Good Roads: Building the "Old Spanish Trail"

In 1897 the Mississippi Legislature passed a law empowering a county board of supervisors to elect a county road commissioner to oversee improvement of public roads. But since the legislators did not require the appointment of such a commissioner, the law had little effect. On May 8, 1897, referring to this powerless law, the editor of the Biloxi Herald opined, “A proposed road law or a dog tax has a paralyzing effect on the average legislator, and he always approaches them by a circuitous route which sometimes lands him in close proximity but never clearly up to scratch.”

Three years later, a harbinger of the greatest transportation revolution in history since the invention of the wheel rolled into Biloxi on four of them. The Mississippi Legislature might continue to be undecided about a dog tax, but it was about to be shocked out of its road-law paralysis.

On June 26, 1900, the Biloxi Herald editor crowed: “Look out for the automobile. Frank Schaffer’s automobile has not yet arrived, but when it comes it will be a novelty.

“Mr. Frank Schaffer has received information that his automobile will reach Biloxi at 10:00 today, and he will at once be able to place it into service. Those who want to engage its services or take a ride in the novel vehicle should leave their orders with him. We daresay it will create a sensation on the streets of Biloxi when it appears.”

The car arrives

Two days later the Biloxi Herald announced, “Frank Schaffer’s automobile yesterday created quite a sensation on the streets. Everybody was out to see it and many rode behind it. As the girls would say, ‘it was out of sight.’”

Schaffer did a land-office business at twenty-five cents a ride. Not only was the contraption the first in Biloxi, but according to the Jackson Evening News, “Biloxi is the only city in the state that has such a vehicle.” So Biloxi claimed the accolade for first automobile in Mississippi.

Three days after its arrival, Biloxi achieved honors for first car wreck in the state when Schaffer ran the thing into a tree and nearly knocked the canopy off of it. On Saturday, July 7, Schaffer’s automobile added yet another first to its growing list by suffering Mississippi’s initial blow out. The whole wheel had to be removed and shipped to New Orleans by rail for a new tire to be placed on it.

The next day, according to the Biloxi Herald, horse-drawn carriage drivers returned and flooded the beach road. The newspaper allowed, “Many who were out taking an airing would have been afraid to come out had the machine been on the streets, as their horses might take fright and run away.” Their fear was not unfounded.

On July 23, the machine was back. As it approached a milk wagon of the Gulf Coast Dairy, the horse pulling the wagon panicked and turned the wagon over while the car was still sixty feet away.

Equine fright prompted a law allowing that “any citizen riding or driving a restive horse” could stop any automobile “upon putting up his hand.” In fact the coming of the automobile spawned a whole new body of law and jurisprudence extending from the local to the national level. Biloxi first set the speed limit for an automobile in the city limits at eight miles per hour. Gulfport declared it unlawful to operate an automobile after nightfall “unless same be lighted with suitable lamps or lanterns.”

Government at all levels would have to deal with the construction of suitable roads for the new vehicles. In late 1900, Biloxi began paving its main thoroughfares with brick. Shortly after that, mass transit arrived. The city opened a motor bus line from the depot to the seafood canning factories at a fare of five cents each way.

Old Spanish Trail Highway Association

The increase in the number of automobiles sparked the desire on the part of motorists for good roads. Thus, in October 1915, a group of Alabama-Mississippi-Louisiana “good roads” enthusiasts met in Mobile and took the name “Old Spanish Trail Highway Association.” The association aimed to build a highway along a section of the Gulf of Mexico coastline that would connect Mobile, Alabama, to the Mississippi towns of Pascagoula, Gautier, Ocean Springs, Biloxi, Mississippi City, Gulfport, Long Beach, Pass Christian, and Bay St. Louis, and ultimately New Orleans, Louisiana. All of those places had rail connections to the nation and water routes to the world, but coastal roads were scarcely better than those a hundred years earlier.

The Old Spanish Trail Highway Association, within a few months of its formation, lengthened its vision “from sea to shining sea” — a transcontinental highway from St. Augustine, Florida, to San Diego, California. The association’s name conjured up images of helmeted conquistadors in breastplates astride huge war horses thundering along the camino real. In the far west the proposed route did follow a portion of the “King’s Highway,” but Spanish conquerors never rode along the Mississippi Gulf Coast from Mobile to New Orleans because there was no trail. They sailed.

Steamboats replaced sailboats in the 1820s on the New Orleans to Mobile run, and in 1870 rails connected the two cities. The Mississippi Gulf Coast since colonial times had been connected to world shipping via the Ship Island anchorage, but the railroad connected the coast to the nation. Nearly all the tourists who had frequented the coast towns in the antebellum era had come from New Orleans or Mobile. Now they could come from Chicago or New York by railroad. Gulf seafood on ice could travel throughout the United States by the same means. Roads remained as unimportant as they had in Spanish times.

At the time of the establishment of the Old Spanish Trail Highway Association in 1915 no road penetrated the Honey Island Swamp-Pearl River Delta barrier separating New Orleans from the Mississippi Gulf Coast. Likewise on the east side of the coast, no road crossed the three-mile-wide estuarine delta of the Pascagoula River. No bridge spanned the Pascagoula River or the Pearl River, and no bridge crossed the Bay of St. Louis. The mile-long wooden bridge completed in 1901 connecting Biloxi with the north shore of Back Bay Biloxi was the only sizable bridge in the coastal region.

As for the roads, a muddy track ran from Mobile to Pascagoula and continued from Gautier to Ocean Springs. A shell road ran along the gulf from Biloxi to Pass Christian and continued as a sandy trace from Bay St. Louis to Pearlington where the road stopped at the Honey Island Swamp-Pearl River Delta.

After the formation of the Old Spanish Trail Highway Association, things really started to move and the gaps began to close – indeed it led the effort that resulted in the building of the first highway from Mobile to New Orleans along the Mississippi Gulf Coast.

On February 19, 1916, the Daily Herald published a copy of the bill recently introduced into the United States Congress to create a national defense highway running from Los Angeles across the nation through the Deep South to Jacksonville, Florida. The bill did not detail the route through Mississippi, but the Old Spanish Trail Highway Association certainly intended to use its influence to direct it from Mobile to New Orleans.

While Congress debated the bill, the Mississippi Gulf Coast did what it could with what it had. On May 5, 1916, the Harrison County Board of Supervisors authorized $125,000 in bonds to prepare for the Mississippi Centennial to be held in Gulfport in 1917. This involved a north-south highway to the state capital of Jackson, dubbed simultaneously as both the Jefferson Davis Highway and the Centennial Highway. America’s entry into World War I in 1917 halted work on the Centennial Highway and caused the cancellation of the Centennial.

In addition to building northward, Harrison County joined with Jackson and Hancock counties to prepare the route of the “Old Spanish Trail.”

U.S. Highway 90

Over the next ten years a modern highway was laid across the Mississippi Gulf Coast. On March 1, 1918, a gasoline-powered ferry boat officially began operation taking automobiles across the East Pascagoula River to the newly constructed embankment roadbed leading to the recently built West Pascagoula River bridge at Gautier. Three years later the Jackson County Board of Supervisors announced plans to build an eighteen-foot-wide concrete highway clear across the county from Ocean Springs to the Alabama line. Then, on November 17, 1925, the Old Spanish Trail was designated U.S. Highway 90, and a year later, the Pearl River Bridge near Slidell opened.

The wooden Biloxi Back Bay Bridge erected in 1901 was replaced in January 1927 with the D’Iberville concrete drawbridge.

Work on Highway 90 progressed rapidly in 1928 when, on January 30, 1928, the first automobile passed over the five-mile long Watson-Williams Bridge across Lake Pontchartrain at Slidell. A month later, the first car passed over the Bay of St. Louis Bridge leading from Henderson Point to Bay St. Louis.

On May 10, 1928, officials dedicated the Harrison County twenty-five-mile-long step seawall protecting Highway 90 – at that time, the seawall was the longest concrete seawall in the world. And, on August 14, 1928, Old Spanish Trail Highway Managing Director Harral B. Ayers dedicated the East Pascagoula River Bridge.

This last event marked the first ferryless ride from New Orleans to Mobile, and it marked the completion of a modern American highway that was not “old” or “Spanish” and which followed no historic “trail.”

In addition to the completion of paving in the years following 1928, two major changes were made in the course of Highway 90. On June 3, 1930, the dedication of the Biloxi-Ocean Springs Bridge cut off six miles of travel to the D’Iberville Bridge. In 1935 the Louisiana-Mississippi Short-Cut Link from Pearlington to the Rigolets cut off twenty-two miles from the former distance from the Mississippi Gulf Coast to New Orleans.

For nearly half a century, until the completion of Interstate 10, U. S. Highway 90, or the “Old Spanish Trail,” along the Mississippi Gulf Coast remained the highway link between New Orleans and Mobile. After the completion of the interstate the portions of Highway 90 inside the coastal towns became local traffic thoroughfares and the appellation “Old Spanish Trail” virtually disappeared except for an occasional sign marking a street or a business.

Charles L. Sullivan is professor emeritus and archivist of the Mississippi Gulf Coast Community College. He is the author of the book on which this article is based, Building the “Old Spanish Trail”: The Story of a Modern American Highway, Jackson, Mississippi: Mississippi Department of Transportation, 2003.

Lesson Plan

  • Map along Mississippi Gulf Coast
    Standard Oil of Kentucky map showing the Old Spanish Trail (U.S. Highway 90) along the Mississippi Gulf Coast, circa 1945. Map courtesy Mississippi Gulf Coast Community College Archives
  • Train crosses Biloxi Bay railroad bridge
    A Louisville and Nashville train crosses the Biloxi Bay railroad bridge between Biloxi and Ocean Springs, circa 1901. Railroad builders were the first to conquer the swamps and bridge the bays of the Gulf Coast’s indented coastline. The highway builders, to the extent possible, built parallel to the railroads. Image from the Jon Richard Lewis Postcard Collection, Mississippi Gulf Coast Community College Archives
  • Front beach shell drive
    View of a bridge on the front beach shell drive located between Gulfport and Long Beach, circa 1901. This was one of 25 small bridges located along the beach road from Biloxi to Pass Christian. U.S. Highway 90 later followed this stretch of road. Image from the Jon Richard Lewis Postcard Collection, Mississippi Gulf Coast Community College Archives
  • Automobile on Highway 90 circa 1915.
    An automobile travels U.S. Highway 90 through Long Beach circa 1915. Mississippi’s first automobile appeared in Biloxi in 1900 heralding the greatest transportation revolution in Mississippi history. Image from the Jon Richard Lewis Postcard Collection, Mississippi Gulf Coast Community College Archives
  • Road workers on Centennial Highway, 1917.
    South Mississippi road workers pose in front of their truck on the Centennial Highway north of Gulfport, circa 1917. Photo courtesy of Myrtis Krohn, Mississippi Gulf Coast Community College Archives
  • Automobiles travel on concrete highway, circa 1925
    Two automobiles travel the Pascagoula to Mobile section of the trans-Jackson County concrete highway, circa 1925. Jackson County issued the bonds to build the highway in 1921, and completed the highway circa 1928. Image from the Jon Richard Lewis Postcard Collection, Mississippi Gulf Coast Community College Archives
  • Cars cross the Bay St. Louis bridge, 1928.
    Automobiles cross the Bay of St. Louis free bridge between Henderson Point and Bay St. Louis shortly after the bridge opened in February 1928. Image from the Jon Richard Lewis Postcard Collection, Mississippi Gulf Coast Community College Archives
  • Seawall along Highway 90, 1942.
    The Harrison County step seawall looking west circa 1942 along one of the first sections of U.S. Highway 90 to be four-laned. The pumping of the sand beach to protect the seawall was not accomplished until late 1951, so the waters of the Mississippi Sound lap at the foot of the seawall in this photograph. Image from the Jon Richard Lewis Postcard Collection, Mississippi Gulf Coast Community College Archives