Thursday, September 16, 2021

The Soapbox: A place of new beginnings: Dauphin Island

Brandi Chambless

In 1864, while crossing the Mobile Bay to advance upon Confederate territory, Union Admiral David Farragut sounded the famous battle cry that has never been forgotten: “Damn The Torpedoes! Full Speed Ahead!”

This passionate call to press on, now an American idiom, was Farragut’s way of saying that to turn back now would be to perish. What he essentially meant is the risk before me is one I’m willing to take, because I’d rather die right here than go back to the place we just left behind.

The phrase is also cemented in modern history by another famous “admiral” formerly known as Sir Tom Petty of the Heartbreaker regiment. The 1979 album entitled “Damn the Torpedoes” is known in music history to have revolutionized rock and roll. What Petty’s album did for rock and roll is what Dauphin Island, Alabama does for the professional beachgoer. It takes one back to everything it was ever meant to be.

As the story goes, Dauphin Island was a highly sought after place that was a critical point of entry to supply lines during the Civil War. How it ultimately came into U.S. possession is nothing short of a miracle. It changed hands and identities multiple times, usually with someone having to die or surrender first. During Farragut’s time, his Union troops had set out on a mission of taking over the two major barriers to entry into Mobile Bay. Fort Morgan and Fort Gaines had worked in tandem to thwart their enemies—until now. Even a place that once held a name like Massacre Island could not stop Farragut.

Dauphin Island has reinvented itself repeatedly since being first put onto a map as early as 1519. As mentioned, the original name given was Massacre Island (around 1699) due to the large number of skeletons that were discovered on its beaches. The lure of its bounty continued to call the brave to come forth, as the island came through the hands of both the Spanish and the French before becoming a part of the United States. It had survived hurricanes, pirate attacks, and utter confusion about who the rightful owner would ever be and how would the cotton of the South reach the rest of the world?

Today, Dauphin Island is the kind of secret place that deserves to be reserved for wanderlust. Its beauty, true stories, and gifts of nature demand renown of every history buff. A noteworthy mention is that Fort Gaines is the only Confederate-occupied U.S. fort that surrendered to Union forces without a bloody battle throughout the entirety of the Civil War.

There are years of study availed by this historic place, including the study of why one would keep rebuilding on an island said to be both unlucky enough to attract devastating hurricanes and also one that is shrinking due to erosion. Nevertheless, Dauphin Island is still the kind of destination that brings out the Farragut in the best of us: Damn the Torpedoes. There is a magnetic force that pulls you away from civilization into this spacious place, though you might have to tippy-toe your way to its West End that, plainly, is falling into the Gulf.

The uncharacteristic combination of white sands with the rustic waters of the Delta sediment, along with its indigenous salted wildlife seem to give visitors a nod. Dauphin Island, is somewhat of a fickle dauphine, who can change her mood, depending solely on the direction of the wind. There are days where the water mimics a more pristine hue of what can be expected on the Fort Morgan side, as one moves progressively into the Appalachian deposits of Destin’s quartz crystal beaches.

A tiring, yet rewarding, day would be to enjoy all of Dauphin Island then take the Mobile Bay Ferry to Fort Morgan and continue to beach along the coast. Bon Secour is a national wildlife refuge to be enjoyed with limited, understated paths to beach access where the white powder sand and emerald waters await. Both of these regions do not offer easy access to food and comforts, though it is there if you seek to chase it down and love discovery. The best trick I have learned other than coming prepared for survival when beaching through the Gulf coast, is to always carry a gallon or two of water and extra towels to keep feet clean in the car. Being an explorer is messy, but worth it: Damn the Torpedoes!

Historic coastal touring is a summer ritual that’s goal is never a chaise lounge for too long. It is more about the experience of running hard to see and do, taste and feel everything possible. Those are the stories that seem to come home in the hearts of 10-year-old children, 40-year-old children, and 70-year-old children. I almost hate writing about these secret places in the hopes that they never become spoiled. They are the wonderful, book-reading nooks of the earth! More importantly, they are where books….dreams…are written. Dauphin Island is a magical land for lovers, sunset walkers, and unabashed risk takers. I call it a very good beginning, but to be sure, I wouldn’t be the first.

Brandi Chambless
Read Brandi's column each month in The Cross Timbers Gazette newspaper.

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