Living

Believe it or not: U.S. 90 was never a Spanish trail

U.S. 90 is the artery that brings lifeblood to the three coastal counties of Mississippi, providing a path to prosperity for nearly a century.

Even Interstate-10, the superhighway whose speed between New Orleans and Mobile lures impatient drivers away from slower U.S. 90, hasn’t destroy the importance of the east-west road stretching across the coastline.

From unencumbered views of the beach and Mississippi Sound, or on clear days the islands that separate the Sound from the Gulf of Mexico, U.S. 90 is an envious scenic drive for any community. This roadway brings locals and visitors to entertainment, commerce and living. Where else in this country could there be such a long, scenic and hopitable road for such a grand gathering of fine old cars as this weekend’s Cruisin’ The Coast?

Welcome mat

U.S. 90 makes a wonderful Mississippi Coast welcome mat, not just for Cruisin’ but also for any time and any season.

Restaurants and casinos, hotels, nightlife and fishing piers, museums and miles of sandy beach, charter boat and commercial fishing harbors, U.S. 90 leads to them all. The Gulfport port unloads imported bananas and the Pascagoula Port hums with shipbuilding. Houses, including a few that are antebellum and escaped hurricane destruction, access their driveways from this highway.

U.S. 90 is the common thread and a gateway to most Coast cities. Yet, most of us take 90 for granted.

A road in the making

Like most good things in life, U.S. 90 took time to make.

From native Americans cutting moccasin trails across the waterfront, to European explorers and settlers building camps, then settlements, the early days of the path that would become U.S. 90 is fascinating history.

In the 19th century came the “Six “Sisters,” the villages of Bay St. Louis, Pass Christian, Biloxi, Mississippi City, Ocean Springs and Pascagoula, and they needed roads for horses, wagons and their feet. There was no waterfront road that connected all the villages, but the bits and pieces they did have would one day link up as U.S. 90.

First automobile

When the first automobile arrived on the Coast in 1900, the vehicle had to use sandy paths, some paved with crushed oyster shells. In this Mississippi Coast Chronicle last week, we explored that first car, which arrived in Biloxi in June 1900. It didn’t last long in the crash-prone era but ingenuity turned the first Coast car’s engine into a motor for a schooner.

Speed ahead from this event to 1915. To stay progressive in the growing age of automobiles, the Coast was in bad need of roads. Enter the “good road enthusiasts” as they proudly called themselves. In October 1915 these enthusiasts from Alabama, Mississippi and Louisiana met in Mobile and named themselves the “Old Spanish Trail Highway Association.”

So what’s in a name?

This group planned to build a highway along the Gulf Coast connecting Mobile and New Orleans and all the Mississippi Coast towns in between. Vehicle travel before that time was on poor and sporadic roads with use of ferries and sometimes steamboats. Within a few months their vision had grown into a transcontinental highway from St. Augustine, Fla., to San Diego, Ca.

The “Spanish Trail” name seemed historic and made a good promotional tool, but the truth is, the name was a misnomer. There was no trail blazed in the 1700s by the Spanish in the short time their flag historically flew over the Coast. The name was dreamed up in 1915 by the good road enthusiasts.

Fine details

If you want to learn the nitty gritty of this era, read “Building The ‘Old Spanish Trail:’ The Story of a Modern American Highway” by Charles L. Sullivan.

He wrote this short, concise history in 2003 for the opening of the new East Pascagoula River High-Rise, touted as a new bridge for the Old Spanish Trail. Sullivan is a noted Coast historian, professor emeritus and archivist for Mississippi Gulf Coast Community College who helps us keep our history in proper perspective, not such an easy thing to do since we love our legends and tales.

Sullivan contends that these 1915 good road enthusiasts of the Old Spanish Trail Association are the reason we today have U.S. 90, or Front Beach, or Beach Boulevard, or whatever you choose to call this pathway across the most scenic section of Mississippi.

Confession from the Chronicler

I hope you continue to take this ride with me as we explore the coming of the automobile, including how U.S. 90 came to be, how its creation altered the natural beach and lead to the creation of a seawall.

I began this research trip down U.S. 90 a few months ago when I misidentified a postcard as circa-1930. Several astute readers pointed out that couldn’t be the date because U.S. 90 wasn’t four-laned until the mid-20th century. I dug out some old research (too much to remember it all) and I’ve found some new stuff. That’s what we’re exploring on this journey down U.S. 90 for the next few weeks.

Kat Bergeron, a veteran feature writer specializing in Gulf Coast history and sense of place, is retired from the Sun Herald. She writes the Mississippi Coast Chronicles column as a freelance correspondent. Reach her at BergeronKat@gmail.com or at Southern Possum Tales, P.O. Box 33, Barboursville VA 22923.

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