- by Karen Fineran
The Fabulous Depot District
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Construction of the Mobile to New Orleans railroad line began in 1867 and was completed in 1870, and L&N opened the original Bay St. Louis train depot for business in 1876. Bay St. Louis functioned as a major transportation hub along the Sunset Limited; other popular stops included Waveland, Gulfport, Biloxi, Ocean Springs and Pascagoula.
The BSL Train Depot was the stopping or starting point for many commuters, day workers, freight transport, and New Orleans families enjoying weekend or day outings in tranquil Bay St. Louis. The fare for a round trip in 1871 between Bay St. Louis and New Orleans was just $2.25.
In the early twentieth century, the BSL Train Depot was the center of activity for the town of Bay St. Louis. Goods that were shuttled between New Orleans and Bay St. Louis included racing pigeons, eggs and produce. Vendors at the BSL Depot hawked fried oysters, pralines and sandwiches to weary and sometimes overheated passengers (there were no fans or air conditioning on the trains).
At that time, as in the rest of society, segregation on the railroads was a fact of life. Railroads operating in Mississippi were required to have at least two passenger cars per train to separate black and white passengers, or divide the passenger cars by a partition to separate black from white passengers. The train passengers were not permitted to unnecessarily pass through the cars or compartments provided for the other race, or use the toilets or closets provided for the other race. The Train Depot was separated at that time into two sides, so that black and white passengers could buy their tickets and wait for the train in separate areas.
By 1926, the Chamber of Commerce and the L&N Railroad were in negotiations to replace the original aging Train Depot. Before action could be taken, the older wooden structure was destroyed by fire in 1928. Its replacement, an 8,000 square foot two-story Spanish colonial revival building, with its recessed and decorated entry portals and arched windows, was completed and dedicated in 1929.
The BSL Train Depot has been the site of some famous visits and events. According to the Hancock County Historical Society, actress Sarah Bernhardt in 1888 or 1889 got stranded in Bay St. Louis after the mail train she was on to New Orleans lost a section of wheel into the Bay while crossing the Bay Bridge.
Apparently, this was not the first time that Sarah Bernhardt was reported to have had a misadventure in Bay St. Louis. According to Patricia Marks’ 2003 book Sarah Bernhardt’s First American Theatrical Tour 1880-1881, Bernhardt’s journey to New Orleans for her first American tour was marked by a harrowing experience on the train crossing the Bay Bridge. The train that she was on approached a decrepit and crumbling railroad bridge crossing the Bay of St. Louis. When the engineer refused to move the train over the railroad bridge, Bernhardt bribed him with $2,500 to press forward. “As the engineer hurtled across the bridge, Bernhardt watched it crash to pieces behind them. From then on, she confessed, she was troubled by nightmares at her temerity at risking the lives of so many people.”
In 1965, the movie “This Property Is Condemned” was filmed using the Depot and surrounding areas, including the Bay St. Louis Little Theater across the street, as the backdrop for the movie. That film was directed by Sydney Pollack and starred Robert Redford, Natalie Wood, and Charles Bronson.
Shortly after the movie was filmed, the daily commuter service was discontinued, as the automobile by then had become the primary mode of transportation. While freight service continued, regular passenger service did not begin again until the 1990s. Amtrak began regular stops again in 1993. Also, in 1993, Amtrak extended the Sunset Limited to the east, through Mississippi and Alabama to Jacksonville and Orlando, Florida.
In 1991, Bay St. Louis purchased the building and surrounding property from CSX and began the redevelopment of the Depot District The restoration of the Train Depot and grounds were completed in 1996.
However, Amtrak service on the Sunset Limited was ground to a halt for a time by the devastation of the rail lines by Hurricane Katrina in 2005.
Though the BSL Train Depot underwent a complete exterior and interior renovation after its severe damage by Hurricane Katrina, sadly, the L&N Depot is no longer in use. Following Katrina, the portion of the Sunset Limited route between Florida and New Orleans was “suspended” and has not been restarted. Effectively, the route has been severed.
Half of the line still operates several days a week west of New Orleans, and the eastern half does not operate at all. Although Amtrak apparently completed its track and signal work in the first couple of years after Katrina, it is unknown whether Amtrak will ever find it profitable enough to resume operations between Florida and New Orleans. (In 2012, representatives from municipalities across the Gulf Coast attended a passenger rail summit with Amtrak to examine how rail service might be restarted). Perhaps, one day, at least the original route between Mobile and New Orleans could be resumed, and the Bay St. Louis Train Depot and its historic coastal companions could be open for business again.
Loved by locals, admired by visitors, the Mission-style building at 1928 Depot Way in Bay St. Louis is one of the town’s greatest treasures. With its beautifully landscaped park setting with live oak trees, picnic tables, benches, a walking path, and a nearby duck pond, and the assortment of interesting museums and exhibits inside, the Train Depot provides a tranquil place to contemplate the history of Bay St. Louis. It is also a popular setting for local festivals, and frequent public and private events.
The history of the L&N Historic Train Depot is the history of the L&N (Louisville & Nashville) Railroad Line’s former Sunset Limited railroad line, and in particular the 140-mile section running between Mobile, Alabama and New Orleans, Louisiana (known as “the Railroad that Walks on Water”).
Now, the Depot has once again become a focal point for the town’s community gatherings, activities, meetings and festivals. The Depot is the home of the Hancock County Tourism Development Bureau, and is the official Visitor Center for Hancock County. The lower floor is home to the Mardi Gras Museum, displaying elaborate and colorful Mardi Gras costumes.
On the second floor, the Alice Moseley Museum provides a home for the works and life story of the nationally-acclaimed folk artist. The surrounding Depot District is alive and well too, with a number of outstanding restaurants and atmospheric bars within just a few minutes walk of the Train Depot.
This month, on June 20, the BSL Train Depot hosts the 4th Annual Midsummer Night’s Dream Festival, a special children’s event with a Renaissance theme. The Faerie Princess Pageant is open to boys and girls twelve years old and under, with a registration fee of $10 and awards and crowns in each age category. From 5 pm to 9 pm, a live harpist will play under the oak trees and an instrumental band also will take the stage. The public is invited to bring picnic baskets and blankets to spend an enjoyable evening outdoors. For more information, contact Event Coordinator Elizabeth Veglia at (228) 304-1333 or (228) 463-9222.
The pride and delight of the Bay St. Louis community, the Train Depot continues as a monument to the legacy of daily life and transportation in the 1800s and 1900s, and a gathering place for all.