Mobile’s signature park began as a planned location for a city hall. When the first Marine Hospital was built in 1824, Congress turned over the site of the old Spanish hospital to Mobile. Following the financial panic of 1837, the city hall idea was scrapped and the property was offered for sale. It was then discovered that the original transfer from the government had come with a provision — the land could not be sold and was to be held for the good of the public.
The cash-strapped city leased a portion to an adjoining livery stable, which used it as a corral for their horses, while cows and hogs roamed an adjoining parcel. In 1842, two circuses rented the southeast and southwest corners for their shows.
Trees, Balloons and a Deadly Fence
Mobile’s economy improved, and in 1847, Mayor J. W. L. Childers began a beautification project, planting trees on the property. Childers’ trees were still small enough that the square could be used for a balloon ascension in January 1855. A professor hailing from Paris brought his “Comet,” which, as Mobile’s newspapers explained, he planned to use to establish a gas-filled balloon service connecting the nation with California. It would run on a schedule like a train and carry both freight and passengers.
Swarms of Mobilians watched the Frenchman try for three days to get the balloon to cooperate. To their disappointment, he gave up, blaming the inferior quality of the locally supplied gas.
In 1856, a movement was underway to raise funds for a cast-iron fence, costing $7,000. Proponents soon complained that the public would “cheerfully give 50 or 75 cents to see trained monkeys or magicians yet grudge a like amount for the embellishment of our city!” Adequate funds were eventually raised, and the ornate fence was in place by 1858. In 1860, a centerpiece was added in the form of “a handsome mound with a life-like buck placed upon its summit forming a most attractive figure.”
In 1865, with Mobile about to topple as the last major city of the Confederacy, the cotton from riverfront warehouses was hauled to Bienville Square with plans to set it afire rather than surrender it to the enemy. Cooler heads prevailed, and the park and its trees were spared from an inferno.
The following year, what had been called the “Public Square” was officially renamed for Bienville. It was reported in 1871 that the “keeper of Bienville Square has improved its appearance by trimming the trees and cutting down decayed water oaks. The planting of rows of live oaks will help to beautify our little square.”
That may have been the last of the improvements for a while. Mobile’s economy plummeted in the post-Civil War years. City debts mounted, resulting in civic bankruptcy by 1879.
By the 1880s, the fence surrounding the square was in disrepair. A little boy climbing a corner post grabbed a decorative finial, and both crashed to the ground with fatal results. The fence was torn up for scrap, and a reporter wrote, “The gloomy prison-like fence has been removed.”
Bubbling in the Summer Sun
Bienville Square got a much-needed makeover in 1890 with the announcement that a tiered cast-iron fountain honoring Dr. George Ketchum, founder of the Bienville Water Works, would be installed at the park’s center. The mound was removed, and the “monarch of the woods” cast-iron buck statue was relocated to Washington Square.
Not everyone was pleased by the changes planned for Bienville Square. When plans called for oaks to be removed to make room for the fountain, some Mobilians were outraged. One wrote, “What sacrilege, what ruthless vandalism to contemplate cutting down the circle of live-oaks in the center of the square for a miserable fountain to bubble in the summer sun! We need shade in which to rest the tired body!” The fountain won out, and within a few years, it was bubbling in a shady spot.
The 20th Century
The park got its first bandstand in 1903 — a simple circular platform with a roof. (It was replaced by a larger version, donated by Sears Roebuck in 1941, which survives.) When popular Mayor Pat Lyons took office in 1904, he started a beautification program, planting more trees as well as flowers in Bienville Square. As automobile traffic exploded in the 1920s, a group of Downtown merchants suggested that Bienville Square be replaced by a parking lot. That plan, happy to say, was quickly shot down.
As retail businesses abandoned Downtown for the malls to the west in the 1960s, Bienville Square became seedier. Towering lights more suitable for a freeway were installed for safety. And just as things seemed to hit rock bottom, in 1979 a hurricane named Frederic arrived and decimated the square’s tree canopy.
That hurricane, as well as an interest in revitalizing downtown Mobile, led to the restoration of Bienville Square. An organization called Streetscapes was formed, and money was raised to restore and replant the square. Ultimately, the Ketchum Fountain was sent for restoration, and a growing list of events were once again held in the heart of Mobile.
Those popular events have led to the ground being compacted atop the roots of the oaks, which makes turf growth nearly impossible. A few years ago, a planner announced that if a number of those oaks were taken out, more grass could grow. That idea was about as popular as the notion to replace the park with a parking lot.
The recent hurricane, Sally, may have hurt that arching tree canopy, but it is not the first time. Mobilians have been in love with their live oaks since the beginning, and they will return to this special square which has been described as the one “all parades have paraded around, all political affairs centered in, and the focus of public mourning and public rejoicing.”