desegregate Biloxi Beach.
Beauvoir, the Jefferson Davis Home and Presidential Library, 2244 Beach Blvd, a 51-acre estate was the home to which the sole President of the Confederate States of America retired after serving two years in federal prison. He wrote his memoirs here and upon his death in 1889 his wife sold the property for $10,000 to be used as a home for Confederate veterans. The mansion would house more than 2,000 individuals prior to closing in 1940, some ex-slaves who fought on the side of the Confederacy. A cemetery on the grounds holds more than 700 Confederate graves. The 1853 house is furnished with many Davis’ family pieces. A new library is under construction.
Every aspect of the Ohr-O’Keefe Museum of Art is spectacular, from the art itself to the award-winning buildings so creatively designed by Frank Gehry. The museum is designed with individual structures unified visually so as to appear to be “dancing with the trees.” Three of the five exhibition galleries open this year with the museum scheduled for completion in 2012. The current featured artists are George E. Ohr, Andy Warhol and Richmond Barthé.
George Ohr (1857-1918) has achieved legendary status as the “Mad Potter of Biloxi.” Ohr created utilitarian pottery pieces for sale but also crafted art pottery on the side. Seventy-eight pieces are on display accompanied by interpretive panels and photographs. Highlights of the exhibit are numerous but visitors must not miss his whimsical inkwells, brothel tokens and puzzle mugs.
Born in Bay St. Louis, MS, Richmond Barthé went on to be America’s premier African American sculptor. The 22 pieces in this exhibit were gathered from several collections and have never been displayed together before.
Also on the grounds is the reconstructed Pleasant Reed Cottage. The original home was destroyed during Katrina in 2005 and the current structure was rededicated in 2008. Pleasant Reed was born enslaved and moved to Biloxi after freedom. Reed, a carpenter, built the wooden home between 1880-90. A film interprets the Reed’s life and the post-slavery African American experience. 136 Ohr St. www.georgeohr.org
Monuments are located along Hwy. 90 to memorialize Hurricanes Camille and Katrina. The 12-ft. Katrina Memorial, replicating the height of the storm surge, is located on the Town Green and Katrina Blue Lines are marked on more than 70 poles throughout the city also at the height of the water.
For now one can only view St. Michael’s,” The “Church of the Fishermen,” from the exterior due to hurricane damage. This stunning edifice was constructed in 1964 in a 98-ft cylindrical shape with a unique scallop shell shaped roof. The windows contain 4,000-ft. of 76-ft. high floor-to-ceiling stained glass windows depicting the twelve apostles bringing in their nets. The Romanesque altar incorporates 2.5-tons of stone from Calvary. St. Michael, patron saint of fishermen and firemen faces the Mississippi Sound and serves as a navigational aid and inspiration to modern sailors.
The 95-ft. high Biloxi Bay Bridge links Biloxi and Ocean Springs, a charming small city that received its name in 1854 when a doctor built a health sanatorium on the site of historic Native American healing springs. As an arts community it now heals the human spirit. www.oceanspringschamber.com
A series of mosaics adorn Front Beach beneath the bridge. The four 120-ft. panels were handcrafted with scenes of life on the Gulf Coast.
Walter Anderson Museum of Art (WAMA) opened in 1991 to preserve and present primarily the works of Walter Anderson. Anderson, though plagued with mental illness was a prolific artist who was inspired by his travels and the world around him. He was placed in 12 different hospitals. While escaping from an upper floor of one such facility he painted birds and fish on the wall as he ascended. Eventually he moved to nearby Horn Island to work in isolation and a highlight of the collection is the original “little room” in which he lived and worked. Upon his death 1200 watercolors were found in a chest on the island. 510 Washington Ave. www.walterandersonmuseum.org
The Ocean Springs Community Center is located next door to WAMA. The 1927 former school building contains a 2,500-sq. ft mural painted by Anderson. He discovered that the building had white walls and offered to paint them for $1.00. The murals, painted in 1951, are valued at more than $40-million.
Gulfport was incorporated in 1898 and has been a working seaport since 1902. Excursions to Ship Island, a barrier island 11-miles off the coast, depart from Gulfport. Visitors can explore white sand beaches, swim or interact with history as you tour the 1868 Fort Massachusetts. The area, as part of the Gulf Islands National Seashore, is under the protection of the National Park Service. Specialty tours of the island, Stargazing on the Beach, living history, and a Civil War Sesquicentennial tour are offered.
Gulfport is the setting for the area’s first Mississippi Blues Trail Marker, “Broadcasting the Blues.” The marker honors Rip Daniels establishment of WJZD radio on March 20, 1994, the first African American-owned FM station on the Mississippi Gulf Coast and subsequent founding of the American Blues Network (ABN) in 2000. The program is credited with introducing blues to an international audience. 10211 Southpark Dr.
No trip to the Gulf Coast is complete without dining at Mary Mahoney’s Old French House, 116 Rue Magnolia, famous for its seafood and hospitality. Paul Newman, Charles Bronson, Diana Ross and Denzel Washington are among the celebrities who have dined there and Denzel was so taken with the gumbo that he ordered 10-gallons to go. The Old French House dates from 1737 and guests can tour the house and dependencies. www.marymahoneys.com
The 500-year old Friendship Oak on the university campus is a perfect place for a photo op. Legend has it that people who stand beneath its branches remain friends throughout their lifetime. The Gulf Coast is like that. Once you visit it forevermore holds a place in your heart. Reserve your space, visit Mississippi’s Gulf Coast. www.gulfcoast.org
I wish you smooth and dazzling travels.
The American Casino Guide by Steve Bourie is a best bet if you are planning on visiting any casino.