Mississippi's Harrison County Coast at the Turn of the Twentieth Century
Prior to the War Between the States, the Mississippi Gulf Coast consisted of a series of small farms and quaint hamlets hugging the Gulf of Mexico and the rivers, bayous, and creeks emptying into it. The towns were natural outgrowths of the older fur and timber trades thriving since colonial times. The Mississippi Coast offered easy access to the lucrative markets at New Orleans and Mobile and the eastern seaboard. Additionally, the wealthy merchants of New Orleans escaped the deadly, disease-ridden summers in New Orleans by building summer homes in the area of Waveland and Bay St. Louis. After the War, Pass Christian became a favorite winter getaway for wealthy Northerners.
From Mississippi statehood in 1817 until 1841, Hancock County stretched from the Pearl River to Biloxi Bay. In that latter year, the legislature divided the county along a north-south line bisecting the Bay of St. Louis and subsequently named the eastern county Harrison in honor of William Henry Harrison, 9th president of the United States. The communities of Wolftown (now Delisle), Pass Christian, Buena Vista (now Handsboro), Mississippi City, and Biloxi (the history of which dates back to D’Iberville’s landing in 1699) became part of Harrison County. Mississippi City served as the county seat.
In 1866, immediately following the War, a group of ex-slaves received Federal grants for eight forty-acre plots along Turkey Creek west of what is now the residential area known as Bayou View. Those eight family groups got their “forty acres.” I don’t know about their mule. The sheltered bayou enclave remained relatively isolated until well into the twentieth century. Descendents of the original owners still occupy a number of those original eight plots. Though progress in the guise of the regional airport, retail businesses, and industrial and real estate development has long threatened the Turkey Creek community, it is now protected as a registered historic landmark.
Southeast of Turkey Creek is Bayou View. Known as Epico in the nineteenth century, the area consisted of sparse home sites, which skirted Bayou Bernard. East of Epico, down Bayou Bernard, was the thriving town of Handsboro, relegated now to a Gulfport community. For a short stretch, the Pass Christian-Biloxi Road served as Handsboro’s Main Street. One mile south, along the north-south Old Cowan Road was the Gulf of Mexico and Mississippi City, the county seat. For all intents and purposes, Handsboro and Mississippi City, both settled by Scotch-Irish immigrants in the 1840s, became one along Old Cowan Road. Mississippi City proper stretched east-west for two miles along the Old Spanish Trail (by the turn of the century called Gulf Street). Today this route is U.S. 90.
At the close of the nineteenth century, William Harris Hardy, an Alabama-born Confederate who made his home in Mississippi following the War, Spenser S. Bullis, a New York promoter, and Joseph T. Jones, a financier from Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, brought to fruition a deep-water port for Mississippi at the newly laid out city of Gulfport, terminus of the Gulf and Ship Island Railroad (G&SI). [The history of this railroad, finally completed at the close of the nineteenth century, predates the War Between the States.]
Before the War, Coast residents (among other potential benefactors) had pushed for a rail line to Mississippi City (at the time, a primary Mississippi seaport) to accommodate the transport and subsequent export of Piney Woods timber out of the state. The state legislature shot down the initiative.
The visionaries who created Gulfport, met with their own set of obstacles, dealing not only with construction of the railroad but with federal engineers, who insisted that dredging a deep-water port would be most easily accomplished at Biloxi. Maybe so, but dredging a channel to Biloxi didn’t accomplish much if the G&SI railroad was already laid and the fresh-water timber boom was under construction in Gulfport. After some thought, Mr. Jones dismissed the potential of a Biloxi port and forsook federal support. He financed the dredging of Gulfport’s channel with his own money.
Gulfport was incorporated on 28 July 1898, and in August 1902 the citizens of Harrison County voted it to replace Mississippi City as the county seat. Over the intervening century, Gulfport has grown to be the second largest city in the state, gobbling up Handsboro and Mississippi City (among others) in the process.
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