October 19, 1999
by Bill Patterson
By year's end federal and state taxpayers will have spent about $1.3 million to build a man-made sand dune on Dauphin Island. The dune, nearly three miles long, will sit entirely on private land along the Gulf. Designed to prevent water from flooding over beachfront lots and onto a section of a main island road, the berm will also present a barrier to those who want to get to the Gulf beaches. The Harbinger asked Susan Rees of the Army Corps of Engineers what provision the Corps had made in the berm's design to allow the public access to the beach. Rees said "none" because there was "no requirement for public access." She added that local officials asked Alabama Attorney General Bill Pryor for his approval of a berm constructed on private land with public money. Pryor approved the spending. The Corps does not expect the artificial dune to stop flooding for long, for its public notice described the project as "an emergency protective berm." Rees admitted the berm, once built, "might be gone tomorrow."
Not long ago few Alabamians would have known or cared if the Gulf inundated this stretch of the state's main barrier island. But that was before the Mobile Chamber of Commerce bought Dauphin Island in the 1950s. In the next several issues The Harbinger will examine the development of the island. It's a story of unintended consequences, one in which a public beach resort, built by the Chamber with money it raised, was first neglected, then destroyed and never replaced. Yet over the same decades many millions of federal and state dollars, such as those paying for the berm project, subsidized the interests of the relative few owners of private property developed by the Chamber.
Europeans first came to Dauphin Island in 1699, and residents on the island marked its tricentennial this year. In terms of war and commerce, the island's critical years occurred in the era of sailing ships. Water transportation to the Port of Mobile, before the dredging and maintenance of ship channels, was unreliable. Ocean-going vessels often had to dock at the island to move cargo between boats with shallower drafts for trips to Mobile. After the Civil War, until Mobile's harbor was cleared of debris, this "lightering" remained important. Yet the value of the island for transport vanished with the deepening of the Mobile ship channel and the increasing dominance of the railroads over water transport.
Throughout the nineteenth and twentieth centuries people lived on Dauphin Island. These islanders lived by fishing, farming and raising cattle and goats. In 1950 the island had around 250 residents, a couple of small stores, daily service by boat, and a one-room school that had opened in 1898. Recreational fisherman had built several piers on the island. The Alabama Deep Sea Fishing Rodeo began on the island in 1929. During the nineteenth century the federal government owned a large portion of the east side of the island, where Fort Gaines defended Mobile Bay. In 1926 the federal government sold Fort Gaines to the City of Mobile. By 1929 one company, Gulf Properties Corporation, owned almost all of Dauphin Island. The company was owned by Forney Johnston and Frank Boykin and their families. Johnston was the son of an
Alabama governor and US Senator. Boykin, a businessman who prospered through his Tensaw Land and Timber Company, was Mobile's Congressman from 1935-1963. In its August 1999 centennial supplement, the Mobile Register wrote Boykin, during the 1940s, owned "more than 160,000 acres in Washington and Mobile counties," making him "the wealthiest man in Mobile."
Local promoters long recognized that opportunity on the island was limited by the lack of a bridge. The modern history of Dauphin Island began with the construction of a bridge in the 1950s. During the nineteenth century, railroads, planning spurs to the island, bought land on it for docks. These plans were abandoned because, after initial engineering studies, expense proved too great. The next bridge proposal, this time for a roadway, came during the late 1930s when the Depression-era Reconstruction Finance Corporation reportedly agreed to spend $900,000 on a bridge. World War II ended those plans, but after the war, local officials approached the Folsom Administration with a similar plan. Governor "Big Jim" Folsom balked at the proposal, complaining that the tract the Gulf Properties Corporation offered to donate for bridge construction was insufficient. The Mobile Press Register quoted Folsom: "The Gulf people own all but 40 acres of the island and the section which the city of Mobile will turn over to the state." Despite Folsom's rejection, in 1949 the Mobile Chamber of Commerce persuaded the county to hold a referendum authorizing a one-cent-a-gallon gasoline tax to fund a bridge. The Chamber's proposal included a twenty-five-cent toll in addition to the gas tax. Many opposed the tax, including labor's Central Trades Council, whose leaders claimed the project would benefit only a few. In July 1949, voters defeated the proposal.
This defeat did not stop the Chamber, and in the early 1950s it offered a bridge construction scheme very different from the use of a gas tax. The plan proved momentous for the island's future. With Governor Folsom out of office, local leaders approached his successor, Gordon Persons, with the new plan. The Chamber would buy and subdivide the island into lots and then sell the lots based on a pledge that a bridge would be built with the profits. At the time the Chamber had an important contact with the governor, for one of the members of the Chamber's bridge committee was also a member of the Alabama State Bridge Commission. Persons and his highway director approved the bridge project, but only on the condition that local sources come up with $2 million of the bridge's cost. The state would cover the balance. In June 1954 the Mobile County Board of Revenue issued $2 million in revenue bonds for the bridge. The Chamber bought the entire bond issue with loans secured by the subdivided land it planned to sell. Ultimately the state added $1.3 million to the Chamber's contribution.
The Blount Brothers Construction Company and the Kansas City Bridge Company got the contract to build the bridge and completed its construction in 1955. The state highway department turned over the bridge to the Mobile County Bridge Commission. A $1 toll was set to repay the debt from the revenue bonds. The Gordon Persons Bridge opened in July 1955.