One of the features of the Bicentennial Tribute to Hancock County on Saturday, June 3 will be a new exhibit depicting the History of the Old Spanish Trail (OST) along the Mississippi Gulf Coast. Visitors can view the exhibit at the Historic L&N Train Depot in Bay St. Louis from 10am – 4pm. This event is organized by Hancock County Tourism and starts at 10am with a ribbon cutting and continues with the Alice Moseley Festival until 4pm.
Designed by unabridged Architecture, the new Old Spanish Trail exhibit is sponsored by the Hancock Chamber of Commerce with funding support from the Mississippi Humanities Council and the Mississippi Development Authority. It was first introduced to the public during the Mississippi Bicentennial Celebration South at Centennial Plaza on March 31 and April 1.
Dan Ellis, acclaimed Gulf Coast writer and a member of the Hancock Chamber Greenways and Byways Committee, is taking the OST exhibit on the road to Tallahasse May 18-20. He will represent the area during the Old Spanish Trail Centennial Celebration Association’s reenactment of the 1917 OST Convention. During the convention, Ellis will promote Hancock County and the impact the trail had on commerce and industry. He will also introduce a new book he has authored on the Old Spanish Trail Gulf Coast Region.
“This new exhibit and his new book communicate the history of the trail and its importance to commerce that connected coastal cities along the trail,” said Ellis. “It was actually the arrival of the automobile that generated this road building fever across the country.”
Mississippi has been a key destination for travelers of the open road since long before statehood in 1817. We are familiar with the Natchez Trace, but the Old Spanish Trail was the first coast to coast highway, linking communities from St Augustine, FL to San Diego, CA, beginning in 1915. The first automobile reached Biloxi in 1900, and by 1915, there were over a million cars in the U.S. Merchants hoped to encourage travel as a harbinger of the great transportation revolution. The Old Spanish Trail never hosted the conquistadors, but the name captured the romantic image of helmeted warriors astride war horses, thundering along the Camino Real.
In 1916, the Harrison County Board of Supervisors authorized a bond to build highways and bridges for the Mississippi Centennial in 1917. Although WWI interrupted the construction activities, over the next ten years, a modern highway was laid across the Mississippi Gulf Coast.
The Old Spanish Trail route was marked with colored bands on telephone poles, intended to help travelers in the early days of the automobile. In 1929, 70 percent of the route was paved, “and the rest is good going” an advertising circular promised – in Mississippi, many of the roads were initially built with an oyster shell base from local canneries. Construction of the Pearl River Bridge at Pearlington offered a short cut between the coast and New Orleans, replacing the road through Devil’s Swamp, greatly feared by drivers. Stories were told of unexplained automobile troubles, robberies, murders, disappearances and ghosts.
By 1935, the highway to New Orleans was completed and the Trail ran west from the Bay Bridge on Ulman Street, south on Dunbar, and along St. Francis to form what is even now known as the Old Spanish Trail. Travel-related businesses thrived along the trail, selling gas, groceries, souvenirs, shells and pralines. The beach was a popular destination for newly-minted motorists, who drove down to bathe in the sea, breathe the salt air, eat ice-cream and enjoy the weekend crowds.
“While we have seen great progress along the trail, one thing that has remained constant is the lure of the waterfront,” explains Allison Anderson of unabridged Architecture.
“This exhibit is our way of educating the traveling public and Mississippians about the unique culture, heritage, history and lifestyle of the people of the Mississippi Gulf Coast,” she said.
If you are interested in the work of the Hancock Chamber Greenways and By-ways committee, the next monthly meeting will be Friday, May 19 at 8:30 am at the offices of unabridged Architecture, 443 Main Street, Bay St Louis. On the agenda is proposals for improving water quality near the Beach Monitoring Station #4 near St Charles Street in Bay St Louis. Members of the local SALT team will be there to answer questions and introduce the goals of the Beach Outfalls Challenge. For more information, contact the Hancock Chamber at 228-467-9048.