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The Coast from 1917 to now: Roaring through good and bad times

Swimsuit-clad ladies, a beach and a giant shrimp — what a lure to bring tourists to the Mississippi Coast. The photo was taken the island known as Isle of Caprice in the early 1920s. Caprice was developed as a site for gambling because it was illegal on the mainland. Nine decades later, one of the first legal casinos in Biloxi was named Isle of Capri as an homage to its early predecessor.
Swimsuit-clad ladies, a beach and a giant shrimp — what a lure to bring tourists to the Mississippi Coast. The photo was taken the island known as Isle of Caprice in the early 1920s. Caprice was developed as a site for gambling because it was illegal on the mainland. Nine decades later, one of the first legal casinos in Biloxi was named Isle of Capri as an homage to its early predecessor. The Paul Jermyn Collection

If one word could describe Mississippi’s second century of existence, particularly on the Coast, it would be “change.”

But to be accurate, “swift” must be added. Every 100-year span sees change, although often more deliberate and thoughtful.

Not so from 1917 to 2017. 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!

Henry Ford’s affordable early car made travel and leisure possible, creating a stronger middle class starting in the early 1900s. That was a key to Mississippi Coast tourism, present from the beginning because it is situated between New Orleans and Mobile.

No longer did you have to own a mansion on the beach to experience life beyond your hometown. No longer did you have to be wealthy to be a Coast tourist with the ever-growing offers of fine hotels, affordable lodgings, splendid seafood meals, sport fishing and sea-bathing.

Centennial party canceled

Stymied but not stopped by post–Civil War Reconstruction, the Coast’s tourism and economy found welcome relief in the swift changes of Mississippi’s second century. That momentous event was supposed to begin with a 100th birthday party Dec. 10, 1917. State plans to celebrate the centennial were canceled by U.S. entry into World War I, and the construction was stopped on the Mississippi Centennial Exposition site in Gulfport. It became a U.S. Navy Training Station instead.

On March 31, in honor of that canceled expo and at that same beachfront site now called Centennial Plaza, the state kicked off its Mississippi Bicentennial Celebration. Through the rest of the year, other communities will highlight their part in the state’s history but the Coast was first to take a look at its 200 years of change, challenges and adjustments.

Swift change

So what was this swift change that buffeted the Coast in its second century? The state population was almost 2 million in 1917; it’s almost 3 million today. Bigger change is obvious in the three coastal counties, which numbered about 66,000 in 1917, and 364,000 today.

New roads and bridges supplanted ferries; a new seawall protected a new beach road. The Coast experienced so much growth that it changed from a peripheral province to a megalopolis, literally one town abutting the next across the entire coast. Standing together, these 10-plus coastal communities could bolster the economy and support each other through change, good and bad.

Hurricanes

Topping the latter category is hurricanes, and in this time frame there were six major storms. Two of the nation’s worst — Camille in 1969 and Katrina in 2005 — killed hundreds of Coastians. The will to rebuild their beloved Coast, again and again, is a mark of strong sense of community.

Respected mid-century Mississippi journalist Hodding Carter II observed:

“The Coast is still a nation in itself, bearing no resemblance to the interior of Mississippi .... It is as if the sun had so sought these people of the Gulf that it reached inside their hearts to make them warm and forgiving.”

And changeable.

A good example of this: Early in the century, cannery whistles called locals and growing numbers of Slavic immigrants to shuck oysters and shell shrimp. The whistles went silent as seafood quantity and processing changed. Then in the 1990s, casinos began occupying the old factory sites. The Coast’s longtime winking at national/state prohibition and at illegal gambling paid off through the change.

The Roaring Twenties. The Great Depression. The Great Recession. Two world wars that created today’s military-industrial complex. Civil rights beach wade-ins that launched Mississippi’s civil disobedience; hurricanes and more hurricanes. The 2010 BP oil spill. The return of league baseball.

All this and so much more has kept the Coast in sixth gear as it roared swiftly through another century. That second 100 years as a full-fledged region of Mississippi came full circle at Centennial Plaza in Gulfport, where the Coast finally got to host a major state birthday party.

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

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