Where are the waves?
Visitors cruising Highway 90 along the Mississippi Gulf Coast often ask this question, not realizing the presence and impact of at least five barrier islands just offshore. Before Hurricane Camille in 1969, the 26 mile stretch of U.S. 90 from the Bay St. Louis Bridge at the west end to the Biloxi Bay Bridge at the east end was one of the most scenic roadways in the south, offering beautiful views of the Gulf of Mexico on its south side and lovely mansions – some antebellum – on the north. The median featured many old, stately oak trees, a good number of which survived the storm. Even today, in the perhaps more devastating aftermath of Katrina, this stretch of highway, known far and wide as “Beach Boulevard” and by some as the “Old Spanish Trail,” or the “Camino Real,” is a magnet for tourists and locals alike. Some think it runs coast to coast: from Jacksonville to San Diego; but it actually ends in Van Horn, Texas. Only one thing is missing: waves.
A blessing or a curse, depending upon your point of view, especially during hurricane season when they are an effective storm buffer, and always for free beach access condo-haters, the barrier islands are a reality, preventing this man-made beach from having the cachet and draw of nearby places like Gulf Shores, Orange Beach, and Destin. While it’s nearly impossible to “catch a wave” along this sandy shore, many fail to realize the rich history to be learned by studying these low-lying islands extending from Cat Island in the West to Petit Bios in the east. This article will briefly fill in some of that history.
Cat Island (“Isle au Chats”), off Bay St. Louis, is the westernmost of the Mississippi barrier islands. It was first named “Bourbon Island” by d’Iberville in 1699, and then he changed the name to “Cat” because of the large number of raccoons which he mistook for cats.
It has a rather sordid history by today’s standards: it was a way station for Seminole Indians being transported to Oklahoma during the Trail of Tears era; Al Capone used it as a point to unload whisky he’d brought up from Cuba and then transported up the Jordan River to unload in the Kiln area during Prohibition; and, worst of all, it was used as a training ground to train war dogs to kill Japanese soldiers in 1942. We were at war with a brutal enemy, but our own soldiers of Japanese American ancestry were brought onto the island as bait to train the dogs – supposedly because they “smelled differently” from other Americans. Fortunately, this experiment only lasted about six months before public outrage shut it down. The secret operation became common knowledge because of the large amounts of horse meat, needed to feed the greyhounds, wolfhounds, and Great Danes being trained.
Ship Island, off Gulfport, was the principal port of entry when the French were settling the Gulf Coast. This is where the famous “femmes de casquette” or cassette girls came ashore in 1704 and 1719 – unmarried French women bringing their meager belongings in their “cassettes” or trunks, prior to being married off to soldiers or others desiring a wife.
The British Navy also used Ship Island as a rendezvous point before the Battle of New Orleans in 1814, gathering over 60 vessels loaded with soldiers and supplies. Held by both the Confederate and Union armies during the Civil War, the fortification now known as Fort Massachusetts was originally named Fort Twiggs by the Confederates. Many freed slaves fled there shortly after the war began. Within a few months, it was turned into a prisoner of war camp for Confederate prisoners, and they were guarded by Union African American soldiers from Louisiana. In 1879, it became a quarantine station during a yellow fever epidemic.
Deer Island, or “Isle de Chevreuiles,” within sight of Biloxi, was so named by the local Indians because deer hunted on the mainland would, at low tide, take refuge on the island. It was rumored to be the site of the pirate, Jean Lafitte’s, buried treasure, and some pirate treasure-like items were dug up there in 1900. More recently, it was known briefly as the “Coney Island of the South” because it held a short-lived amusement park which contained a bath house, a penny arcade, a motion picture theater, a dance hall, a baseball field, tennis courts, a “flying horse” carousel, and a 374-foot pier to accommodate the ferries running back and forth to the mainland. It only took one hurricane to shut this operation down in the early 1900s. Privately owned, there is currently interest in developing the island for commercial use, especially since it’s located so close to casino row.
Horn Island (“Isle aux Corne”) is the largest of the barrier islands and is located 13 miles southeast of Ocean Springs. After the French explorer Bienville “found” it in 1699, one of his men discovered that he had left his powder horn containing gun powder for his musket on the island – hence the name: “Horn Island.” In a curious twist of history, the island was used, secretly, during World War II for testing of military hardware, including biological and chemical weapons. This was apparently a huge operation, with facilities for the many animals that were used a Guinea pigs.
As late as 1982, reports of contamination and human illness resulted in a team of government experts being sent to look things over with Geiger counters and other test equipment, but they turned in a negative report and went back to Washington.
Petit Bois (“Little Woods”) Island is located south of Pascagoula in Jackson County and has been part of the Gulf Islands National Seashore since 1971. It was so named by the French because of a small, wooded section on the eastern end of the island. Following the island’s inundation during Katrina and earlier hurricanes, most of these trees are long dead. Petit Bois originally was in both Mississippi and Alabama waters; however, because of storm erosion it is now entirely within Mississippi. About six miles long and a few hundred yards or so at its widest point, this sand and scrub isle is home to gulls, terns, alligators, and other wildlife. On some old French maps, it is also referred to as “Massacre Island,” the location where a large number of skeletons were found in 1799; however, most authorities suggest that this was probably Dauphine Island in Alabama instead.
So, let me recommend that you look out to sea and remember the history the next time you drive down Highway 90. All those buildings along the shore will eventually disappear, anyway. Only the sea is permanent. Without belaboring the point, I could make a pretty good case that my naval career was stitched together by my experiences on islands: exploring the ruins of the Roman emperor Augustus’ villa and the electric blue waters of the Blue Grotto on the Isle of Capri; mysteriously coming down with a migraine headache every time I went to Hawaii, whether it was by airplane or ship; living through Level Five typhoons on Guam; being in Guantanamo Bay when Fidel Castrol shut off the fresh water supply; getting arrested for the first and only time in my life on the island of Jamaica, etc.
I guess that last experience deserves a little more explanation. During the Cuban Missile Crisis, I was on one of the blockading ships and, after being at sea for about six weeks, we tied up at a secure pier across from the international airport at Montego Bay.
No one had thought to lay on any transportation for liberty parties, and everyone had to walk into town, which was at least a mile away. My buddy and I stood on the quarter deck and ran the numbers: all we wanted was some jerk chicken and something cold to drink. Should we walk all the way into town or just cut across the runways and head to the airport terminal and catch a taxi? It seemed like a no-brainer to us; so, we took a few minutes to get the pattern of airplane landings and takeoffs down, and then we took off across the runways during a lull in the action. It was a bad plan. We got maybe 50 yards across the first runway before the first emergency vehicle, lights flashing and siren blowing, descended on us. We made it to the terminal, but not like we had planned. Those Jamaicans had no sense of humor; in fact, they took us back to the ship in handcuffs and turned us over to the duty officer. He thought it was funny but told us we had better stay onboard before we got into real trouble.
Back before the airlines were deregulated and Continental was subsumed by United in 2012, I used to fly the weekly “milk run” from Narita Airport outside Tokyo to Honolulu just because it stopped at such little out-of-the-way islands like Chuuk, Kosrae, Palau, and Kwajalein. There was usually nobody onboard except NGO workers, hippies, missionaries, and a few students going home, except for Kwajalein, which always unloaded a bunch of “spooks” because of the rocket testing facility there. When the plane landed on those little islands, which usually had a tin shed for a terminal, it seemed like the whole population was there to watch the proceedings, like people used to gather to see the trains arrive and depart in the old American west.
In the Pacific, other than the Hawaiian island of Molokai, home of famous Father Damien de Veuster, a Belgian Roman Catholic priest who gave his life to the care and treatment of lepers, one of the most interesting islands I ever visited was Yap. Located in Micronesia (“Little Islands”) in the West Central part of the Pacific, Yap is one of some 2,141 small islands dotting a seemingly endless ocean. Many of these islands, where many of the major battles against the Japanese were fought in World War II, have strange customs, and Yap is no exception. Yap is renowned as the land of the stone money wheels.
The capitol, Colonia, is the site of the famous stone money bank, with the money outdoors in full view. The stone money is used chiefly for the purchase of land and houses.
When title to a particular wheel of stone money changes hands, it usually remains in its original position because everyone knows the ownership of each wheel. No one could move it, anyway. It’s too heavy.
The Yapese consider not only the size of the stone money in arriving at its value, but also its age, the difficulty of obtaining and bringing the stone to Yap from other islands, and the risk taken. When Yapese parents die, the children inherit the money and look upon it as an important part of their legacy. I suppose it would be easy to laugh at the idea of “stone money,” but think about our own monetary system. Although we are told that there is gold in Fort Knox and other mysterious places, our monetary standard, since Franklin D. Roosevelt took us off the gold standard in the 1930s, is essentially based on paper – paper currency, paper stocks, paper bonds – and, as even the most unsophisticated “Yapper” would probably tell us, stone will be around much longer than paper.
So, who’s the dummy? Also - can you imagine trying to explain the concept of bitcoin to someone from Yap?
The medieval philosopher, John Donne, famously said: “No man is an island, entire of itself; every man is a piece of the continent, a part of the main.” I like that, but I think Dolly sang it to Kenny better: “Islands in the stream; this is what we are; no one in between; how can we be wrong; sail away with me; to another world; islands in the stream.”
Light a candle for me.
Benny Hornsby of Oak Grove is a retired U.S. Navy captain. Visit his website, bennyhornsby.com, or email him: firstname.lastname@example.org.