October 19, 1999
How the Mobile Chamber of Commerce
Bought, Sold and Forgot Dauphin Island
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.
Bridge To Paradise?
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
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.________________________________________
April 10, 2001
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Editorial Board: Edmund Tsang, Dan Silver, Tom Brennan, Konrad Kressley, Phil
Tapia Copy Editor: Dana Escobio, Tom Brennan, Michael Smith Illustrator: D.
A. Powell, Dawn Loper-Claire, Stacy Taylor, Mackie Fiala, L. D. Fletcher Coordinator:
Edmund Tsang Typography: L. D. Fletcher Photography: L. D. Fletcher, Kevin
Marston Production: Andrew Wilhelm, Regina Tsang, Pat & Ernie Pinson Legal
Counsel: Dom Soto