The Gordon Persons Bridge is much more than a structure connecting Dauphin Island to Alabama’s mainland. It is a portal through which one must pass in order to reach what is arguably Alabama’s most distinct and memorable destination. Stretching three miles over the Gulf Intracoastal Waterway, the bridge allows travelers a moment to detach from the hustle and bustle of daily life. It allows a true separation from the mainland, transporting travelers to a barrier island with culture, history, and daily rhythm all its own. It is a terribly well-kept secret both by those who are lucky enough to live or vacation on this lovely little spot. A lack of commercial development, a vast array of fishing and boating, and recreational activities, and a smattering of locally owned and operated businesses immediately set the island apart from other communities along the Gulf coast. In fact, one of the first sights greeting visitors is a series of small, colorful fishing huts on the edge of the water. They are simple, unassuming, and functional, offering only a place to prepare food and to sleep. This is because the water beckons. Visitors know time will be spent on the beach, on the water, on a boat...any means of exploring this stunning, natural paradise.
Over the last half of the 20th Century, Islanders have prioritized preservation and throttled plans for developments and high rises. The City of Dauphin Island has made a concerted effort to this very end through a series of ordinances, height restrictions, and zoning regulations, managed to keep the Island much like it appeared 30 years ago. A spirit of preservation ensures that high rises don’t pop up on the island and instead, attractions like the Audobon Bird Sanctuary are protected.
Preservation also lends itself to not only the natural but also the historical elements of the island. When French settlers arrived in 1699, they were welcomed by massive piles of bones and oyster shells. Not realizing the mounds were part of a sacred burial ground unearthed by a recent hurricane, the settlers assumed a horrible massacre had taken place and immediately dubbed it, “Massacre Island.” While evidence of the burial grounds no longer exists, the Shell Mound Park on the Island’s north shore stands testament to its earliest inhabitants. Massacre Island eventually became Isle Dauphine as a nod to the French Dauphine or the heir apparent to the French throne. It even served as the home for the French Governor-General of the entire Louisiana Territory. Passing hands to the British, and then to the Spanish, Dauphin Island finally became a part of the United States in 1813 and was by then already established as a major trading post and a tactical protection point for pirates attempting to access Mobile Bay.
Fort Gaines, located on the Island’s eastern-most point, is another bastion of preservation efforts. Widely recognized as one of the most well-preserved examples of pre-Civil War masonry works in the U.S., the fort boasts a museum, a working forge, and original cannons. Completed during the war, it was immediately inhabited by Confederate troops seeking to defend Mobile Bay, along with their counterpart, Fort Morgan, only five miles away. During the famed Battle of Mobile Bay, Rear Admiral David Farragut seemed to assume the same robust spirit of survival and courage as the residents of the Island itself. When attempting to breach the Confederate blockade and gain access to Mobile Bay for the Union, he yelled the now-famous line, “Damn the torpedoes! Full speed ahead!”
A barrage of sorts has continued to rain down on Dauphin Island in the 150 years since that day. Hurricanes, tropical storms, and erosion are all a part of life on this 14-mile stretch of land. Islanders know it and are equipped for the inevitabilities. Each seems to have an individual tale of survival, heroism, or tragedy. In the past 30 years alone, Hurricanes Andrew, Katrina, Ivan, and 2021’s Ida all blazed a path of destruction. Katrina even separated part of the public beach on the far west end of the Island. To this day, a small waterway covers what used to be a large sandy strip of land.
Less than 70 years ago, the Island was truly an isolated community with only a few hundred residents that allowed their farm animals to roam the island. In 1955, the first bridge was built, allowing modest development -- mostly vacation or weekend homes for residents of Mobile. In 1979, Hurricane Frederic destroyed the bridge and many structures on the Island. In the years that followed, the resilient residents of Dauphin Island used personal vessels and the occasional ferry to travel back and forth to the mainland. A long-standing spirit of courage and resourcefulness quickly becomes evident when considering the Island’s expansive and colorful history.
But these Islanders rebuild every time. Rebuilding is not an “if” but a “when” for those lucky enough to call Dauphin Island home. Mayor Jeff Collier has served in his current role for 23 years and likes to joke that he’s still in the position not because he does a good job but because no one else will take the job. Raised on the Island, he has a keen understanding of the lifestyle here. The resilience required, the steel nerves needed when a hurricane is bearing down on the horizon, and the perpetual hope one must have to rebuild in the calm after the storm. He is intensely motivated to preserve all that is special about this place and to protect the reasons people continue to travel here year after year. On Dauphin, it is not unusual for a beach house to remain in a family and be passed down over the generations. This means families build decades of memories here, each generation adding to the retinue of oral family history. A favorite fishing spot. Fresh-steamed royal red shrimp from Skinner’s Seafood. A carefully guarded oyster recipe. All these things amount to an experience that people return to over and over throughout their lives, thus Dauphin Island’s efforts to protect and preserve its way of life.
Another piece of Dauphin Island’s prolific history that has continued to grow and evolve is now one of the things for which the Island is best known. Alabama’s Deep Sea Fishing Rodeo is a massive event, taking place in July on the north shore. Drawing almost 4,000 anglers each year, it is easily the world’s largest fishing rodeo. Participants travel from as far away as Australia for the experience, and the entirety of Mobile County benefits from the economic flurry. The first rodeo was held in 1929 when a group of young businessmen in Mobile decided to host a civic-minded fishing event. Now hosted by the Mobile Junior Chamber of Commerce, the Rodeo is unique for a number of reasons. Each board member actually pays to participate, and all of the proceeds are poured back into the community. Multiple Alabama fishing records have been set during the Rodeo over the years, and the expansive list of types of fish in and around the Island surpasses anything else along the coast. It is a fisherman’s paradise due to the breadth of experiences available in surrounding waters. The event itself is one-of-a-kind, with fish being weighed and reported every few seconds, stats shouted between Rodeo officials, and coolers of iced beer that somehow seem to stay full lining the property. Traffic backs up over the bridge to Mobile and houses are booked months in advance. Late-night band parties draw crowds of spectators beyond the participants themselves, and it all culminates with the award ceremony at the end of the weekend. Truly, the Rodeo is a bucket-list experience for any fishing enthusiast.
Many of these same reasons are what lead Auburn University’s School of Fisheries, Aquaculture, and Aquatic Sciences to build its Shellfish Laboratory (AUSL) on the Island in 2003. With a focus on marine ecology, specifically oyster aquaculture and hatcheries, the lab brings an important educational aspect to the island. Ultimately chosen for the wide variety of marine life and stable levels of salinity in the water, the lab has proven a strong partner for the City of Dauphin Island. Graduate students working at the lab often live on the island as well as many of the lab’s full-time employees. The city in return has joined forces to encourage and collaborate on farming aspects including leasing land and water bottom for oyster farming.
AUSL’s initial mission was very broad; it existed to conduct practical research in support of the shellfish industry in Alabama. As one of the state’s abundant natural resources, this mission has focused most recently on off-bottom oyster farming practices. This includes everything from management practices, harvesting techniques, and how bacteria are monitored in oysters once harvested, all while considering consumer preferences and industry trends. Needless to say, it’s a tremendous body of work necessary both to a leading industry in Alabama and the protection of Dauphin Island’s extraordinary ecosystem.
One of the most pressing reasons for this focus of AUSL’s mission is the decline of oyster populations in recent years. Several hurricanes covered up reefs in the early 2000s, followed by several years of drought that raised the salinity of the water, subsequently enabling oyster predators -- snails known as oyster drills -- to overwhelm the floor of Mobile Bay. The slow decline over the years can be remedied only by an equally slow process of recovery. AUSL and the state of Alabama plant massive amounts of shells just offshore of Dauphin Island to encourage the resettlement of new oysters. Once a base of shells is established, then farm-raised oysters are planted. The oysters are harvested at the culmination of a three-year process. All these efforts provide an economic source upon harvest as well as a habitat for fish, crabs, and other shellfish along the ocean floor. Besides the many ways we know them to be delicious, oysters play a very important role in ecological stabilization. They are extremely efficient at filtering the waters in which they reside, pulling excess nutrients out and preventing large algae blooms. It’s a comforting thought, really...our beloved Gulf Coast oysters silently cleaning an entire body of water on our behalf.
Auburn’s Shellfish Lab, the Fishing Rodeo, Fort Gaines, the Island’s residents all share a deep and abiding connection to the water surrounding this curious little strip of land. They’ve even adopted the resilient nature that it embodies -- each in their own way. Dauphin Island is sustained by its enduring and endearing nature. The immediate charm, intriguing history, and myriad of recreational activities collectively make the Island a terribly memorable little spot. Although seemingly forgotten by time, Alabama’s Sunset Capital still shines brightly on the Gulf Coast.