Historic Highway 90: ‘The Southern Route 66’

US 90
Courtesy of John Preble.

by ASHLEY STEENSON

According to John Preble, Curator of the Abita Mystery House Museum in Abita Springs, La., Highway 90 or The Old Spanish Trail was “the southern Route 66.”

Mississippi historians Deanne Nuwer and Charles Sullivan claim representatives from Alabama, Mississippi, and Louisiana first met during the Progressive era to propose the construction of a highway up the Florida Gulf Coast to Mobile and New Orleans. Sullivan explains that in the early 1920s, Jackson County, Miss., made plans to build a stretch of highway from Ocean Springs to Alabama.

Named two of the best gulf beaches in the South by the Travel Channel, Gulf Shores and Orange Beach, Ala., draw over seven million tourists a year. However, travelers might not know that the historic stretch of Highway 90 from Alabama to Ocean Springs begins less than an hour’s drive or ferry across Mobile Bay from Gulf Shores.

Toward the Mobile Bay Ferry around the intersection of Highway 180 and Route 59, it could be easy to miss the hole-in-the-wall King Neptune’s. Al and Diane Sawyer started the small seafood restaurant in 1993. Locals love it for the homemade key lime pie and the shrimp po’ boys on Gambino’s French Bread. Half a mile from King Neptune’s is Gulf State Park, thousands of acres preserved and maintained by the Civilian Conservation Corps (CCC) during the New Deal.

A short drive down Highway 180 from Gulf Shores, the unincorporated area of Ft. Morgan, Ala., received its name from the nineteenth-century fortification at the end of its peninsula. Ft. Morgan is the site of the famous 1864 Battle of Mobile Bay, where iconic Union Admiral David Farragut overcame Confederates led by Admiral Frank Buchanan. Historian Robert Browning claims that Farragut’s “Damn the torpedoes!” is “probably the most famous quote in U.S. naval history.” Tom Petty even chose it as the title of his 1978 album, considered by critics as one of his best.

Visitors to Ft. Morgan should also see Bon Secour National Wildlife Refuge. Filled with live oaks, saw palmettos, wax myrtles, and pines, Bon Secour draws hordes of tropical birds. It’s also home to monarch butterflies and nesting loggerheads depending on the season. Before visiting the public beach, travelers can stop at the dive bar Jack’s at Ft. Morgan Marina. Some honorable mentions are the site of the Native American village Achuse and the mid-century mansion controversial Governor George Wallace built in 1962.

Founded by the French in 1699 as Massacre Island, Dauphin Island is just over a half-hour ferry across the bay from Ft. Morgan. According to the 1941 Works Progress Administration (WPA) Guide to Alabama, the French “found human bones bleaching on the sands” but were nonetheless “undisturbed by these gruesome relics.” The barrier island was once protected by Ft. Gaines, also the site of a nineteenth-century shipwreck recovered after Hurricane Georges in 1998. Less than a mile away is the Audubon Bird Sanctuary, where quiet visitors can see not only birds but American alligators and banana spiders. Five minutes from Audubon, the view of the Gulf from Islanders Restaurant isn’t bad with coffee and homemade pancakes.

Toward Highway 90 across the Dauphin Island Bridge, rural Mobile County’s Bayou La Batre is known as the “Seafood Capital of Alabama,” as well as for the reference to its name in Forrest Gump. The most obscure site in Bayou La Batre is the mid-1970s Soviet submarine rusting away in a downtown shipyard. Apparently, a potential buyer abandoned it decades ago. It’s so unique that the late Mobile native and underwater filmmaker Mike deGruy considered buying it, along with his friend, Titanic director James Cameron. Al.com reported that deGruy ultimately decided against it, “Because a person would have to be crazy to go underwater in that contraption.”

As drivers make it onto Highway 90 from Mobile County headed west, the first town they’ll come across is Moss Point, Miss. Now known as the hometown of Phoenix Suns star Devin Booker, visitors to the area can also find giant, old-growth live oaks growing around the swamps. Right off the highway, The Oaks convenience store sells simple comfort foods and classic snacks. Ten minutes away in Pascagoula, the Civil War-era Round Island Light House was relocated to Highway 90 in 2010. Travelers should also pick up some of James Stuart’s spicy pickles, okra, and green beans in nearby Gautier, Miss.

 

About half an hour from Gautier, Ocean Springs, Miss., is known for its Walter Anderson Museum (Andy Warhol was a collector) and for Ft. Massachusetts on Ship Island. Though the small town has many significant buildings, structures by world-renowned architects Frank Gehry and Frank Lloyd Wright stand out. Gehry, known for his own California home, designed a campus of modern buildings to house the Ohr-O’Keefe Museum of Art. Not far from the museum, the Charnley-Norwood House is a beachfront cottage designed by Frank Lloyd Wright and his mentor, Chicago architect Louis Sullivan. Across the street, the beaches are public access and dog friendly.

To get back to Gulf Shores, travelers can take the ferry to Ft. Morgan or keep driving to experience Highways 90 and 98. Burris Farm Market is close to the intersection of the two highways in Loxley, Ala. For over thirty years, Burris has sold local honey, Chilton County peaches, and much more. Right off 98, Fairhope and Point Clear are often featured in travel articles, but an end point to the loop could be the lesser-known Bon Secour, right outside Foley as drivers take Route 59 to Gulf Shores. Shrouded by live oaks covered in Spanish Moss, the Greek Revival Swift-Coles House was constructed in 1882. Other historic buildings and the Tin Top Restaurant & Oyster Bar are close by.

In 2015, USA Today and tripadvisor.com named Gulf Shores and Orange Beach, Ala., in a Top 10 list of American “destinations on the rise,” but those who travel to the area shouldn’t overlook the interesting sites along the Gulf Coast near historic Highway 90.

As Louisiana curator Preble explains, “Highway 90 doesn’t get the credit it should,” as it “had a lot more sense of adventure.”

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