December 1, 1999
A Modern History of Dauphin Island
An Island In Motion
by Bill Patterson
[This is the fourth and final article on the modern history of Dauphin Island. The first covered the building of the bridge to the island during the 1950s, the second the purchase and development of the island by the Mobile Chamber of Commerce, and the third the organizations set up by the Chamber to govern the resort island.]
America's ocean beaches, from the water's edge to the mean high-tide line, belong to the public. There are sixteen miles of Gulf beach on Dauphin Island. Nearly a half century ago, in its Dauphin Island Trust, the Mobile Chamber of Commerce pledged itself to "the establishment and maintenance of public and semi-public community and recreational beaches, playgrounds and other recreational facilities." Today, however, most of the island's beachfront is private property.
Almost A National Seashore
In 1971 the federal government created the Gulf Islands National Seashore. The National
Park Service incorporated barrier islands and estuaries in Florida and Mississippi
into the nation's largest national seashore. Today no land in Alabama is in
the park, but at one time it seemed Dauphin Island might be included. The
Harbinger spoke last week with Jesse Earle Bowden, the person credited as
most responsible for the creation of a national seashore on the Gulf of Mexico.
Bowden, the former editor of the Pensacola News Journal, used both his editorship
and his standing in the community to push for the park. Last week The Harbinger
asked Bowden why none of Dauphin Island was part of the park. Bowden said
the Park Service considered including Dauphin Island, but dropped the idea.
He remembered taking an airplane ride along the Gulf coast with the Park Service,
and that, when the plane flew over Dauphin Island, the park officials told
him "the island was just too developed." Bowden said the Park Service definitely
wanted to include Alabama's Ono Island and the western portion of Perdido
Key in the seashore park, but their plan fell through because Ono Island was
too expensive and Perdido Key was too developed. Bowden recalled that Frank
Boykin, long involved in the development of Dauphin Island, owned much of
Another factor, Bowden indicated, was the lack of grassroots
support in Alabama for a federal seashore. He also believed Park Service officials,
as they planned the national seashore during the 1960s, "perceived a climate"
in Alabama in which officials were hostile to joining the park system. Bowden
remembered Mobile Congressman Jack Edwards, years after the 1960s, proposed
legislation to make Dauphin Island part of the national seashore. Edward's
proposal went nowhere.
On The Beach
In the 1950s the Chamber of Commerce set aside two beaches
for the public. The beaches were at the east end of the island and three miles
to the west on the Gulf. The latter beach, located near the Little Red School
House, an island landmark, was where the Chamber built the Sand Dunes Casino.
Today both beaches, operated since the 1950s by the Dauphin Island Park and
Beach Board, have badly eroded. According to Susan Rees, a property owner
on the island and a scientist with the Army Corps of Engineers in Mobile,
the beaches the Chamber gave to the Park and Beach Board are "the two most
naturally eroding parcels" of beach front on the island. Asked if the engineers
who worked for the Chamber during the 1950s knew this land was vulnerable
to erosion, Rees said the experts "had to have known."
The erosion of the beaches on Dauphin Island has accelerated
since the 1970s. A series of hurricanes have affected the island. Today the
east end is so seriously eroded that most of the beach is gone and swimming
is forbidden because rip tides have caused a number of drownings during the
past decade. In January 1999 Scott Douglass, a civil engineering professor
at the University of South Alabama, published 'State-of-the-beaches' of Alabama:
1998. The study examined erosion on Alabama's coastline. In the report he
described the beaches on Dauphin Island: "The beaches of the east end of Dauphin
Island have experienced some of the most dramatic shoreline recession in the
United States in the past 20 years." The Douglass study explained that as
much as 500 feet of the east end beaches have disappeared. Toward the west,
Douglass found the shoreline from the Park and Beach Board's main beach to
the end of Bienville Blvd. has eroded an average of two to three feet per
year since 1970. This erosion destroyed the improvements made at the Park
and Beach Board's main beach during the 1980s.
"State-of-the-beaches' of Alabama: 1998 concluded political support for the protection of the state's
beaches depends on public access to them. Last week The Harbinger talked with
the mayor of the City of Dauphin Island, Jeff Collier, about public access
to the island's beaches. He said that the city owns "zero beach front property"
and the Dauphin Island Park and Beach Board owns slightly under one mile of
beach front. Collier said the Property Owners Association owns five or six
miles of beach front west of the public beach, a strip of land that lies between
the mean high tide line and the property lines of the homes on the Gulf.
Collier told The Harbinger, while the public has the right to go on Park and Beach
Board property with no charge, the beach front owned by the Property Owners
Association is private property. Collier said that out of thirty-three streets
on the island's west end, six run up to the beach-front strip owned by the
Association. He said the right of the public to cross the land from the city
streets is a "gray area." He said that, while there are no signs welcoming
people to cross to the beach, the Association does not try to stop the public
from crossing its land.
On the rest of the island, according to Collier, most
of the Gulf-front property is not accessible to the public. From the east
end of the island, where the Park and Beach Board owns Fort Gaines, west to
the Board's main beach, much of the beach front is within gated communities
that forbid public access. Collier noted the remaining Gulf beachfront is
the eight miles of undeveloped privately owned property on the island's west
It was not always the case that the Property Owners Association let visitors
cross "the gray area" to the beach. In 1967 the Association built a large
archway over Bienville Blvd. On the structure the Association hung a sign
that read: "No trespassing to beaches. No trespassing to seawalls." In 1968
Mobile County and the Park and Beach Board, faced with growing crowds of beachgoers
and pressure from the Property Owners Association, decided to open more beaches
to the public. The officials rented two miles on the west end of the island.
But in 1978, the West Dauphin Corporation refused to renew the lease and fenced
off the west end.
Today this eight miles of Gulf beach is blocked with a chain-link
fence topped with barbed wire. The land has been in the hands of the Boykin
and Forney Johnston families since the 1930s. Riley Boykin Smith, Alabama's
Commissioner of Conservation, is one of the principal owners of the land,
now held in a company called West Dauphin L.L.C. In the 1973 book, Everything's
Made for Love in This Man's World': Vignettes from the Life of Frank W. Boykin,
Edward Boykin reprinted a 1965 letter from Frank Boykin to members of his
family. In the letter Frank Boykin wrote about the west end of Dauphin Island:
"Another great piece of property that is going to mean an awful lot to all
of you is Dauphin Island. Forney Johnston, Aunt Catherine and a few of us
have eighteen miles of that beautiful island . . . ." This eighteen miles
counted both the Gulf and Mississippi Sound sides of the west end. During
the 1950s Frank Boykin and Forney Johnston and their partners had sold much
of the island to the Chamber of Commerce.
In the early 1970s several local politicians pushed for the
state to take over the Park and Beach Board property. The Mobile Press Register
advocated a state or federal takeover of the Park Board land. Later in the
decade some politicians wanted the state to purchase the West Dauphin Corporation
property for a pubic park. The attempt almost succeeded in 1978 when L. W.
"Red" Noonan, then a state senator, introduced a bill to fund the purchase.
The most recent offer to open the west end to the public came in 1996 when
its owners offered to donate land for a public beach if the county would build
roads, water supply and sewer connections for two miles of private development.
The remaining six miles would be offered for sale to the state or a conservation
organization. The deal fell through when a citizens group, Forever Dauphin
Island, stopped the development with a lawsuit against the Alabama Department
of Environmental Management.
Public Access In the Future
If any state agency is promoting the public's right to the beaches on Dauphin
Island it's the Alabama Department of Economic and Community Affairs (ADECA).
Gilford Gilder, Chief of Coastal Programs for the state agency, told The Harbinger
that "public access is a prime concern for the Coastal Program." According
to Gilder, Dauphin Island's beaches should be opened to the general public,
but he doesn't believe "the public is made welcome" by the Property Owners
Association. ADECA has funded public improvements on the island in recent
years. Gilder noted that the majority of the Coastal Program's money spent
in Mobile County has been spent on the island. ADECA helped build a restroom
at the ferry ramp on the island and has given a grant for a rest- and changing
room at the Park Board's main beach. Gilder thinks that in the future, when
state and federal money is spent on the island, local leaders will have to
provide more access to the island's beaches. He noted that today Alabama's
public officials don't understand how to "use the lever" of federal funding
to win access for the public. He said, in the Coastal Program's policies,
"if the public benefit is negligible then the Coastal Program won't support
Cherie Arceneaux, a policy and planning specialist at the Dauphin Island
Sea Lab, works with ADECA's Coastal Program. She told The Harbinger the program
is working on a survey of public land on Dauphin Island. Arceneaux said that,
though the right of the public to cross Association property to the beach
is unresolved, she believes this right can be established under a "prescriptive
easement." She explained that such an easement is established if the public
has crossed the Association lands for many years. Arceneaux said that the
Coastal Program officials will probably ask Alabama Attorney General Bill
Pryor soon whether such an easement has been established. Conclusion The Chamber
of Commerce promoted the public good in the 1950s when it helped build a bridge
to Dauphin Island and constructed a public beach resort. But by the 1980s,
Dauphin Island had failed as a resort for the public. In 1950, before a bridge
was built, 250 people lived on the island and nearly all the island was owned
by Frank Boykin, Forney Johnston and their partners. Today the island has
many absentee property owners. Fifteen hundred people live on the island year
round, but 3,000 people own property there. The island offers few accommodations
for tourists. According to an ADECA report, Dauphin Island had only 150 coastal
rental units in the spring of1998, compared to over 7,000 units in Fort Morgan,
Gulf Shores, and Orange Beach. Federal, state and local taxpayers helped fund
the Chamber of Commerce's development. During the 1950s the Internal Revenue
Service approved an income-tax exemption for the money raised by the Chamber
of Commerce from the sale of its Dauphin Island subdivisions. The state helped
pay for the first bridge to the island. Mobile County cleared land for the
Chamber's subdivisions and built forty miles of hard surface road on the island.
The federal government's contribution increased after 1979 when severe erosion
and damage to the island's infrastructure resulted from a series of hurricanes.
These calamities required spending by the federal and state taxpayers to sustain
Dauphin Island as a community. After Hurricane Frederic, the federal and state
government spent $38 million to build the second Dauphin Island bridge and
another $6.5 million on other projects, a total of $90 million in today's
dollars. Over the past two decades the federal government has paid out millions
in flood insurance programs to rebuild private homes damaged by storms. The
Public Trust Doctrine, as old as the thirteen original colonies, assured the
right of Americans to use the nation's shores. Local government and business
leaders have ignored this ancient obligation.
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