Ask McGehee: What is the history of “Skull Island?”

Regal portrait of Skull Island's original namesake, Marie Adelaide of Savoy, leaned against balcony railing
Dauphin Island was originally named for French King Louis XV’s mother, Marie Adelaide of Savoy, who died at the age of 26 from measles. Her husband succumbed a week later.

“Skull Island” or “Massacre Island” were names given to what we have long known as Dauphin Island. The island had been called White Island by coastal Indians, and the earliest Spanish explorers called it Isla de Lobo (Wolf Island).

It’s unclear how many different explorers made landfall on the barrier island, but at some point one of the groups was attacked by hostile natives with grim results. During a subsequent landing, Iberville and his crew thought the beach oddly “crunchy” before they realized that they were walking on bones and skulls bleached by the sun. The island became known as Skull Island.

When France came into possession of the island, they named it Isle de Massacre, or Massacre Island. The island’s natural harbor allowed seagoing ships to anchor and unload supplies needed at the settlement of Mobile, 55 miles north of the Gulf. Warehouses were constructed at the port to hold incoming provisions as well as animal skins being exported.

A Royal Name

Due to the island’s economic importance, it was decided it needed a better moniker. It was renamed Isle de Dauphine honoring Marie Adelaide of Savoy, mother of the future King Louis XV of France.  

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In 1710, a ship sailed into view, and the settlers sent an expedition out to meet it. To their considerable surprise, they discovered their visitors were well-armed English pirates who subsequently looted the island’s warehouses and held the residents captive for two days. Although they had hoped to find gold, they instead settled for animal hides as their plunder.

The island, like Mobile, found itself under control of the British in 1763, the Spanish in 1780 and finally the Americans in 1813. The eastern end of “Dauphin Island,” as it was now called, was quickly chosen as the site of an American fort to help protect the entrance of Mobile Bay.

Construction of Fort Gaines began in 1821 and was completed in 1848. With 200 granite gun mounts and brick walls seven feet deep, the structure must have been imposing to any ship entering the Bay. The Confederates seized the fort in 1861 and spent three years improving it. Despite their efforts, and though the fort was designed to survive a six-month siege, Fort Gaines fell on August 8, 1864, just days into the Battle of Mobile Bay.

After the Civil War, the island languished, with most of its residents involved in fishing and taking their catch in small sailboats to markets in Mobile. The island became home to a general store and a school for students through the 9th grade.

In the 1880s, a group of investors began buying up portions of the island, incorporating as the Dauphin Island Company in 1910. Five years later, a small hotel had been built, with its visitors accessing the island by ferry from Cedar Point.

The Island Rediscovered

In 1929, the Alabama Deep Sea Fishing Rodeo was established and headquartered on Dauphin Island. More than 250 fishermen participated that year. The event’s popularity quickly soared and would grow to an average of 2,000 each year, many of whom had never seen the island up until then.

After the end of World War II, attention turned to developing the island, but it was still only accessible by a small ferry. In addition, once on the island, there was not a single decent road nor even a cottage for a tourist to rent at the time.

The solution was a bridge, but in a situation quite similar to ours today, upstate interests balked at the idea of tax dollars being used to build one. A compromise of sorts was reached in 1950 with the state highway department requiring that $2 million be raised locally.

The Mobile Chamber of Commerce organized the Dauphin Island Bridge Committee and tasked them with a plan. Members included bankers Robert Bacon and Dwain Luce, drugstore chain owner Roy Albright and Coca-Cola bottler Walter D. Bellingrath.

The island was mapped out into available building lots to be sold to prospective buyers at an average price of $2,000 each. Sight unseen, bidders gave their first, second and third choices.

A Heated Pool and Luxury Motels

As incentive, the island would be developed with a clubhouse for lot owners, which featured a heated pool, air-conditioning, ballroom, dining room, lounges and terraces. It would take its name from the French era and be called Isle Dauphine. Two “luxury motels” and rental cottages were also planned facing the Gulf.

To appeal to politicians, the developers would provide four miles of public beaches, an open-air pavilion and handle the construction and maintenance of inland roads on the island. Mobile County issued bridge bonds to complete the funding, and the $3.5 million bridge was opened on July 2, 1955, just in time for the holiday traffic, with cars paying a $1 toll.

Hurricane Frederic took out a large portion of that bridge in 1979, and property owners were back to riding boats back and forth to the island. In 1982, the current bridge was completed at a cost of about 10 times the one it replaced.

Known by a number of different names over the years, Dauphin Island has been called the most historic island on the American Gulf Coast. It has survived a massacre, pirates, wars and hurricanes and remains a favorite with fishing enthusiasts and beach lovers today.

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