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The Waterís Edge at Mobile:
A Magnificent Cultural Matrix
By Murray D. Laurie

With its husky mix of shipbuilding and marine services marked by a forest of cranes and industrial machinery, Mobile strikes me as a city that takes its waterfront very seriously. Tugs push barges to and fro, container ships are loaded with cargo for foreign lands at the Alabama State Docks, and military craft cruise in for repairs and refitting.

But there is much more to be absorbed along this shore, which serves as Mobileís front deck. Each day, hundreds of people visit the battleship U.S.S. Alabama, moored minutes away from the port, just off the causeway that crosses Mobile Bay. Fans of military aircraft as well as ocean going fighting ships spend endless hours at Battleship Park, created by tons and tons of sand dredged from Mobile Bay. Looking out over the bay from one of the upper decks of the Alabama, I was dazzled by the beauty of the sunstruck water and rather envious of the men in the little fishing skiff anchored off a few hundred yards from the hull of the ship, waiting for a red fish to strike.

From its earliest days, Mobile owed its success to its waterfront location. French colonists who planted the first European-style settlement on the wide bay in 1702 were attracted by the protected harbor linked to the interior by a series of five rivers. Governor Beinville graciously acknowledged the Native Americans who had a prior claim to the natural treasures of this realm and named his new settlement for the hospitable Mabale people. Fort Conde?, built to protect the frontier town (recreated and now open for visitors) once stood on the shore, but is now inland many hundreds of feet as, little by little, the town edged outward onto land dredged up, like Battleship Park, from the bottom of the bay.

As the town expanded and flourished as a prime port on the Gulf of Mexico, Mobile became a bustling center of trade. The French flag came down in 1763, to be replaced for less than two decades by British banners waving in the warm southern breezes. Mobile then came under the Spanish flag in 1780, only to be replaced by the American Stars and Stripes in 1813.

Soon fleets of paddle wheeled steamboats were hauling bale after bale of cotton grown on upriver plantations to the docks in Mobile for overseas shipment. Glimpses of Mobileís golden age when King Cotton ruled can be seen in the splendid collection of antebellum homes that embellish the older neighborhoods of the city. The Bragg-Mitchell Mansion and Oakleigh House, richly furnished and now open for tours, are both splendid examples of genteel Southern style and elegance.

During the Civil War (or the War for Southern Independence, as many natives of Mobile will insist), the Bonnie Blue Flag of the Confederacy was displayed with pride. The Confederate Navy operated a submarine research center in Mobile, developing weapons of underwater warfare such as the Hunley, used to sink a federal warship in Charleston harbor.

The city, as a leading cotton shipping port, was devastated during the war years, only to rise again in the late 1800s as it welcomed shipments of sugar and bananas from the Caribbean. In the 1920s, more than 500 acres of marsh and swampland were filled in and converted into the Alabama State Docks. By the turn of the century, the web of iron rails in the nationís growing railroad system linked the Gulf seaport to ever expanding markets to the north, east and west.

The Port of Mobile still underpins the cityís economy, which will soon receive a boost as cruise ships are added to the mix. The old banana docks are gone now, replaced by the splendid new Arthur R. Outlaw Convention Center. [photo 4 here] The light and airy building reflects the architectural heritage of the Gulf Coast with plenty of balconies and verandahs overlooking the water. The railroad tracks that once vibrated with the wheels of boxcars loaded with bunches of bananas and all manner of freight from the city docks now run right through the convention center, linking it to its past. Just to the south, across a broad paved plaza is Cooper Riverside Park, adding to the waterfront ambiance with an outdoor amphitheater, jogging trails, and a fishing pier.

Mobileís downtown is, as ever, oriented to the waterfront and very accessible. Stroll a block or two to the west and you will find the Museum of Mobile located in the old Southern Market building, once the center of city commerce and trade. Historical displays revealing more than 100,000 intriguing artifacts are finessed on the top floor by the array of lavish Mardi Gras costumes. Mardi Gras, as any Mobilian will quickly reveal, got its start here in the New World, well before New Orleans hopped onto the carnival bandwagon. In this splendid museum, one of the best Iíve ever visited, it becomes clear that Mobileís insouciant and tolerant spirit owes everything to the incredible vigor and diversity of its cultural heritage.

Downtown attractions, just minutes from the shore of Mobile Bay, also include the Gulf Coast Exploreum Science Center, outdoor cafes and fine restaurants, shaded parks and public squares, charming shops that bubble with life during the day, and nightspots that pulse and prance into the wee hours.

Visitors will soon appreciate how avidly Mobile cherishes its rich architectural heritage, magnificent oak trees and gardens blooming with color throughout the year. As one who fondly recalls the childhood thrill of entering Mobile from the east through the Bankhead Tunnel, which runs beneath the Mobile River and still spills its traffic into the heart of the city, it was a treat to rediscover this friendly city, proud of its past and confident of its future.

For information about Mobile and its attractions, see www.mobile.org.

You can contact Travel Writer Murray Laurie by Email - Click Here



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