National Geographic Revisited

MB looks back at a 50-year-old feature story about our fair city. “Mobile, Alabama’s city in motion”

Photo by Michael Thomas

In 1968, exactly 50 years ago, National Geographic Magazine devoted 30 pages of its March issue to a feature story about Mobile. The article, which dubbed our bayside metropolis “Alabama’s city in motion, ” is a comprehensive snapshot of Mobile, impressive both in its scope and its earnest desire to understand our city.

Familiar scenes abound — the USS Alabama is secure in her moorings, countless flags flutter at Bayou La Batre’s Blessing of the Fleet and a thriving port welcomes cargo from the farthest corners of the globe. With one foot in the past and an optimistic eye on the future, Mobile is presented as a city on the upswing, but the following decades would test the resolve of the Azalea City. And so, with the benefit of hindsight, MB looks back to compare the Mobile of 1968 with the Mobile of 2018.

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Industry and City Planning

The opening page of the 1968 article features a photograph of stevedores lifting a ship’s hatches in order to unload its grain at the Alabama State Docks. The port, the story notes, is the 15th-busiest in America, handling 22 million tons of cargo annually. As the article’s writer William Graves observes, the city “is a vital go-between for world markets and exploding southern industry.”

The photograph tells much of the port’s story — although Mobile handles much less grain today than it did in 1968, other goods and industries have taken the place of those that have largely disappeared. Today, the Port of Mobile moves roughly 58 million tons of cargo per year, ranking it America’s 10th largest seaport.

“One of the stories here is that Mobile’s economy had to evolve or die, ” says Win Hallett, Mobile Area Chamber of Commerce president from 1991 to 2013.

Graves mentions that Mobile is a large producer of pulp and paper, as well as aluminum ore — industries that would eventually falter with the closure of the International Paper Company and Aluminum Company of America’s Mobile plant. In the place of such industries, however, stepped shipbuilding, aerospace engineering and coal shipment, among others.

ABOVE In 1968, containerized shipping was in its infancy in Mobile, as demonstrated by this photograph of the port’s single container crane.

ABOVE Today, ASPA container operations take place at Choctaw Point. The 2, 000-foot, two-berth container terminal is served by two Post-Panamax gantry cranes. Photos courtesy Alabama State Port Authority

“In 1968, we were just starting to export coal, mostly to Japan, ” says Jimmy Lyons, director and CEO for the Alabama State Port Authority. “Construction for the McDuffie Coal Terminal started in the early ’70s, and it’s now the single biggest facility in the port, as far as tonnage goes.”

Perhaps the boldest prediction Graves lays out for the city is its potential to be a “future megalopolis.” Fifty years later, as Mobile sits in the shadows of Birmingham and Atlanta, it’s easy to ask, “What happened?”

“In the middle of the 1970s, there was a very strong recession across the United States, and Mobile was not unscathed by that, ” Hallett says. “I think Mobile was really trying to find its way during that time. Also, some public officials were doing some pretty naughty things, and it was about that time when a number of private citizens came together and said, ‘We’re not putting up with this. We’re not going to lose our city. We’ve got to get some good people elected.’ And by and large, they did.”

Graves briefly touches on another change in Mobile industry — the deactivation of Brookley Air Force Base. Though he notes that the facilities will likely be leased to private industries, there is little indication of the negative effects the closure would bring in the following years.

“It was a huge bomb to the economy of Mobile when Brookley closed down, ” says Chris McFadyen, editorial director of Business Alabama Magazine. “It was a huge employer in Mobile, and when they shut it down, that caused a great recession and a loss of population. A couple years after this article was published, the profound effect of its closure would have been obvious.”

According to Graves, there was considerable optimism about the prospect of the Tennessee-Tombigbee Waterway, the proposed 253-mile canal that could potentially direct more water traffic from the nation’s midsection through Mobile. If the canal is allowed to come to fruition, Graves says, “Mobile’s volume of traffic may one day swell to giant proportions.”

Just four years later, construction commenced on the project, and the canal was completed in 1984. Unfortunately for Mobile, the results failed to live up to the grand expectations of Graves and many Mobilians.

“It was one of the most highly inflated prospects that Mobilians kind of pinned their hopes on, ” McFadyen says. “They thought it was going to save the city from the downturn it was experiencing following the closing of Brookley, but it just wasn’t the gold rush they thought it would be. It’s a lot cheaper to transport much of those same goods by train.”

Of course, in more recent years, Brookley has taken on a second life as an assembly site for Airbus, the company’s first U.S.-based production facility.

How a Rotating Mayoralty Worked
Mobile hasn’t always elected its leaders the way we do today. Let’s break it down.

• From 1911 – 1985, a three-member city commission governed Mobile, and the mayoralty rotated between members.
• ​The mayor of Mobile also operated under the title “president of the commission.”
• Commission members served one-year terms as mayor.
• At the time of Graves’ visit to Mobile, the city commission was made up of Joseph Langan, Lambert Mims and Mayor Arthur Outlaw.
• Following a handful of corruption indictments against commission members, Mobile returned to direct mayoral elections in 1985.
• In that year, Arthur Outlaw became Mobile’s first directly elected mayor since 1911.

As for city planning, the 1968 article covers several notable developments: the recently completed First National Bank Building dominates the skyline, the new domed Municipal Auditorium is described as the “pride of Mobile” and construction for what will be the Wallace Tunnel is soon to begin.

The First National Bank Building, now the RSA-BankTrust Building, would be the tallest building in Alabama until the completion of Birmingham’s Wachovia Tower in 1986. It could be argued that the development of Mobile’s skyline stalled after Graves’ visit to the city; the First National Bank Building remained Mobile’s tallest structure until the completion of RSA Battle House Tower in 2007.

The Civic Center has been the focus of much recent debate as city officials search for a way to better utilize the aging building. Potential ideas for the structure, which costs millions of dollars a year to maintain, include giving it a modern facelift or converting the area into a baseball stadium or retail space.

In 1968, the pending construction of Interstate 10 and the Wallace Tunnel is especially interesting, considering today’s push for the proposed I-10 Bridge. It’s hoped that the project, which would include a six-lane cable-stayed bridge over the Mobile River and an overhaul of the Bayway, will help ease what’s considered some of the worst traffic congestion in the region (some of which is blamed on the original design of I-10). It was announced in February that three groups are in the process of creating project proposals.

Building I-10 and the Wallace Tunnel

• Nothing more than an “unpaved swath” of road in 1968, the Mobile leg of Interstate 10 would not be completed until the mid-1970s.
• The sharp curve at the western entrance of the tunnel is often cited as a cause of traffic congestion.
• The Wallace Tunnel was constructed in pieces at the Alabama Dry Dock and Shipbuilding Company between 1969 – 1973.
• Completed tunnel sections were floated into position, sunk and pumped free of water.

Arts and Education

It’s abundantly clear that Graves is impressed with the “finer things” Mobile has to offer on his extended visit, particularly in regards to the opera and the city’s horticultural heritage. While backstage at the Municipal Theater during a performance of Puccini’s opera “Turandot, ” the writer finds himself deep in conversation with Jeannine Crader, a Missouri-born singer who has just performed the opera’s lead role. Crader, he notes, is a recognized star in Europe and the United States, but the singer praises the Mobile Opera Guild (as it was called then) for having the “resources of a much bigger city.”

Fifty years later, the Mobile Opera, now one of the oldest performing arts organizations in Alabama, continues under the leadership of General Director Scott Wright. Two years after Graves’ visit to Mobile, Symphony Concerts of Mobile was founded as a way to present touring orchestras in the city. It wasn’t until 1996 that a local, professional orchestra, the Mobile Symphony, was established.

ABOVE While at Bellingrath Gardens, Graves admires azalea bushes that “tower 20 feet in the air.” Just 11 years later, Hurricane Frederic would cause significant damage to those aged azaleas. Photo courtesy Bellingrath Gardens

On a stroll through Bellingrath Gardens, Graves seems to find a place that matches his vision of the picturesque Old South. He writes of the Spanish moss, the magnolias and the hoop skirts of the visiting Azalea Trail Maids. The article includes photographs of the Asian garden, complete with pink flamingos floating in a “languid lagoon.”

“Bellingrath looks much as it did in 1968, ” says Tom McGehee, Museum Director of the Bellingrath Home. “That is, now that the trees planted post-Hurricane Frederic have reached maturity. The Asian garden is still here and looks very similar to the photos — except the flamingoes are long gone.” As for the scenery?

“The Spanish moss, azaleas, camellias and magnolias are all still here, of course, ” McGehee assures, “and the Azalea Trail Maids still make regular visits, especially in the springtime.”

The article also mentions Mobile’s Azalea Trail, the 35-mile path of azalea bushes that drew thousands of tourists to the city for many years. Today’s Azalea Trail Run follows the remnants of that flower-lined path.

For insight into Mobile’s higher education, Graves turns to the “impressive new institution, ” the University of South Alabama. Chartered by the state just five years prior to Graves’ visit, the university had already reached an enrollment of 3, 500 in 1968 (up from its initial 1963 enrollment of 276). The writer admires the university for how it “combines academic atmosphere with distinctive modern architecture, ” and for its policy of racial integration in classes and dormitories.

Needless to say, the university’s growth since 1968 has been tremendous. Today, USA boasts an annual enrollment of 16, 000 and has awarded more than 80, 000 degrees to date.

ABOVE Stokes Hall, a $17 million, 330-bed residence hall, demonstrates how much the University of South Alabama has grown since 1968. Photo courtesy The University of South Alabama


On his first morning in Mobile, Graves takes to the sky in a light plane flown by Bill Sturgeon, a World War II veteran and publisher of an engineering magazine. As they glide above the Mobile Delta, Graves observes the labyrinth of rivers below.

Traveling south down the Tensaw River, Graves describes how “25 years suddenly vanished in an instant.” Sturgeon has taken him to observe the “ghost fleet, ” a convoy of Victory and Liberty ships left over from World War II and stored in the fresh waters of the Tensaw. Within a matter of years, this sight would disappear entirely.

“The U.S. Maritime Administration ordered the phasing out of Mobile’s Reserve Fleet in 1970 when the ships in the Tensaw numbered 101, ” wrote MB contributor Tom McGehee. “The majority of the ships were then moved to Beaumont, Texas, where those deemed capable of being modernized were renovated. In April of 1973, the last 15 ships in the Tensaw were dismantled and towed out into the Gulf where they were sunk to create artificial reefs off the coasts of Florida, Alabama and Mississippi.”

Another relic of naval warfare, the ill-fated USS Tecumseh, occupies two days of Graves’ visit to Mobile. Setting out from Fort Morgan, the writer joins a team from the Smithsonian Institution in an effort to locate the ironclad casualty of the Battle of Mobile Bay. However, after two days of dragging the Bay floor off Fort Morgan, the search is suspended. Several weeks later, Graves reports, the team returned with metal-detecting equipment and discovered the location of the ship’s watery grave.


ABOVE LEFT The “ghost fleet, ” shown here circa 1950, was kept in a channel dredged between the Mobile and Tensaw Rivers, where the freshwater was determined to be much less corrosive on the ships’ hulls than salt water. Photo restored by John Lewis

ABOVE RIGHT John Nelson, left, was president of Bon Secour Fisheries when National Geographic came calling. Today, his son, Chris Nelson, serves as vice president of the 122-year-old family business. Photo by Chad Riley

Despite Graves’ hope to see the Tecumseh salvaged and put on display in Washington D.C., it was never to be. The primary donor for the Smithsonian project eventually rescinded its funding, and, in 1974, Mobile naval historian Jack Friend estimated it would cost $10 million to raise the Tecumseh. Today, according to historian John Sledge, the ship “rests upside down in about 40 feet of water, covered by a layer of mud.”

Back on the water, Graves finds himself in a boat with oyster tonger Lawrence Nelson of Bon Secour Fisheries. Founded in 1896, the family business was already a mainstay by 1968. Fifty years later, the company and the Nelson name remain.

“I was busy on that day, ” 92-year-old John Nelson remembers about the time National Geographic came calling. Nelson, then-president of Bon Secour Fisheries, did his best to accommodate the magazine. “Of course, I recognized the name National Geographic, and I didn’t want to run them off. So I introduced the writer to my uncle Lawrence, and they agreed to go out oystering the next morning. I think they stayed out most of the day.”

The pair worked Bayou Coura Reef in Bon Secour Bay, a reef which John says is no longer active but once produced a very fine oyster for serving on the half shell. The change, he explains, is the cumulative effect of many projects: the dredging of the ship channel, as well as the construction of the Causeway and the Cochrane Bridge. Over the years, as we’ve changed the way fresh water enters and exits the Bay, we’ve changed the dynamics of the Bay itself.

“Even by then [in 1968] we were getting 90 percent of our oysters out of Texas and Louisiana, ” John says.

ABOVE The passage of time has little effect on some certain Mobile scenes, as evidenced by this mid-century photo of the Oakleigh House. Photo from the Alabama Department of Archives and History

Celebrations and Traditions

As interesting as it is to note what’s changed in Mobile in the past 50 years, it’s also worth noting what’s remained the same. Mardi Gras, Graves writes, “turns downtown Mobile into a great caldron of light, bubbling over with glittering street parades, side-show carnivals and costume balls.” Sound familiar?

Included in the article is a photograph from the 1967 Order of Myths ball in the Municipal Auditorium, a notable occasion as it marked the society’s 100th anniversary. If that rings a bell, it’s because the same society celebrated its 150th anniversary last year.

ABOVE The Azalea Trail Maids continue to serve as ambassadors and representatives for the city at local and national events. Photo from Mobile Azalea Trail Maids

A touching story from the 1967 Carnival celebration is the eventual marriage between the two monarchs — Queen Laura Lee Peebles and King Felix III, John Schley Rutherford. Graves includes this interesting footnote, but years later, the fairytale continued when their own daughter, Laura Lee Rutherford, met her husband Sumner Greer Adams when the two ruled over the Carnival Court in 1991.

The Azalea Trail Maids make three appearances in Graves’ article. In one photograph, an Azalea Trail Maid stands in the circular drive of the Oakleigh House — a scene which remains largely unchanged after five decades.

As for azalea bushes, Tom McGehee thinks it’s time for the city to rediscover its rich history with the plant. Upon reading the article, which includes the quote, “Azaleas are almost a religion in Mobile, ” McGehee comments that, in 2018, “Mobilians seem to have become atheistic in recent years about planting or keeping the azaleas that were so beloved by their predecessors.”

About National Geographic Senior Writer William Graves

William Graves, author of National Geographic’s 1968 feature about Mobile, was born in Washington D.C. on December 27, 1926. Upon his death in 2004, Graves was described in his Washington Post obituary as “an energetic, blunt-spoken man who was often at his desk before dawn.”

Graves led a life of adventure from the start. At the age of 15, he and his family were forced to evacuate the Philippines, where his diplomat stepfather was stationed, as Japanese shells rained down on the island in the early days of World War II. After escaping to the headquarters of Gen. Douglas MacArthur and spending two months under siege, the family escaped by submarine to Australia. Graves would retrace that journey decades later in an article for National Geographic.

During his 38-year career with National Geographic as a writer, adventures editor and eventually editor-in-chief, Graves swam with whales in Hawaii, visited the bottom of an artesian well in Iran (suspended by a rope) and went deep-sea diving in most of the world’s oceans, among countless other adventures.

Graves was known for his insistence on hearing from “the little people, ” the everyday folk whose lives told the story of the locales he visited. He is also credited with elevating the literary quality of National Geographic to match the publication’s strong photography. By all indications, Mobile gave this rising star of journalism plenty to write about.

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