The real estate development history of Alabama’s barrier island begins in Babbitt boosterism and extends—through natural and man-made disaster—into enlightened ecotourism and preservation zoning.
Photos courtesy of the University of South Alabama Archives
Six years ago, for-sale signs on Dauphin Island were as common as snowflakes, and the idea of purchasing a lot for development was almost laughable.
That was before.
It was before Hurricane Katrina, one of the worst natural disasters in the nation’s history, took no mercy on nearby New Orleans and ravaged Alabama’s Gulf Coast in 2005.
It also was before an unprecedented oil spill sent more than 200 million gallons of oil spewing into the Gulf of Mexico in April 2010, dealing a devastating blow to Alabama’s vibrant tourism sector.
Less than one month before the barrier island 45 miles south of Mobile welcomes its official 2011 tourist season, however, it’s not only a peaceful retreat from the rigors of daily life but apparently a buyer’s market.
Cathy Havard, president of Dauphin Island Real Estate Inc., says by mid-April some 231 island homes were for sale through the multiple listing service alone, not accounting for any for-sale-by-owner situations. In addition, nearly 200 lots, both interior and Gulf front, were available.
“Before Katrina, things never stayed on the market. They were snatched up almost as soon as word got out,” says Havard, noting short sales and foreclosure activity are driving the flurry of activity at the moment.
Mayor Jeff Collier says zoning regulations will prevent any opportunistic developers at the moment from jeopardizing the island’s quiet, insulated character.
“Right now, ecotourism is big for Dauphin Island, and we want to be sure we strike a good balance between development and quality of life, so we don’t lose sight of that,” he says. “In fact, most people who either vacation here or call it home like it almost as much for what it’s not as for what it is. That’s the niche we thrive on.”
That wasn’t always the case, however. It is just the most recent chapter in the bizarre evolution of a community that almost never came to be.
Although the town, itself, wasn’t incorporated formally until 1988, Dauphin Island’s roots trace more than 300 years of sporadic and culturally diverse inhabitation. It began with the French, followed by Spanish and Creole influences and then witnessed an infusion of Greek and Scotch-Irish blood. Frances Young, long considered the authority on Dauphin Island’s unique history, compiled in the mid-1990s “A History of Dauphin Island Under Five Flags, 1699-1989: In Adversity We Thrive.”
In its more modern section, the work reveals a dizzying timeline of a successful attempt to develop the largely ignored island only 14 miles in length into a thriving tourist attraction that would feed the port city of Mobile.
To understand what happened in the mid-1950s and set the stage for the island of today, Young’s chronicle says you have to back pedal to 1885 “quit claim” deeds from the longtime family lines of the Gillettes, McNultys, Semmes, Austills and Mallons to the Dauphin Island Improvement Co., incorporated in 1910 as the Dauphin Island Co.
The Gulf Land and Harbor Co. formed in 1900, evolved into the Dauphin Island Railway and Harbor Co., then into Gulf Properties. The latter was ultimately transferred to a group of residents led primarily by Forney Johnston and Frank Johnston, who, in 1953, sold the majority of the island’s property to the Mobile Chamber of Commerce for slightly less than $1 million.
On Nov. 25 of that year, the chamber put 1,500 lots up for sale to raise the funds needed to build a bridge connecting the barrier island to the mainland. Young said original plans called for the construction on what is now the Audubon Bird Sanctuary, but instead constructed it on the west end of the island. In addition, “an elaborate clubhouse and casino were planned with membership open to all land purchasers,” Young wrote.
At that same time, the Dauphin Island Property Owners’ Association was formed and originally responsible for providing the lion’s share of municipal services. In turn, the chamber and the Merchants National Bank of Mobile established a trust fund for the organization, and that seed money was eventually augmented by gas royalty payments from operations off the island’s coast.
In 1955, the bridge named for Gov. Gordon Persons was completed, and, the following year, the Isle Dauphine and Beach Casino were completed. By 1962, the first nine holes of the golf course opened, just four years after the Riviera Motel—later purchased by Holiday Inn—opened its doors.
The chamber’s hopes of creating a tourist’s paradise via the casino never materialized, though, and it fell into disrepair by 1967. That same year, the Isle Dauphine was leased as a private country club. Today, the property owners’ association maintains control of the club, along with the golf course. At the same time, what is recognized today as ecotourism began to take hold and transform the island into a destination once again.
The Audubon Bird Sanctuary was closed to vehicular traffic, and the annual Alabama Deep Sea Fishing Rodeo began attracting visitors in droves. The site’s newfound popularity was almost vanquished when Hurricane Frederic made landfall in September 1979, wiping out the bridge, which took three years to replace.
Since that time, island residents have weathered more than their share of hurricanes and economic blows, but Collier says it is the will of the people to protect that which hasn’t been taken out yet.
“We talk a lot about controlled or managed growth because the people here want Dauphin Island to pretty much stay like it is. It’s been here for more than 300 years, and these are some of the most resilient people you will ever meet,” Collier says.
Kelli Dugan is a freelance writer for Business Alabama. She lives in Mobile.