July always brings hot humid weather and thoughts of vacations. Though destinations and entertainment have to a large extent changed, summer vacations have long been with us. The Mississippi and Alabama coasts were popular 100 years ago with people from the Golden Triangle and still are. One change though is that rather than Gulf Shores or Orange Beach — then basically a barren beach — it was the Point Clear area along Mobile Bay that was the vacation destination in Alabama.
In the 1800s and early 1900s people enjoyed their summer vacations as much as we do today, but the beach was not the most popular destination. Surprisingly, they also did not hesitate to travel great distances. Popular summer resort destinations in the mid- to late-1800s were often springs or wells that featured mineral water. They were considered “health spas.” In Mississippi, “health spas” such as Castalian Springs near Durant and Allison’s Wells near Canton were popular. However, people also did not hesitate to travel to more distant and famous resorts in Virginia, West Virginia, New York and Wisconsin.
The postmarks and date lines on old family letters provide a glimpse of some of the places people from the Columbus area traveled. The summer of 1871 found members of both the Billups and Sykes families of Columbus at Allegheny Springs in Virginia. S.D. Lee journeyed in 1877 to White Sulphur Springs, Virginia (now West Virginia), and James Sykes of Columbus went to Blue Ridge Springs, Virginia. Other popular resorts were the springs at Waukesha, Wis., to which J.S. Billups would take his family, and Saratoga Springs, N.Y., to which both the James T. Harrison and the Sykes families would travel.
By the late 1880s Monteagle, Tenn., with its Monteagle Sunday School Assembly, had become popular, and even today it remains popular with some Columbus families. The assembly grounds, with its residential houses and cabins, offered a combination of spiritual retreats and cultural activities patterned after New York’s famous Chautauqua Institute. Locally, camp meetings and campgrounds, such as Tabernacle, dating back to the early 1800s provided spiritual retreats more accessible to area residents.
The popularity of the distant resorts and spas mushroomed in the 1870s with the advent of improved rail service. Most of the mid-1800 resorts blossomed near railroads so that travel to them could be relatively easy and not too lengthy. That was the case with Allison’s Wells at Way, Mississippi. In 1879, a shallow well dug about a mile from the small Illinois Central Railroad depot at Way, produced an ice-cold medicinal mineral water. At the site, a “health spa” to be known as Allison’s Wells was soon built. The water there was noted not only for its healthy properties but because mixing Bourbon with it would cause it to turn black.
Entertainment there in its early days included cock fighting and gambling. By the early 1900s though, the resort had become more family oriented. An advertisement in the June 7, 1914, Columbus Dispatch announced that “Allison’s Well is now open for guests” and claimed its water could treat everything from malaria to eczema.
The Gulf Coast has also long been a popular summer destination with local people. With the widespread construction of all-weather roads around 1912, the popularity of the coastal communities greatly increased.
On a trip around 1920, T. C. Billups of Columbus was driving his family to Biloxi to meet up with the Kimbrough family from Greenwood. Near Macon, his automobile broke down. It broke down again near Scooba. Then, not too far above Meridian, the automobile broke down a third time. Billups ordered his family out of the car, pulled out a pistol and emptied it into the engine. As he fired his last shot, he said “That’ll put that s— out of its misery.” Fortunately. Billups had a friend who was in the automobile business in Meridian.
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Gulf Shores became popular with people in the Columbus area during the 1950s, and as a child I remember going there every summer. I still enjoy at trip to the beach every summer and am just back from Dauphin Island, a barrier island off of Mobile Bay. I prefer going there now as it is not as grown up and commercialized as Gulf Shores. The island also fascinates me as it is not only a delightful vacation spot with a beautiful beach, but also a place intertwined with the history of the Tombigbee River Valley. It was originally known as Massacre Island, because of Indian skeletons found there in 1699 by early French explorers.
It was settled by the French in January 1702, and served in the early 1700s as a gateway to the Tombigbee and Alabama rivers for French explorers who visited and traded with the Choctaw and Chickasaw Indian Nations of present day Mississippi. In 1702 Henri de Tonti, one of La Salle’s Mississippi River veterans who had landed on Massacre Island, was sent on a peace mission to the Chickasaw Nation. He traveled up the west side of the Tombigbee to a Chickasaw village in the prairie south of present day Tupelo.
The island was the Louisiana Colony’s first principal port, and between 1703 and 1707 became known as Dauphin Island. On September 9, 1710, English privateers from Jamaica attacked and sacked the settlement located there. In 1715 it was the home of Louisiana Governor Antoine de La Mothe Cadillac. Then in 1717, a hurricane washed sand into the ship channel, silting it up. The closing of the channel to larger vessels ended the port’s importance, and by 1725, the port and its associated village were all but abandoned.
The island basically dropped out of significance until its surrender by France to England in 1763. In 1781 England ceded the island to Spain. In 1813 the U.S. claimed Dauphin Island and took possession of it from Spain.
In 1818 construction of Fort Gaines across the entrance of Mobile Bay from Fort Morgan was initiated on the east end of the island. In January 1861 Alabama state troops occupied the fort for the Confederacy. The Confederate garrison there surrendered on August 8, 1864, after the Battle of Mobile Bay.
Today there is a lot more to Dauphin Island for visitors than beaches and history. There is the Alabama Sea Lab and Alabama Aquarium. The aquarium focuses on Gulf marine life and the Mobile River system of which the Tombigbee is part. It is very child friendly and my grandkids love going there. The Sea Lab is Alabama’s marine science education and research center. In addition to marine and environmental research programs they offer many educational programs and camps for young people.
My grandkids Harper and Sykes attended a Sea Lab day camp while we were there. They went shrimping, wading with a net in shallow water, encountered crabs and at a safe distance an alligator. They hiked through a marsh and learned about Gulf coastal environments and the life found there. It was a grand fun learning experience for them. With history, beaches and enjoyable educational opportunities offered by the Sea Lab, Dauphin Island has become my favorite vacation spot.
Rufus Ward’s column on local history is a regular feature of the Sunday Dispatch. Email your questions about local history to him at email@example.com.
Rufus Ward is a Columbus native a local historian. E-mail your questions about local history to Rufus at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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