Reflections of the Mississippi Gulf Coast

Biloxi at sunset. Photo by Richard Varr

Biloxi at sunset. Photo by Richard Varr

I visited Biloxi and the Mississippi Gulf Coast in late October, the location for this year’s Society of American Travel Writers (SATW) annual convention.  Many areas are still recovering from the destruction caused by Hurricane Katrina in 2005, but the beauty of the shoreline still couldn’t be missed.  Below are some thoughts and what I found particularly interesting during my late October visit.

Beauvoir      

Beauvoir.  Photo by Richard Varr

Beauvoir. Photo by Richard Varr

One of Biloxi’s most interesting sights, The Jefferson Davis Home and Presidential Library known as Beauvoir is in fact practically on the beach.  A grand stairwell leads to the porch of this one-story elevated house, recently restored after Katrina’s storm surge flooded the more than 160-year-old structure.

Inside Beauvoir. Photo by Richard Varr

Inside Beauvoir. Photo by Richard Varr

President of the Confederacy during the Civil War, Davis lived in the home from 1877 until his death in 1889.  About 80 percent of the furnishings remaining today – including gilded-framed paintings, marble tables, antique arm chairs and a mahogany secretary – are original from Davis’ time there.

Beauvoir is where Davis wrote his memoirs using the estate’s quaint Library Cottage.   “He had troublesome times after the war.  He was in prison, had failed business in his family and was losing family members,” says Bertram Hayes Davis, Davis’ great-great grandson and executive director of the home and library.  “When he finally came to the Gulf Coast, this was his final stop and he was going to write his book.  So once he wrote The Rise and Fall of the Confederate Government, he cleared his soul as you might say.  It was time for him to get on – ‘I’ve written my history, so let’s go forward with this country.’”

Ship Island

Ship Island. Photo by Richard Varr

Ship Island. Photo by Richard Varr

I hop a charter boat for an excursion to Ship Island, part of the Gulf Island’s National Seashore.  Once a deepwater port, Ship Island got its name because of the natural deep water harbor allowing anchorage for large vessels sailing on the Gulf.  The waterway between Biloxi and the island is only 12 feet deep, except for a dredged passage way for excursions to the island.

Fort Massachusetts. Photo by Richard Varr

Fort Massachusetts. Photo by Richard Varr

Rodman Cannon. Photo by Richard Varr

With its scenic beaches, Ship Island is home to the semi-circular Fort Massachusetts.  Completed in 1866, I tour the fort’s earthen embankments, inner courtyard and upper gun ports with a 15-inch Rodman Cannon.  On the island’s outer edges, I feel a sense of isolation and solitude.  “The first thing you do is take your shoes off, roll up your pants and walk to the west end of the island,” says boat Captain Louis Skrmetta, “and you’ll understand what a barrier island is all about.”

Ship Island. Photo by Richard Varr

Ship Island. Photo by Richard Varr

A hot spot for migrating birds, on this day an area birder tells me she saw pelicans, two peregrine falcons having a confrontation over the fort, piping plovers, swamp sparrows, black-bellied plovers and black-backed gulls, to name a few.  As many as 60 species might be spotted in one day during migrations.

“This area between Texas and Florida is the last stop for these migrating birds when they leave and when they return from the Yucatan,” she tells me.  “They left the Yucatan 18 hours earlier and fly nonstop.  They are exhausted and look for food.”

Singing the Blues at 100 Men D.B.A. Hall

100 Men D.B.A. Hall.  Photo by Richard Varr

100 Men D.B.A. Hall. Photo by Richard Varr

Before leaving Mississippi for Houston, I drive west on Highway 90 to Pass Christian with its heavily-treed War Memorial Park, and then across the St. Louis Bay Bridge to Bay St. Louis, another scenic coastal town.  I stop in the 100 Men D.B.A. Hall, a longtime social center for African-Americans built in 1922 by the One Hundred Members Debating Benevolent Association.  Over the years, the now refurbished, elongated hall with its darkened wooden floors and ceiling fans brought in jazz and blues musicians including the likes of Etta James, Ike and Tina Turner, Big Joe Turner and others.

Inside the Hall. Photo by Richard Varr

Inside the Hall. Photo by Richard Varr

“As a teenager, used to stand outside the side door, and you could see the band playing,” says Pat Murphy, a keyboardist and President of the 100 Men Hall Foundation.  “While I don’t know exactly where Etta James of Big Joe Turner stood, they were on that stage and just walking on it gives you the vibe.”

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