OCEAN SPRINGS HISTORY
The Ocean Springs Museum of History is located in downtown Ocean Springs, According to the 2010 Census report, the city’s population is 17,442, a 1.3% increase from 2000. Ocean Springs lies at the heart of the beautiful Mississippi Gulf Coast on the eastern shore of Biloxi Bay in Jackson County. It’s known as the City of Discovery in recognition of the French establishment of a settlement here in 1699. Long before the French arrived, however, the area was appreciated for its beauty and natural resources by Native Americans.
The city has a rich history in tourism connected with the unique natural resources including the natural habitats and the gulf seafood that it produces. By 1850, the potential of the mineral springs on Fort Bayou was accessed by Phillip P. Bowen and George Lynch, and in 1853, Dr. William G. Austin of New Orleans had erected the Ocean Springs Hotel on Jackson Avenue. In 1854, the small town took its name, Ocean Springs, from the large hotel. The railroad made it possible for the seafood industry to develop. As early as 1872, Peter A. Pons was shipping Ocean Springs oysters to New Orleans and Mobile. The seafood industry at Ocean Springs was, for the most part, a small family-oriented business with the products shipped via rail to markets in the East and Midwest. From the late 1850s until the first canning plant – the Ocean Springs Packing Company – was erected near the L&N railroad bridge in 1914, seafood was processed in wood and tin sheds called “fish or oyster houses”. Here, oysters were shucked, fish cleaned, and crabs and shrimp sorted, before being sent to the local and regional markets.
The city was incorporated in 1892 and tourism continued to grow, focusing on the uniqueness of the natural habitat and its connection to a way of life and culture. Pilgrims seeking hydrotherapy for their physical ailments from the mineral springs on Fort Bayou created a need for hostels and housing. As many as 25 hotels were built and flourished during the mid to late 1800’s, welcoming visitors and new residents, many wealthy families from New Orleans, the Midwest and from the Eastern seaboard. Most of these lovely hotels were destroyed by fire. Commercial activity was initially centered about lower Jackson Avenue where the steam packets of the Morgan steamboat line landed frequently, transporting passengers and mail from Milneburg on Lake Ponchartrain.
In the late 1800’s architect Louis Sullivan discovered and fell in love with Ocean Springs. In 1890 Sullivan and his young draftsman Frank Lloyd Wright designed adjacent gulf-side retreats for himself and James Charnley, a wealthy Chicago lumber merchant. While the structures have undergone changes – fire and exact rebuild of Charnley’s home and total destruction of Sullivan’s home by Hurricane Katrina and serious damage to the Charnley home, now restored, the significance of the homes’ design forms the nexus of ideas that would powerfully reshape American residential architecture in the 20th century.
The early 1900’s saw the growth of horticulture in Ocean Springs, namely citrus and pecan orchards. In 1918 Annette McConnell Anderson acquired “De Pas,” a tract of land on the east side of the Ocean Springs Harbor, later to become the beloved Shearwater Pottery (founded in 1929) and Anderson family commune. Extremely important to the future of Ocean Springs, the three sons of Annette and George Anderson – Peter, Walter, and Mac – were to become renowned artists in various mediums. Their genius and unique talents sparked the rise of Ocean Springs as an art colony which still flourishes today.
During this same period a land boom was going on which included the development of Gulf Hills as a final resort destination. This eclectic community remains one of the most desirable locations for residents today.
The mid 1900’s welcomed several “clean industries,” such as the E. R. Moore manufacturing plant, Ferson Optics (in 1962 Ferson secured a contract with NASA for lenses and components for four telescopes to be placed in a satellite). Also occurring in the mid-1900’s was the expansion of the Gulf Coast Research Lab, now proclaimed as the largest commercial shrimp aquaculture development and research facility in the United States. At the same time Ingalls Shipbuilding in Pascagoula and Keesler Air Force Base in Biloxi fueled employment opportunities.
Of note is the proliferation of the optics industry in Ocean Springs. In its heyday it provided between 400 – 500 jobs. PFG Optics remains a significant company today.
In the 1990’s gambling casinos became legal in coast counties, Harrison and Hancock. This industry began buying out seafood processing plants which had dotted the coastline for decades, replacing them with behemoth casinos and parking lots. Yet while this industry has changed the face of the Mississippi Gulf Coast, it has provided employment for locals and opportunity for a host of ancillary businesses. Tourism has exploded, waking the nation to the beauty and historical significance of the area.
The early 2000’s brought two unprecedented disasters, drastically affecting the Mississippi and Louisiana coasts: Hurricane Katrina (the deadliest and most destructive of the 2005 hurricane season) and the 2010 BP oil spill (considered the largest accidental marine oil spill in the history of the petroleum industry). These two events have sent the coast reeling from economic losses and the environmental impact on the ocean and the seafood industry. The area is still recovering.