In one century — from 1917 to 2017 — the Mississippi Coast went through change so monumental that when I described it in a recent series I wrote for Mississippi Bicentennial South, I simply called it “swift change.” No word was big enough.
From population and transportation to innovation that changed the way we work, live and play, that 100-year period marked swifter change than experienced in the half-millenium preceding it. At least, that’s my impression after a week of digging into old files, reading newspaper microfilm and interviewing historians.
When I wrote the 1917-2017 overview for this newspaper, I put it this way:
“The swiftness of change can be explained by beginning 1917 with a Model T Ford that has two gear shifts — low and high. Compare that with a sporty 2017 Ford Shelby Mustang with six gears. Swift change!”
When the bicentennial series was finished, I looked at my messy home office with dismay. The “office” is a small, once-upon-a-time upstairs bedroom in the Virginia Piedmont, where I homeport these days. History books, files and notepads were perched on every table, cabinet, even scattered on the floor. Such disorder doesn’t work for the way I process history research, so I knew I couldn’t tackle another writing project until I neatened up the office.
I picked up a file to start the cleanup and was startled when a small, vaguely familiar old photograph fluttered to the floor. It was of an old Ford headed down the shell road on the north side of the Biloxi Lighthouse.
Where were you?
“And where were you when I needed you?” I accusingly asked the photograph. I turned it over to see if I’d written anything on the back. “Model T, 1918.” That’s the only note I’d made. “I could have used you for the bicentennial project I just finished,” I informed the photograph, as if it cared.
Deadline was past and it was too late to turn the photo in to the editors so I started to tuck it back into the history file. Then the light bulb clicked on in my brain and I instead tucked it into a packet of papers I would bring to the Coast the next day.
Two days later, I stood at what I figured to be close to the same spot the 1918 photographer had stood on near the Biloxi Lighthouse. How times had changed in that passing century. I didn’t even have a normal camera in my hand. I used the high-quality built-in camera in my computer notebook, about the size of a small, thin book.
You can see the two photographs for yourself. Swift change!
Note that in the 1918 photograph, the road we now call Beach Boulevard or U.S. 90 is a single lane on the north side of the lighthouse. The old lighthouse keeper’s house, which would later disappear in 1969’s Hurricane Camille, is there. The sandy land on the south side of the lighthouse borders the water. The pier is not visible, but there has been one at that location since the lighthouse was erected in 1848.
In my new photo, the south side of the lighthouse includes parking lot, beach and another two lanes for eastbound traffic. The lighthouse now rests in the median of a busy four-lane highway with turning lanes and traffic light. On the site of the original lighthouse keeper’s house is now the Biloxi Visitors Center, fashioned after the historic Dantzler House that also once stood north of the lighthouse.
Just imagine, this is only one snapshot of a century of swift Coast change. Take a little time today to study your favorite familiar places, be they the Bay St. Louis waterfront with balconied restaurants or the highrise bridge in Pascagoula that spotlights shipbuilding.
But unless a 100-year-old photograph magically appears, as it did for me, you’ll have to use your imagination.
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.