In Roaring Twenties, Bay St. Louis was ‘Garden of the Riviera’

This postcard shows oleanders along Beach Drive in Bay St. Louis. ‘The Garden of the Riviera’ was the western end of the American Riviera, a 1920s designation touted by Mississippi’s three coastal counties.
This postcard shows oleanders along Beach Drive in Bay St. Louis. ‘The Garden of the Riviera’ was the western end of the American Riviera, a 1920s designation touted by Mississippi’s three coastal counties.

The Garden of the Riviera. Who wouldn’t want to live there or at least visit?

The designation paints such an inviting word picture that it’s not surprising Bay St. Louis, in search of a nickname 90 years ago, gave the man who thought it up a monetary reward.

‘A Place Apart’

Today, the cheeky and fascinating little town in Hancock County calls itself “A Place Apart.” It is that, too, but the long forgotten garden nickname sported a visual punch ideal for postcards, advertising billboards and travel writers exploring the Mississippi Coast.

The descriptive name, first used by the Bay in 1927, bespoke the promise that this little burg was an important ingredient of the bigger American Riviera. Sadly, the “riviera” nickname for the Mississippi Coast is gone, too, a victim of the Great Depression that brought the Coast’s first tourism and building boom to a screeching halt.

But in the years leading up to Black Friday in 1929, the three coastal counties hummed with promise. So much was completed, under construction or on the drawing boards. The Mississippi Coast had more national name recognition than Florida, and for the people upstate and from New Orleans this was also their vacation paradise.

Grand hotels

Grand new hotels included the Pine Hills, Tivoli and Edgewater Gulf. Bridges, including one across the Bay of St. Louis, finally negated ferries. The creation of the five-state Old Spanish Trail highway included this coastline. Snow-bird tourists fleeing Northern ice debarked from long-distance trains.

A wink-wink attitude that promised a good time despite Prohibition prevailed. Construction of an innovative seawall bespoke mega development. A growing national recognition of the Gulf seafood basket kept factories and eateries humming. A mild climate kept farmers productive. Even big-league baseball was present.

It’s no wonder that the residents of Bay St. Louis, one of the smallest Coast towns, inserted themselves into the bigger American Riviera picture. They proudly declared they lived in “The Garden of the Riviera.”

So what’s in a name?

Geographic nicknames reflect how communities sees themselves or how they want others to see them. The latter is why many states and cities have nicknames that are as much slogan as name.

Gulfport is “Where Your Ship Comes In.” Mississippi is “The Magnolia State.” Ocean Springs is “The City of Discovery.” Not all localities pick slogan nicknames but many do because such designations add another layer of identity. So in 1927 The Bay orchestrated a contest for a name-slogan that could be used by local businessmen and those involved in real estate.

From the headlines

On Feb. 10 of that year, The Daily Herald announced:

“The Chamber of Commerce slogan campaign closed last week and from the large number of slogans submitted the following was selected by the committee: ‘Bay St. Louis — The Garden of the Riviera.’ This slogan was submitted by C.H. Odendahl of New Orleans. The award for the the successful slogan was $25 [about $3,500 in 2017].”

Near neighbors

The Times-Picayune in New Orleans also made an announcement about the Chamber commissioning car tags emblazoned with “The Garden of the Riviera” slogan. New Orleans interest is not surprising because Louisianians had second homes on the Coast, and those who didn’t often vacation here.

“The organization has ready for distribution the slogan in metal letters to be carried on the radiator of automobiles, and there are many applying for the attractive metal strip,” the Picayune reported in March. “The Chamber of Commerce fosters this project for the benefit of the local citizenry and the benefit to accrue to this section from such advertisements.”

Colorized postcards and businesses soon sported the nickname. The Hotel Weston, with its 100 modern rooms, advertised its location as “In the Garden of the Riviera.”

It’s truth, not bluster!

The American Riviera designation for the three coastal counties was not a figment of local imagination. Magazine and newspaper stories — how news was disseminated in the 1920s — published glowing articles about this burgeoning riviera. The New Orleans States, then a separate newspaper from the Picayune, explained in May 1927:

“At the back door of New Orleans lies a stretch of coast land smiled on by Mother Nature. It is one of the garden spots of the world — blue water stretching to the horizon, white sands that run for miles. Every year thousands of people visit . . . and go away glad that they came, sorry they must go.

“Between Mobile and New Orleans lies the beautiful Gulf Coast section, popularly and appropriately referred to as ‘The Riviera of America,’ resembling the European Riviera on the Mediterranean.”

For those coming from the west, Bay St. Louis was the first stop on this American Riviera. Now with the new nickname, the Bay could claim to its own bragging rights as “The Garden of the Riviera.”

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 or at Southern Possum Tales, P.O. Box 33, Barboursville VA 22923.