“Come visit the Mississippi Gulf Coast and see what all the fuss is about,” advises one of the latest slogans to lure visitors.
Lots of catchphrases mark coastal Mississippi as a “destination,” what tourism promoters call a place worthy of a visit and spending money. It could be for a region’s natural beauty or culture, its music, food, history or architecture. The offerings might invite leisure, amusement and outdoor recreation.
For 24 years now, the Coast has included legal gambling as an attraction. The time when folks came here for illegal gambling is an altogether different story. Today we concentrate on the fun in the sun, healthy air, laid-back lifestyle that has lured tourists for nearly 300 years.
I attempted a similar Coast B.C. History 101 lesson 16 years ago after overhearing a newsroom debate about the Coast “deciding” to become a “destination.” As if this were something new.
I said it then and repeat it now, “Uh, excuse me, folks. There was life here B.C. — Before Casinos.”
The Coast as a tourist destination started in 1722 when the French moved the territorial capital from Nouveau Biloxi to Nouveau Orleans. The new French capital was partly carved out of marsh and swamp, these New Orleanians quickly learned about the pleasantries of swamp life.
Muggy heat was breath-taking. The Grim Reapers of yellow fever and malaria paraded down the streets, swinging deadly sickles. Ferocious mosquitoes — noone knew they also brought the Grim Reaper) — sucked human blood, causing the use of heat-retaining netting at night.
What could the people of the early Big Easy do? Go back from whence they came, of course.
The folks of 18th and 19th century New Orleans and upstate Mississippi and Louisiana planters set their destination sites for the Mississippi Coast, first claimed by the French in 1699.
They believed the combination of the cooling Gulf breeze and the scent of the inland piney woods were healthier, at least healthier than life in the city or near planters’ fields along the Mississippi River.
They soon affectionately labeled Bay St. Louis, Biloxi, Pass Christian, Ocean Springs and the other Coast villagers they or their ancestors had earlier abandoned as their beloved “watering places.” Boarding houses and hotels popped up to accommodate visitors. Some built their own retreats here.
To accommodate this tourism, the local population grew. In the early days “The Season” stretched from Easter to Thanksgiving, when those who could manage it escaped the stifling heat and disease of such places as New Orleans and the Delta.
These tourists, or “summer visitors” as they were called, first arrived by steamboats. By the late 1800s they came by train. By the 1920s they added automobile.
A national rail system in the early 1900s lured the first “snowbirds,” a name still used for Easterners and Northerners who escaped their icy winters for our mild coastal climate. Here, they could golf and fish in the winter, take rides, enjoy sunsets, relax in a subtropical clime where palmettos swayed.
Highs and lows
Such idyllic life and a steadily growing tourist economy had its dips, of course. Those included a few financial recessions, the Civil War, World Wars, the Great Depression and some pretty bad hurricanes that require recovery time.
Now, more folks live here and more folks play here.
Some mistakenly give full credit to the gaming industry and its more than 20-plus casinos. But those who pass Coast B.C. History 101 will recognize the innate Coast attractions that lured visitors and residents in the 1700s and continue to do so in the 21st Century.
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.