Traveling West on The Old Spanish Trail Highway

Mississippi:  The Coastal Highway


The drive through Mississippi is not extensive and it is pleasant to think of the coastal part of that trip the way travelers would have seen it back in the late twenties and the thirties.  That would be back before the State of Mississippi turned some of the most beautiful coastline in the country into a long sequence of casinos and cheap restaurants.  And that would be when there were still dozens of beautiful old homes across the Old Spanish Trail from the Gulf and lining the highway from Gulfport to Pass Christian.   Now, only a few years after the devastation wrought by Hurricane Katrina, the successor highway to OST, U.S. 90, is once again open to travelers; it's roadbed is identical to that of the older highway and the old shell highway before that.  But the mansions, some antebellum, are mostly gone.  You can take a tour of the restoration project that was once Jefferson Davis's coastal home, but mostly the driver who glances to the landward side of the highway sees slab after slab where homes used to be.  If travelers look to the south, they continue to see the beaches and the Gulf as well as the very quickly rebuilt casinos that makes this stretch of OST the Las Vegas of the Gulf.  

As you cross the bridges over the estuaries and rivers, take a look around you and you will see some of the remnants of the original toll bridges that the men who planned and lobbied for the highway caused to be constructed.  In 1924, an article in the San Antonio Express (mostly written by OST Director Harral Ayers) noted that the 88 miles of Mississippi highway covered three counties and only "two of them are now building paved roads."   Remember, too, that most of the funds came from county taxes and much of the labor was convict labor.  A 1914 letter in the archives at St. Mary's University from Mr. Walter Parker, General Manager of the New Orleans Association of Commerece, notes that in Florida,  the OST would "have the use of 300 convicts."   The same thing was true of all the states.  Counties raised the money through bond sales and some counties were more reluctant in the early days of the road's construction than in the latter.

Until 1928, when the bridge across the East Pascagoula River was completed, drivers had to cross the river via ferry.  According to a Mississippi Department of Transportation state document (Building the "Old Spanish Trail:" the Story of a Modern American Highway, written by Charles L. Sullivan and published in 2003) a record number of automobiles used the ferry across the river on July 4, 1928: 1,230 cars.  In those days few people considered traveling all the way across the country in their cars and most of that traffic would have been heading towards or away from New Orleans or Mobile.

From the 1920 second issue of Old Spanish Trail Magazine (Archives, St. Mary's University)

While the Mississippi section of OST was once among the most beautiful, development over the years had degraded the view even before Katrina finally demolished the coast.  OST had originally acted as a kind of sea wall and worked fairly effectively in that role for years, but Katrina was too powerful for that road's successor, the four-lane U.S. 90, to hold back.  This 1930s post card of the road near Gufport shows the beauty of the coast at the time the highway still had only two lanes and was, essentially, as the card proclaims, the "Old Spanish Trail."  The post card is linen and has been color augmented.  The car drives from west to east with the Gulf on the driver's right and the flowers lining the old houses on the left. The abundance of flowering shrubs reminds us that the OST project was as much about tourism as it was about other forms of comemrce. 

If Katrina marks the ruin of the houses along the Mississippi coastal areas where the OST ran, that hurricane is also the hallmark of much of the next segment of the trip:  the trip from Pass Christian, Mississippi, through Pearlington and down the east coast of Lake Ponchartrain, an area devastated by Hurricane Katrina, and on into New Orleans.