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Local History

The history of
Gulf State Park

While the state of Alabama celebrated its 200th birthday in 2019, the cities of Gulf Shores and Orange Beach are officially much, much younger. The City of Gulf Shores incorporated as the Town of Gulf Shores in 1956, while the City of Orange Beach incorporated as recently as 1984. But don’t let this apparent youth fool you, these communities have existed for many generations.


Oldest of all is Baldwin County where the two communities are located. It is the largest county in Alabama and was created by the Mississippi Territorial Legislature in December 1809, ten years before Alabama became a state.

Early History

Native Americans, including the tribes of the Creeks, Alibamas, Choctaw, Chickasaw, Cherokee and Seminoles, enjoyed the bountiful oysters, seafood and fish of the area. Native Americans also dug the first canals connecting Mobile Bay to the Gulf of Mexico by joining Oyster Bay to Little Lagoon. This new shortcut allowed them safer travel and trade without having to navigate their canoes through the open waters of the Gulf. Archeological digs are currently underway in Gulf Shores to uncover areas of these canals. Large burial and shell mounds are not uncommon in coastal Alabama and you can book a guided trip to explore the Bottle Creek mound site deep in the Mobile-Tensaw Delta.

Early adventurers from Spain, France and England sought food and water during their travels, shelter from storms and pirates in our back bays, all while battling for territories for their homelands. Sitting across from each other at the entrance to Mobile Bay are Fort Morgan (completed in 1834) and Fort Gaines (completed in 1862). Both were constructed as guardians of Mobile Bay and the strategic port of Mobile. The forts played major roles in several conflicts during the Civil War. Among the most notable was the Battle of Mobile Bay in August 1864.
Lee of the Confederacy had surrendered to Union General Ulysses S. Grant a few days before. Tragically, because the news of the surrender had not yet reached them, some 1,500 Union and 400 Confederate soldiers were killed or wounded in the Battle of Fort Blakeley.

Early settlers to the area took advantage of the vast forestlands and early businesses included turpentine and naval stores production, as well as a shingle mill. You may still find a tree or two in Gulf State Park bearing the telltale “cat-face” scars from harvesting turpentine, along with the nails that would hold the bucket to collect it. As the forests were depleted, citrus groves were planted and that’s how Orange Beach got its name. Most of the citrus trees were lost due to several hard freezes in the early 1900s, however more people are planting them again, so be on the lookout for some of our local satsumas in season from mid-November to January.
 
pier at Gulf State Park
Land in Baldwin County was cheap and fertile (at least a little further north of the sandy beaches and wetland areas) so agriculture was also important to the economy with crops including tobacco and rice. Raising cattle was also popular.

The first hotel opened in the early 1920s, about the same time that some locals began renting their boats to tourists offering one-day fishing charters to take advantage of inside local fishing knowledge. Baldwin County is also home to a phenomenon known as a “jubilee,” an occasional event where all sorts of marine creatures including crabs, flounder, stingrays and others migrate to shallow waters along Mobile Bay.
If you are lucky enough to witness a jubilee, harvesting one’s supper is as easy as walking along the shore and picking it up.

In 1937, the Intracoastal Waterway was completed, allowing easier access to Gulf Shores and an increased awareness of its unique attractions. Then, when Gulf State Park opened two years later, the number of visitors to the area truly began to escalate.
 

A State Park For the Beach

The Park was formed in the 1930s from a combination of federal owned land and donations by local landowners. From 1933 to 1939, the Civilian Conservation Corps (CCC) was engaged to create the Park as part of the nationwide public work relief program enacted by President Roosevelt’s New Deal to provide much needed training and employment during the Great Depression. The young men lived in large tents until more permanent quarters were built and were paid $1 a day, most of which went home to support their families. Some of the remnants of the old CCC work camp, the remains of the barracks, sawmill and old cabin foundations are still visible near the Learning Campus. An excellent archive of stories and photographs is on display in the small museum building at the Park’s west entrance.

The CCC construction projects included a casino built on the beach, which had a dance hall and concession stand and beside it a bunkhouse for the lifeguards to live in during the summer.
This was also when the first cabins were built along the shoreline of Lake Shelby.

The first were cabins 1-16, skipping the number 13. Cabins 3, 7 and 11, lucky dice numbers, were built sideways facing east. Whomever was in charge of placement and numbering was clearly a seasoned gambler.

Their construction is deliberately reminiscent of the traditional Alabama ‘fish camp’ - the rustic cabin on stilts that became so popular in the early days of Alabama’s coastal hunting and fishing trips. These were the days when segregation was still in force and the African American maids traveling with their white employers were not permitted to stay overnight in the guests’ cabins. Special maids’ quarters were built to house them near the CCC camp barracks.
 
 

The CCC was engaged to create the Park setting providing much needed training and employment during the Great Depression

The CCC was engaged to create the Park setting providing much needed training and employment during the Great Depression

 
Gulf State Park was officially opened on Saturday, May 20, 1939, and was one of the first five parks to be created in Alabama. Its first manager was Mr. Henly, who made the Park facilities available for limited two week intervals throughout the summer.

In 1942, Mr. Monroe McCloud (“Mac”) started his long tenure as Park superintendent which continued until 1975.
As well as building more cabins, he oversaw the construction of an 825-foot saltwater fishing pier, which was completed in 1968. One of the most popular assets of the park, it was destroyed by Hurricane Frederic in 1979, rebuilt and destroyed by Hurricane Ivan in 2004 and rebuilt again in 2009. Interestingly, in the early days, “Mac” allowed farmers to raise watermelons.
 
 

The Growth of the Region

Meanwhile, the community of Gulf Shores was growing as well. The first hotel on the beach opened in the 1940s and the first post office opened in 1947. Shrimping, which had been primarily providing bait for other fishing segments since the early 1900s, grew with the appearance of deep-sea trawling for the commercial seafood market around 1956.

In 1946, a bus started making regular trips from Mobile to Gulf Shores, with stops along the way in Spanish Fort, Malbis, Loxley, Robertsdale, Summerdale and Foley. This allowed people who lived in more distant parts of Baldwin County, as well as those from Mobile, to have easier access to Gulf State Park, and it quickly became a popular recreation area.

At the same time, Orange Beach was becoming more modern. While the first hotel in Orange Beach was built in 1923 (on the site where the Coastal Arts Center is located), it was only accessible by water until the first paved road to Orange Beach was finished in 1947. Electricity followed in 1948 and phone service in 1956. Unfortunately, the original hotel had to be torn down in 2015 due to severe structural damage, but it served as the inspiration for the Coastal Arts Center and several historical elements, including the columns, wood flooring, doors and windows were salvaged and are featured in the new gallery.

As tourism continued to grow, it still remained largely seasonal, with summer being the peak season. In fact, most businesses would close up on Labor Day in September and not reopen until the following year. In an effort to increase tourism in the fall, the Alabama National Shrimp Festival was first held in Gulf Shores in 1971 and continues to be a popular annual event, always the second weekend of October, boasting more than 200,000 attendees every year. In addition to shrimp, a colorful selection of arts and crafts, entertainment and children’s activities give people a lot to see, do and taste!

It was around this time that the state pursued developing resort-style facilities for Gulf State Park in order to promote economic development, increase tourism and create jobs. In 1972, a 468-site campground and a beach pavilion were completed. The original lodge opened in 1974 and quickly became an iconic centerpiece of the community, hosting many meetings of local groups, high school proms and Mardi Gras balls.
 

The Resiliency of the Gulf Coast
& Gulf State Park

Mr. Hugh Branyon took over as Park superintendent in 1976 and he, too, spent well over 30 years managing the Park from 1976-2009. Three years into his tenure, Hurricane Frederic struck on September 12, 1979 with 135 mph winds. The entire area was inundated with 3–5 feet of seawater and the pier and the old lodge were badly damaged.
Coastal Alabama has suffered its share of storms over the years, but Hurricane Frederic was one of the most transformative. It hit as a Category 4 storm and battered the area for three straight days, killing five people and causing $1.77 billion in damages. Ironically, nationwide news coverage of the storm and its severity marked the first time many Americans became aware of Alabama’s coast.
 
 
On August 6, 1984, 1,010 permanent residents of Orange Beach voted to become the City of Orange Beach
 
It sparked a building boom that saw many new homes, restaurants, golf courses, marinas and other businesses spring up across the coastal communities and tourism quickly replaced fishing, shrimping and farming as the lead economic driver.

By 1984, Orange Beach had its first condominiums and the residents realized it was finally time to incorporate. On August 6, 1984, 1,010 permanent residents of Orange Beach voted to become the City of Orange Beach and it became the sixth largest city in Baldwin County.

The Park and surrounding coastal Alabama communities suffered another devastating blow from Hurricane Ivan, which made landfall in Gulf Shores on September 16, 2004.
This Category 3 storm (one of the top five worst storms to hit the Gulf Coast) broke the pier into three sections, washed out the bottom floors of the old lodge and destroyed adjacent buildings and again flooded the majority of the park with salt water, causing extreme damage and losses to the trees.

In 2005, the communities would again be affected by Hurricane Dennis, and then by Hurricane Katrina. However, such is the deep affection for the Park in the local community, after each natural disaster, volunteers and park employees rallied together and worked miracles to rebuild and get Gulf State Park open and operating again. Efforts to rebuild the lodge fell short until coastal Alabama’s next big disaster struck, the Deepwater Horizon/British Petroleum (BP) oil spill.
 
 

Deepwater Horizon & The Gulf State
Park Enhancement Project

On April 20th 2010, the Deepwater Horizon oil well exploded, killing 11 and seriously injuring 17, and for the next 87 days spilled a total of nearly 5 million barrels of oil, causing major economic and environmental damage and forever altering communities across the Gulf Coast. Early restoration funds were provided by BP in an effort to mitigate the damages. Through an initial commitment of $100 million to the state of Alabama, the federal and state trustees charged with overseeing the funds elected to invest $85.5 million in the Gulf State Park Enhancement Project (GSPP).
Since the oil spill affected the Gulf during the entire 2010 peak tourist season, one of the biggest impacts, both locally and state wide, was the economic damage caused by tourists simply abandoning plans to visit the coast. The GSPP was designed both as reparations to the local tourist economy and to offer visitors to the Park a new and unique level of sustainable tourism. Each component of the five-part project addressed a different aspect of restoration and increased access. The five components were:
 
 
exterior of The Lodge at Gulf State Park.

The Lodge at Gulf State Park, A Hilton Hotel

("The Lodge" for short) opened its doors on November 1, 2018. The Lodge is pursuing LEED Gold and SITES Platinum certifications and was the second facility awarded FORTIFIED Commercial™ certification. It will be the only hotel in the world with all three of these certifications! While the buildings are designed to be respectful of the environmental conditions of the site, they are also respectful in terms of operations. With a long list of green commitments such as recycling, conserving energy and water, using turtle-friendly amber external lighting, reducing and eliminating single use plastics and harmful chemicals, the Lodge is pioneering sustainability practices largely unheard of in Alabama and, indeed, in the world.
 
 
exterior of The Interpretive Center at Gulf State Park.

The Interpretive Center

(The “IC”), Alabama's most environmentally friendly building, was added in May 2018 and is located near the Beach Pavilion, about 1.5 miles east of the Lodge on Beach Boulevard. The IC serves as the “Gateway to Gulf State Park” and welcomes visitors to learn about the Park’s ecosystems and the environmentally friendly initiatives taking place throughout the Park and the IC. Upon its completion, the IC was the first building ever certified under the FORTIFIED Commercial™ program and is targeting full Living Building Challenge and LEED Platinum Certifications. This process requires 12 consecutive months of operation to provide documented data showing the building is generating more solar energy than it’s consuming and that it’s collecting and treating more rainwater than it’s using. The interpretive elements tell a story about the building and the Park, while the interactive exhibits describe the Park’s remarkably diverse ecosystems.
 
 
exterior of The Learning Campus at Gulf State Park.

The Learning Campus

(The “LC”) is located within the Park, near Woodside Restaurant, and offers additional meeting space, classrooms, labs, bunkhouse style accommodations and educational programming and activities. The Learning Campus is an educational hub that provides a variety of opportunities for learning through various programming and experiences. We also partnered with the city of Gulf Shores to bring Jean-Michel Cousteau’s Ocean Futures Society to the area to host weeklong camp programs as an introduction to this unique coastal area.
 
 
Gulf Stare Park beach with dune restoration sign.

Dune Restoration

Restoration was undertaken within Gulf State Park to improve the dune habitat post-Hurricane Ivan. When Ivan roared ashore in 2004, it leveled much of the dune system within the Park. A large man-made primary dune was constructed in 2006, which was effective in restoring the natural protection from storm surge that dunes provide. However, because it formed a high continuous barrier, it prevented sand from creating valuable natural secondary and tertiary dunes. With the help of engineers, five openings were cut into the primary dune to simulate a more natural topography conducive to secondary dune formation. Invasive species were removed, native species were planted, and recycled Christmas trees (which act as natural sand fencing) were placed in the interior dunes to accelerate the dunes’ growth and stabilization.
 
 
bicycle on Gulf State Park trail.

Trail Enhancements

With the goal of improving and encouraging pedestrian access and to provide opportunities for education and car-free mobility, several enhancements were made to the Park’s trail system. The trail network was expanded to almost 28 miles that connect all the Park’s amenities and create multiple car-free loops. There are 40 engaging interpretive signs along the trails describing the Park’s diverse ecology and cultural history, while new wayfinding signs and trailhead maps were all created to enhance the visitor experience.