Coasting Through History: Forts, Fishermen, Legends and Adventure Along Alabama’s Gulf Coast
by Guy Busby
Table of Contents
The recorded story of the state begins on the Gulf Coast, where Alonso de Pineda sailed into Mobile Bay in 1519, more than 20 years before Hernando de Soto entered what is now Alabama. Today, you can tour the forts that defended Mobile and walk beaches trod by swashbucklers and explorers. You can also learn the amazing stories of seafarers, farmers and fishermen who also make up the coast’s history.
Battle for the Bay
Dauphin Island was settled by the French more than 300 years ago. In Cadillac Square, you can stand on the grounds of what was the capital of French Louisiana years before the founding of New Orleans. Some of the same oaks that shaded French colonists still grow in the park.
On the eastern tip of the island, historic Fort Gaines (51 Bienville Blvd.; 251-861-6992) has guarded Mobile Bay since 1853 and was a key to the coast’s defense in the Civil War.
The Mobile Bay Ferry (251-861-3000) is not only a scenic 40-minute trip across the bay, but also a sail across one of America’s great battlefields. On these waters, the largest naval engagement of the Civil War took place – the Battle of Mobile Bay. On Aug. 5, 1864, 18 ships fought for control of one of the last major Confederate seaports.
To the south, just outside the bay, the Sand Island Lighthouse can be seen. The 125-foot lighthouse was built in 1873 and deactivated in 1932.
At Fort Morgan (110 Alabama Hwy. 180 W.; 251-540-5257), the fort’s museum includes displays detailing two centuries of history, from the site’s role in the War of 1812 to the Civil War and World War II.
Informational markers around Fort Morgan and Fort Gaines detail what happened there during the Civil War. You can follow the course of the Battle of Mobile Bay while standing on the same brick walls where the cannons roared. The plaques also mark the start of the Mobile Bay Civil War Trail, which includes Historic Blakeley State Park in Spanish Fort – the site of the last major battle of the Civil War – and other locations.
The reenactment commemorates one of the iconic naval confrontations of the American Civil War. During the three-day event, the fort’s museum displays rarely exhibited artifacts from three of the battleships: the USS Tecumseh, USS Philippi and the CSS Gaines.
In addition to the historic battle, Fort Morgan bustles with activities throughout the year, including candlelight tours during the summer and living history reenactments and holiday observances.
For those interested in taking a piece of the action home, T-shirts, books, toys and other items are available for purchase at the museum gift shop. The site is open until 5 p.m. daily, weather permitting. Admission is charged.
Early Coastal Life
East of Fort Morgan, a stop at the Bon Secour National Wildlife Refuge (12295 Alabama Hwy.180; 251-540-7720) provides a glimpse of what the native inhabitants, explorers and early settlers might have seen.
The Gulf Shores Museum (244 W. 19th Ave.; 251-968-1473) contains exhibits that explore the lives of the early fishermen who settled the area and the hurricanes that have swept over the coast. The museum building, constructed as a beach house in the 1940s, was one of the few Gulf Shores structures to survive Hurricane Frederic in 1979. The building was moved to its present site after the storm.
To the east, the Orange Beach Indian and Sea Museum (25805 John Snook Dr.; 251-981-8545) also details the history of Native Americans in the region as well as the fishing industry. Many of the artifacts were donated by the descendants of the families who settled the area.
The Coastal Arts Center (26389 Canal Rd.; 251-981-2787) is housed in the original Orange Beach Hotel. Built in 1923, the establishment allowed guests to enjoy life on the area’s bay side. Today, visitors can wander the building and grounds walked by guests almost 100 years ago while taking in the art exhibits and workshops now on the site.
From the peaceful bay views and beautiful artwork, take a walk on the wild side on the Catman Road hiking trail. The route, once a county road through the Alabama Gulf State Park, was closed in 1972. For generations, residents have told stories of the “Catman,” a half-man, half-panther creature that haunts the woods along the road. The trail along the roadway was opened in 2003 as part of the Hugh S. Branyon Backcountry Trail. Enjoy the native wildlife and plants – and keep an eye out for the Catman.
The Baldwin County Heritage Museum (25521 U.S. Hwy. 98; 251-986-8375) in Elberta includes exhibits, buildings and farm equipment that show how residents of yesteryear lived.
The historic Foley Depot Museum (125 E. Laurel Ave.; 251-943-1818) is housed in the 1909 L&N Railroad depot. It includes an extensive model railroad display, an actual train and other exhibits. Displays describe the history of the railroad, its role in the development of the area and other aspects of life in the history of southern Baldwin County.
At the Holmes Medical Museum (111 W. Laurel Ave.; 251-943-1300), you can tour Baldwin County’s first hospital. Exhibits include hospital rooms from more than 70 years ago, medical equipment and photographs of the “Holmes babies,” the many area residents born in the hospital.
On the same block, you can stop in at Stacey’s Drug Store (121 W. Laurel Ave.; 251-943-7191). The pharmacy, located in the 1927 Foley Hotel building, still includes an authentic, old-fashioned soda fountain where you can enjoy ice cream and other treats.
Where To Stay and Eat
For a stay on the beach near Fort Morgan and the Bon Secour National Wildlife Refuge, the Beach Club of Gulf Shores provides a casual and relaxing getaway. Guests who want to stay in a historic Gulf Coast location can stop at the Original Romar House Bed and Breakfast Inn (23500 Perdido Beach Blvd.; 251-974-1625). The house, built in 1924, was Alabama’s first beachside bed-and-breakfast.
For dining near Fort Morgan, Tacky Jacks 2 (1577 Alabama Hwy. 180, 251-968-8341) is located on Mobile Bay at the Gulf Shores Yacht Club and Marina. At the intersection of Fort Morgan Road and Alabama Highway 59 in Gulf Shores is Hazel’s Nook (120 E. Fort Morgan Rd.; 251-968-7065), a local institution that has welcomed visitors and residents since the 1960s.
The Alabama Gulf Coast has a wide variety of accommodations and dining options in addition to those listed here. More recommendations are available from Gulf Shores & Orange Beach Tourism.
To share questions or comments about this road trip, please email Kim Chapman, Gulf Shores & Orange Beach Tourism or Jo Jo Terry.
Reenactment of the Battle of Mobile Bay
Reenactors from across the nation gather at Fort Morgan the first weekend in August each year to commemorate the fateful Battle of Mobile Bay and the Siege of Fort Morgan. Activities include tours, artillery firing, performances of Civil War-era music and the reenactment.
Related Road Trips
Outdoor Beach Adventure: Gulf Shores/Orange Beach
This road trip takes you to Alabama’s beautiful Gulf Coast region for fishing, parasailing, hot air balloon rides, scuba diving and exciting dolphin cruises. Down along the Alabama coast, where 32 miles of sugar white sand beaches offer fun 365 days of the year, you’ll discover adventure at every turn – on land, by sea and in the air.