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November 2, 1999

Buying and Selling Dauphin Island

by Bill Patterson

[In these articles The Harbinger examines the history and consequences of the Mobile Chamber of Commerce's development of Dauphin Island. The previous article looked at the building of the first bridge to the island.]


The Chamber of Commerce purchased Dauphin Island in 1954, and within a few years, the business group raised over $6 million selling land it bought for $950,000. Growing public demand for recreation was crucial to the Chamber's success. When the first bridge to Dauphin Island opened in 1955, visits to an ocean beach became an easy day trip for Mobilians. Beaches on the Gulf in Florida and Mississippi had developed years before because good roads, such as US Highway 90, ran near the coast. Dauphin Island had remained isolated, and except for the yearly Alabama Deep Sea Fishing Rodeo, tourism on Mobile County's Gulf beaches had contributed little to Mobile's economy.

In 1974 the Chamber of Commerce published a book by a Chamber vice president, S. Blake McNeely. His account, The Development of Dauphin Island, Alabama: Gem of the Ocean, described the venture: "Our project was non-profit to the Chamber of Commerce, our sole purpose being to see this beautiful island enjoyed by as many of our people as possible." McNeely wrote that the idea for the project came at an informal session at the Chamber in the early 1950s. According to this account, a group of Chamber officers met after county voters had rejected a one-cent-a-gallon gas tax to fund a Dauphin Island bridge. The Chamber had led the campaign to build a bridge with a gas tax. McNeely wrote in The Development of Dauphin Island, Alabama: "One of that small group said, 'We ought to buy the island and sell off enough to pay for it and build our bridge.'" That morning, McNeely indicated, the Chamber called Birmingham and offered the Gulf Properties Corporation $1 million for the island.

Who Owned Dauphin Island?

Dauphin Island is fourteen miles long, with an eastern portion heavily wooded, wider and more elevated than the wind- and water-swept western portion. Over the centuries, Gulf waters have washed away and then rebuilt portions of the island. The east end is the most stable. During the nineteenth century the Gulf swept away miles of the present island's western portion . The federal government constructed Fort Gaines at the east end of the island in the early 1800s. By the end of that century, the federal government owned nearly 1,000 acres around the fort, a tract that extended to the present-day Cadillac Square Park. Land records in Mobile County Probate Court examined by The Harbinger show that in 1911, Congress sold 700 acres of this land to the Dauphin Island Railway and Harbor Company on the condition that within four years the company would build a railroad bridge from the mainland, and a dock on the Gulf to off-load cargo. During the next several years, the syndicate involved in the railway project bought and consolidated ownership of most of Dauphin Island. It was during these years that the name of Forney Johnston first appears in probate court records. Johnston was the son of former Alabama Governor and U.S. Senator, Joseph F. Johnston. The elder Johnston served in the Congress from 1907 until his death in 1913.

Some years later, Frank Boykin, Mobile's Congressman from 1935 until 1962, joined Forney Johnston and other business people to form Gulf Properties Corporation. Boykin had made a fortune through land speculation before he entered Congress. Since the early 1900s he had bought and sold land and timber throughout south Alabama. According to a probate court document the Gulf Properties Corporation was organized in 1930 to acquire and hold land on Dauphin Island until a bridge and other developments would add "to the value and use or marketability of the land thereon." By 1953 Gulf Properties held most of Dauphin Island.

Another version, attributed to Frank Boykin, of how Gulf Properties acquired the island appeared in a 1973 book by Edward Boykin, Everything's Made for Love in This Man's World: Vignettes from the Life of Frank W. Boykin. In this account, the prosperous Boykin met a man named Breck Musgrove, of Jasper, Alabama, on a train trip from New York in 1929. Musgrove approached Boykin for a $50,000 loan, offering to "put up Dauphin Island as collateral." Boykin and several others made the loan. Eighteen months later, after Musgrove failed to pay it back, Boykin, Forney Johnston, T. J. Rester, and Judge Matt Boykin, Frank Boykin's brother, took title to "over ninety percent of Dauphin Island." The partners then formed the Gulf Properties Corporation.

The Chamber of Speculation

Within two years of its purchase of the Gulf Propertiesí land in 1954, the Chamber of Commerce had subdivided and sold over 2,000 lots, raising more than $6 million. It had paid $950,000 in cash for the land. In their deal with the Chamber, Boykin, Forney and their partners, now organized as West Dauphin Corporation, held onto the westmost eight miles of the island. The income from the Chamber's sale of the lots went into a trust set up by the Chamber at the Merchants National Bank. The terms of the Dauphin Island Trust Indenture set up the institutions to govern the island and kept the income from the project tax-exempt. Under the trust, the Chamber disbursed money for its ambitious building program. A Chamber spokesman explained how income from the speculative venture was tax-exempt: "The trust fund is being set up so that all money derived from the sale of lots will be spent on the island on behalf of the public and the land owners. On this basis, the U.S. Bureau of Internal Revenue has ruled that the Chamber of Commerce, as a nonprofit corporation, will not be liable for income tax."

The trust agreement stated the Chamber's purpose was "to develop said island as a recreational center and residential and resort area for the benefit of the inhabitants of Mobile County, the State of Alabama and the Mobile Gulf Coast trade area." In these years it seemed that the Chamber intended to develop the island for all Alabamians. On the west side of the island the Chamber constructed, for the public, a $500,000 beach resort named Sand Dunes Casino, set on a one-mile stretch of Gulf beachfront. This park was equipped with a fishing pier. At the east end of the island the Chamber remodeled a former military building into a recreation facility, calling it the Fort Gaines Club. The Chamber also began the restoration of Fort Gaines itself. Also on the east end, the Chamber built a camp ground located near another public beach. The Chamber also set aside several other parcels of land for the pubic. For the private use of property owners, the Chamber built the Isle Dauphine Club, equipped with a swimming pool, an eighteen-hole golf course, and a clubhouse. The club was set on a mile of Gulf beach. The Chamber also set aside another three miles of Gulf beach and several private parks for the property owners.

Recent interviews with long-time island residents and newspaper accounts from the 1950s show few islanders had opposed the construction of the bridge. But there was no such unanimity about the Chamber's plan to sell lots and develop the island. The opening of the bridge began what the Birmingham News described in 1955 as "the multi-million-dollar vacation paradise wonderland program." The bridge to the island was a financial success, and the state eliminated the toll in 1963. At the time, the average Alabamian appeared a major beneficiary of the Chamber's development program. A decade later, however, the Sand Dunes Casino was closed and in ruins, and the Fort Gaines Club had burned. Neither facility was replaced, and in 1999, there are still no lifeguards, changing rooms, or bathrooms on the island's pubic beach. Behind the loss of the public facilities lay the terms of the Dauphin Island Trust.


Next: The Chamber Establishes a Government

[The Harbinger thanks the personnel at the Mobile County Probate Court for their help.]


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