The Mississippi Gulf Coast tourism industry, concentrated primarily between Ocean Springs in the east and Bay St. Louis in the west, dates to the arrival of the railroad after the Civil War. During the antebellum period, a few New Orleanians escaped the city’s frequent yellow fever epidemics and heat by vacationing along the coast, but most travelers ferried past the area on the steamboat route between New Orleans to Mobile. The completion of the New Orleans, Mobile, and Chattanooga Railroad in 1870 facilitated access to the once-isolated shoreline and placed the Mississippi Gulf Coast on a popular rail route that eventually linked Florida and California. The retirement of former Confederate president Jefferson Davis to Beauvoir likewise bolstered national interest in the Mississippi Gulf Coast. After purchasing the smaller lines operating along the coast during the 1880s, the Louisville and Nashville Railroad became the major promoter of travel to the Mississippi beachfront. The company also introduced commuter service between Ocean Springs and New Orleans in 1880, thereby bringing many more weekend vacationers as well as an influx of summer homeowners.
Belief in the healthful properties of coastal air attracted tourists even though the area suffered from occasional, well-publicized yellow fever outbreaks into the early twentieth century. The Mexican Gulf Hotel, which opened in 1883 in Pass Christian, was the first winter hotel on the coast. The completion of the Gulf and Ship Island Railroad by Capt. Joseph Jones in 1899 established a direct rail link to the North. By the early twentieth century, large hotels dotted the beach, catering primarily to northerners during the winter months. The most famous vacationer was Pres. Woodrow Wilson, who spent the winter of 1913–14 in Pass Christian.
After a destructive 1915 hurricane, officials constructed a twenty-six-mile-long seawall, completed in 1926, similar to that built by Galveston. A waterfront highway that eventually became US 90 paralleled the wall. Improved storm protection, a better mosquito eradication program, and a real estate boom inspired in part by land speculation in Florida during the 1920s increased interest in the Mississippi Gulf Coast as a vacation destination. The decade became known as the golden age of tourism in the area, as the Edgewater Gulf Hotel, the Buena Vista Hotel, and other large resorts opened. Surf bathing and the fad of beauty contests made Mississippi beaches ever more popular. The construction of roads and bridges, especially under New Deal programs, bolstered the tourism industry, with automobiles slowly replacing trains as Americans’ preferred mode of travel. A region of Mississippi tied more closely to the urbane culture of New Orleans than to the conservative values of the hinterland, coastal communities protected visitors’ access to gambling, alcohol, and until the 1980s prostitution as well as more acceptable attractions such as golf courses, boating, and fishing. The opening of Keesler Air Force Base in 1941 solidified the year-round tourism industry as entertainment venues catered to the large permanent presence of military personnel.
The Mississippi Gulf Coast’s tourism industry became a key site in the civil rights struggle. In 1951 engineers began dredging sand from the Gulf to add a lengthy beach in front of the seawall for tourists’ enjoyment and for better hurricane protection. The investment of tax revenues into public beach maintenance projects encouraged African Americans to challenge segregation laws that restricted their access to shore. In 1959 Dr. Gilbert Mason led an ultimately successful “wade-in” in Biloxi, the civil rights movement’s first nonviolent protest in Mississippi. The resulting negative publicity spawned by violent resistance to integration caused a decline in travel to the coast. Combined with the devastating effects of Hurricane Camille in 1969 and the development of beach tourism in the Florida Panhandle, the Mississippi Gulf Coast tourism industry struggled through the 1970s and 1980s. During this period, the so-called Dixie Mafia, a cabal of local officials, businessmen, and criminals, made the coast a center for prostitution and drug trafficking until a series of convictions dismantled the network by the mid-1980s.
In 1992 dockside casino gambling rejuvenated tourism on the Mississippi Gulf Coast, with large gaming barges, resort hotels, and entertainment venues converting the beachfront into the third-largest casino market in the United States, trailing only Las Vegas and Atlantic City. Hurricane Katrina in 2005 demolished virtually all of the structures along the coast. To quickly rebound from the devastation, the state authorized the introduction of land-based casinos within eight hundred feet of the shoreline. As of 2018, the Mississippi Gulf Coast had no fewer than twelve casinos featuring everything from golf courses and Minor League Baseball to fine dining and top-name entertainment.
- Mary Allen Alexander, Rosalie and Radishes: A History of Long Beach, Mississippi (1980)
- Gerald Blessey, interview by Angela Sartin, 2 January 2000, Community Bridges Oral History Project, Center for Oral History and Cultural Heritage, University of Southern Mississippi
- J. Michael Butler, Journal of Southern History (February 2002)
- Philip Hearn, Hurricane Camille: Monster Storm of the Gulf Coast (2004)
- Edward Humes, Mississippi Mud: Southern Justice and the Dixie Mafia (1995)
- Gilbert R. Mason, Beaches, Blood, and Ballots: A Doctor’s Civil Rights Struggle (2000)