The skies were grey and threatened rain over Mary Walker Bayou just north of the Gautier (GOH-chay) City Park, the starting point for the next leg of our hike across the Mississippi Gulf Coast. Astute geographers will note that we were skipping forward about four miles from our previous ending point at the Pascagoula River Audubon Center. Our initial intent was to make contiguous segments of the coastal hike. However, after our unpleasant experience in Moss Point on our last leg, we decided to only hike in “happy” places. Also, our only option to cross the Pascagoula River in this region was to hike alongside a four-lane causeway for a few miles; we chose to skip this as well.
The air had a hot-humid thickness to it as we started out. Thunder claps, far off to the north reminded us that we were entering the season of tropical weather. With a little luck, Charlie, Gail, Marcia and I, hoped to complete this hike without getting soaked.
As we turned down De La Pointe Drive we came to the first of several historic sites we would encounter that day; the West Pascagoula Colored School, which once served African American children in the 1920s through the 1950s, and now stood in a schoolyard of overgrown weeds. A sign out front promised a complete restoration by the city, a project that looked like it had started in fits and bursts but had a long way to go.
We hiked east past the iconic Tiki Restaurant and the Historic Gautier Cemetery, before heading southwest down Graveline Road. To our left, on a high bluff overlooking the Pascagoula River basin, was the original homestead of Fernando Gautier, the city’s namesake. This stately mansion, built in 1867 among ancient oak trees, is called “The Old Place” by locals and is a favorite backdrop for weddings and receptions.
Fernando Gautier (1822-1891) was born at sea as his parents immigrated to New Orleans from Lyon, France. He made his fortune supplying lumber to a rapidly industrializing America. He and his sons operated a sawmill along the river until 1906 when a hurricane destroyed the mill and much of the area timber.
Just to the south of the sawmill lies the abandoned site of the West Pascagoula Creosote Works. Established in 1874, this was the first continuously operated creosote plant in the nation and produced much of the treated timber used in the construction of the Panama Canal. The operation closed in 1978.
Our hike continued west, parallel to the Gulf. Wild blue irises filled the low-lying ditches, casting splashes of color against the verdant forests. Noisy mockingbirds and blue jays played off one another on overhanging branches with a chorus song that sounded like a combination of “welcome to our neighborhood” and “keep moving, buddy.” Light sprinkling rain started to fall as we approached Shepard State Park. We needed to make up the four miles we had skipped at the beginning of our hike, so we ducked into the park to explore its trails. The park has 400 acres of southern mixed hardwood forest, pine flatwood, salt marsh, and several miles of muddy trails.
On the way out of the park, we stopped for a rest at the newly relocated Wilson House, a 100-year-old log cabin made of southern yellow pine. The home was initially constructed 20 miles to the east in an area now known as Orange Grove. In the 1990s the building was moved several miles north of its current location where it was used as a bed-and-breakfast inn. Its latest move brought it to Shepard State Park to be used as a visitor center. It amazes me that this massive log cabin, one of the largest in the state, could be moved about as such.
The rain finally came to an end as we continued west down Graveline Road. Pleasant vistas of the Gulf could occasionally be had through the trees down the long driveways of homesteads abandoned after one of the many hurricanes that have made landfall in this area.
We hiked as far as we could along this section of the coast to where Graveline Bayou empties into the Gulf. A small private swim club sits here on high ground overlooking the bayou and tranquil open water of the Mississippi Sound. A new temporary looking pool house is the only structure on the property, a testament to the destructive power of our most recent hurricane, Katrina, and the uncertainty this storm has left thirteen years after in the minds of those who still live here.
Distance: 9.6 miles.