Ever wonder what it would be like to drive to Cat Island or other pristine Mississippi Coast barrier islands? In a car, not boat?
If so, you won’t be the first or likely the last person lamenting that the only way to get to the sandy gems that separate the Mississippi Sound from the Gulf of Mexico is by boat or taking a seasonal ferry.
If Dauphin Island in Alabama has a bridge, why don’t we?
On the surface, that’s a reasonable question. But read on . . .
Yes, there is an auto bridge for vacationers, homeowners, sun worshipers and sports fishermen to Dauphin Island, the eastern-most end of the chain of these barrier islands. In 1955 Alabamians built their first Dauphin bridge.
That 3 miles along Alabama State Route 193 was destroyed by Hurricane Frederic in 1979 and a new bridge reopened in 1982.
Hurricane Katrina did moderate damage, about $6 million, but as the Mississippi Coast knows, Alabama’s Dauphin Island Bridge did not receive the brunt of the 2005 storm.
Our Coast lost its two major east-west mainland bridges over the bays of Biloxi and Bay St. Louis, so imagine what a Katrina-strength storm would do to a 12-mile-long bridge to the barrier islands. Before Katrina there was Camille, a monster 1969 storm that cut Ship Island into two pieces. Could island bridges survive that?
An idea that won’t die
In the early throes of my learning Coast history, the now late historian, M. James Stevens, told me about a 20th century movement to build a causeway to Ship Island. I filed the info in my brain but in ensuing decades I never found such documents. Until now.
“Bickerstaff Bill Proposes Causeways From Mainland to Ship Island, Horn Isle: Projects would cost $25 Million,” reads a front page headline dated Feb. 26, 1954, in The Daily Herald, an early incarnation of this newspaper. That $25 million would be $228 million today.
The article explained that 63 years ago state Rep. Reece Bickerstaff from Harrison County introduced a bridges bill and a proposed way to pay for them. It took me four hours and 11 months of 1954 newspapers for me to learn this forgotten chapter of Coast history.
In all my years of researching back issues of this newspaper, I’ve not found another topic that was so aggressively covered by reporters, citizen comments and advertisements as does this island bridge issue. It is rare news coverage by mid-20th century standards.
A condensed history
My job today is to whittle reams of old news into a short, digestible history.
Bickerstaff’s proposal dedicated the local gasoline tax collected in the three coastal counties to be pledged toward the bridge-building bonds. The 12-mile causeway to Ship Island would cost about $12 million (that’s $110 million today) and start near Beauvoir Road, at that time a no-man’s land between Biloxi and Gulfport.
In Jackson County, another causeway would be built from Gautier to Horn Island and cost about $8 million (today, $73 million). A much shorter bridge would join Horn and Ship Islands at a cost of about $2.5 million. Bickerstaff included constructing a short bridge from Biloxi to Deer Island.
The legislature approved a bond referendum vote.
“The causeway is expected to provide a tourist paradise and boom the state in contention with Florida as a Southern vacation spot,” the newspaper reported in April. “If all three counties join in, each may issue $12 million dollars in bonds after procuring pubic support in a special election. The bonds would be retired from surpluses in the road protection and seawall fund.”
From seawall to sea bridges
At that time, the nicknamed “seawall tax” gave coastal counties 1¾ cents of the state’s per-gallon tax collected for seawall upkeep.
The seawall itself, not unexpectedly, joined the debate because its construction had garnered similar controversy three decades earlier. By 1954 a seawall tax surplus existed and that was how the bridge bonds were to be paid off.
Misleading and fake news cycloned the Coast. Heated public forums and advertisements centered around the “pro” Citizens Causeways Committee and con “Tax Payers League.” Some straight-lacers worried that development of Ship Island would repeat the Roaring 20s Isle of Caprice with its “den of gambling joints.” Would island development be wholesome, some wanted to know?
And which side was right about no new taxes? Would the surplus local seawall tax really be doled out to the rest of Mississippi if the bridges aren’t built? Oh, so many questions, so many accusations.
Down to the wire...
“To some folks not gifted with much imagination, that plan to build causeways to the islands off the Mississippi Coast may seem a bit fantastic, but in reality it is a very practical and commendable movement,” declared one ad by the Harrison Board of Supervisors. “Other states are doing that very identical thing.” As you can likely guess, that included Alabama’s Dauphin Island.
An editorial in the Miami Herald warned Floridians: “Mississippi is mapping plans aimed at grabbing a bigger chunk of the tourist dollar.”
But in the end, the naysayers won. Out of nearly 12,000 votes cast in Harrison County, 2,000 more said no than yes to the island bridges.
Six decades later, a better understanding of shifting sands; the mega-force of hurricanes; higher construction costs; island ownership (including Gulf Islands National Seashores created in the 1970s); and a desire to keep parts of the U.S. pristine would likely swirl around any similar proposals.
Yet, easier access to the island gems remains intriguing and the idea is likely to resurface.
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.