Ask Rufus: Summer Vacation – The Dispatch
July always brings hot, humid weather and thoughts of vacation. Although destinations and entertainment have largely changed, summer vacations have been with us for a long time. The Mississippi and Alabama coasts were popular 100 years ago with the people of the Golden Triangle and still are. One change however 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 weren’t shy about traveling great distances either. Popular summer resort destinations in the mid to late 1800s were often springs or wells containing mineral water. They were considered “hot springs”. In Mississippi, “health spas” such as Castalian Springs near Durant and Allison’s Wells near Canton were popular. However, people also weren’t shy about traveling to more remote and famous resorts in Virginia, West Virginia, New York, and Wisconsin.
Postmarks and date lines on old family letters provide insight into some of the places people from the Columbus area traveled to. The summer of 1871 found members of the Billups and Sykes families of Columbus in Allegheny Springs, Virginia. SD Lee traveled in 1877 to White Sulfur Springs, Virginia (now West Virginia), and James Sykes of Columbus went to Blue Ridge Springs, Virginia. Other popular resorts were the springs in Waukesha, Wisconsin, where J.S. Billups took his family, and Saratoga Springs, NY, where the James T. Harrison and Sykes families traveled.
By the late 1880s Monteagle, Tennessee, with its Monteagle Sunday School congregation, had become popular, and even today it remains popular with some Columbus families. The Assembly Ground, with its residential homes and cabins, offered a combination of spiritual retreats and cultural activities inspired by New York’s famous Chautauqua Institute. Locally, camp meetings and campgrounds, such as the Tabernacle, dating to the early 1800s, provided more accessible spiritual retreats for area residents.
The popularity of remote resorts and spas grew in the 1870s with the advent of improved rail service. Most mid-1800s resort towns flourished near train tracks, so getting there could be relatively easy and not take too long. Such 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 ice-cold medicinal mineral water. On the site, a “health resort” known as Allison’s Wells was soon built. The water there was renowned not only for its healthy properties, but also because mixing Bourbon with it would cause it to turn black.
Early entertainment included cockfighting and gambling. By the early 1900s, the station had become more family-friendly. An advertisement in the June 7, 1914, Columbus Dispatch announced that “Allison’s Well is now open to guests” and claimed that its water could treat everything from malaria to eczema.
The Gulf Coast has also long been a popular summer destination with locals. With the widespread construction of all-weather roads around 1912, the popularity of coastal communities increased dramatically.
On a trip around 1920, TC Billups of Columbus drove his family to Biloxi to meet the Kimbrough family of Greenwood. Near Macon, his car breaks 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 gun, and emptied it into the engine. As he fired his final shot, he said “That’ll put this s – out of his misery.” Fortunately. Billups had a friend who worked in the auto business at Meridian.
Gulf Shores became popular with Columbus-area residents in the 1950s, and as a kid, I remember going there every summer. I still love going to the beach every summer and have just returned from Dauphin Island, a barrier island off Mobile Bay. I prefer to go there now because it’s not as developed and commercialized as Gulf Shores. The island also fascinates me because it is not only a nice vacation spot with a beautiful beach, but also a place related to the history of the Tombigbee River Valley. It was originally known as Massacre Island, due to Indian skeletons found 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 on the prairie south of present-day Tupelo.
The island was the first major port of the colony of Louisiana, and between 1703 and 1707 it became known as Île Dauphin. On September 9, 1710, English privateers from Jamaica attacked and sacked the settlement there. In 1715 it was the home of Governor of Louisiana Antoine de La Mothe Cadillac. Then, in 1717, a hurricane washed sand into the shipping channel, silting it up. The closing of the channel to larger ships ended the port’s importance, and by 1725 the port and its associated village were virtually abandoned.
The island practically lost its importance until it was surrendered by France to England in 1763. In 1781, England ceded the island to Spain. In 1813, the United States claimed Dauphin Island and took possession of it from Spain.
In 1818, construction of Fort Gaines across the entrance to Mobile Bay from Fort Morgan was started on the eastern end of the island. In January 1861, Alabama state troops occupied the fort for the Confederacy. The Confederate garrison went there on August 8, 1864, after the Battle of Mobile Bay.
Today, there is much more to Dauphin Island for visitors than beaches and history. There is the Alabama Sea Lab and the Alabama Aquarium. The aquarium focuses on the marine life of the Gulf and the Mobile River system of which the Tombigbee is a part. It’s very kid friendly and my grandkids love going there. The Sea Lab is Alabama’s center for marine science education and research. In addition to marine and environmental research programs, they offer many educational programs and youth camps.
My grandchildren Harper and Sykes attended a Sea Lab day camp while we were there. They went shrimp fishing, wading with a net in shallow water, encountered crabs and at a safe distance an alligator. They trekked through a swamp and learned about the coastal environments of the gulf and the life there. It was a great fun learning experience for them. With the 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 in the Sunday Dispatch. Email him your local history questions at [email protected]
Rufus Ward is a Columbus native a local historian. Send your local history questions to Rufus at [email protected]
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