Once Along the Bay

Horse racing, an outdoor movie theater, a roller coaster — and incredible Bay views — are a few things we’re missing.

This undated rendering shows Monroe Park, complete with roller coaster, outdoor theater and pier. Erik Overbey Collection, The Doy Leale McCall Rare Book and Manuscript Library, University of South Alabama.

People arriving in Mobile for the very first time often have one question in common: Where’s the water? They’ve heard of Mobile’s status as a major port; they’ve seen maps showing the city’s location on rivers and the Bay. Yet the beautiful waterfront views they expect are nowhere in sight. It wasn’t always that way. Up until about the 1950s, the city’s commercial waterfront was freely accessible to the public, and a massively used recreational waterfront existed, as well. All of this is still within living memory; in sultry, pre-air conditioning days, the waterfront, with its cool breezes, was the place to be. 

Mobile in the 1840s was a rollicking cotton port, and the Bay played an important role in the recreational life of Mobilians. At the foot of Conception Street was a tollbooth leading to a shell road that hugged the shoreline. This area was known as Frascati and is said to have catered to the recreational needs of the city’s upper-crust. Henry Nabring, who owned the famed Battle House hotel in Mobile, started the park in 1866. A carriage rider might stop there for a picnic under the trees. Or, after paying the toll keeper, the carriage could roll along the Bay, passing the home of Captain Monroe, and head towards the artesian springs and the large oaks where Bienville had his house and gardens.

A horseless carriage (automobile) on a drive down Bay Shell Road, circa 1905. Courtesy Tom McGehee, The Doy Leale McCall Rare Book and Manuscript Library, University of South Alabama.
The once-Bayfront Mobile Country Club, 1909. Photo courtesy Detroit Publishing Company.

In the 1890s, a country club was started on Bay Shell Road near Frascati. (It later moved to higher ground in Spring Hill along another shell road.) Also on the road was the Arlington Fair Grounds. Horse breeding and racing had long been important to the area. Used throughout the year, the fairground’s building also included permanent exhibits and hosted county fairs, as well as racing. 

In 1893, a massive storm leveled Frascati, and it wasn’t rebuilt. Instead, a streetcar company constructed Monroe Park on an oak-fronted field facing the Bay as a destination to drum up weekend streetcar customers. The park itself was a pay-as-you-go enterprise that catered to the new class of urban workers looking to enjoy their leisure weekends and disposable incomes. A roller coaster, carousel, human oddities and other amusements were all located on the grounds. Bay Shell Road ran between it and the Bay and functioned as a strolling path. The water was used for bathing and boating, although the lack of sewage treatment rendered it somewhat ripe in the summer.

- Sponsors -
The Wonderland theater at Monroe Park, 1895. Photo by E. M. Coffin, courtesy Earle Sigler.

In the 1900s, a baseball stadium was built just off Washington Avenue, and in 1913, season attendance reached 100,000. The park was lit electrically at night and was open late on the weekends during the summer. To the left of the ballpark was the Crystal Pool, an amusement built on an artesian spring. The water was more yellow than crystal, but it offered a pleasant place to swim on a hot day. A little further down on the right was Arlington Point. Designated as the city pier, it was a peninsula created from fill going out a quarter mile into the Bay. A wooden extension took it out even further. Amusements included a movie theater, a rock garden and the Buccaneer Yacht Club clubhouse. It also was well lit and open late on Friday and Saturday nights. Further down the road still were shadier entertainment venues appealing to a more adult audience. 

Later, in the 1930s and 1940s, several nightclubs such as The Night Spot lined Bayfront Road. Built out over the water, they featured dancing to big band and nickelodeon music. 

This 1920 photo shows the proximity of the Bay to Monroe Park’s theater. Erik Overbey Collection, the Doy Leale McCall Rare Book and Manuscript Library, University of South Alabama.
Benches at Monroe Park’s “Electric City,” where the 10-cent admission promised an “Educational Exhibit for Cultured Brains.” S. Marion Coffin Collection, The Doy Leale McCall Rare Book and Manuscript Library, University of South Alabama.

Then, step by step, all of the access to the waterfront was lost to industry and the Brookley Field Air Force Base. When the Bankhead and Wallace / I-10 tunnels blocked access to the Alabama State Docks for deep-draft oceangoing ships and the docks began to expand south of the tunnels, the recreational waterfront seemed doomed for good.

Today, there is only a shadow of the former recreational waterfront. Looking out from the porch of an old outbuilding of the Frascati House, to the left you can see the oaks that once lined the waterfront at the tollhouse. The undulation of the land under these oaks might be left over from the country club’s golf course but may well be the remains of Civil War fortifications. The Crystal Pool spring is now piped into a culvert. Fort Whiting stands on the site of the fairgrounds, with the newer “Fairgrounds” on Cody Road not having any association with horses. Arlington Point is fenced in and used by the Coast Guard for buoy storage. If you look closely enough and squint, you can see how this must have been a neat place to sit and watch people.

Waterfront Timeline

Bienville builds his “chateau” in area now known as Garrows Bend.

Captain Monroe builds his house in Mobile.

Site for Fort Sidney Johnson, southern defense for the city of Mobile.

Map shows Frascati, Bay Shell Road.

Hurricane levels Frascati.

Monroe Park founded as a streetcar destination.

First motion picture in Mobile viewed at Monroe Park.

Hurricane washes away Bay Shell Road.

Hurricane destroys Mobile Yacht Club and many buildings at Monroe Park.

State Docks authorized.

Babe Ruth hits home run in Monroe Park.

Baseball stadium moved to Ann and Tennessee streets.

Fort Whiting built on southeast corner of Arlington Fairgrounds.

Southeast Army Air Depot construction started (became Brookley Field).

Brookley reaches peak employment.

Monroe Park no longer listed in the phone book.

Industrial waterfront causeway completed, cutting off access.

Brookley Field closes; title to Brookley wharf at old Arlington Park passes to City of Mobile.

McDuffie coal terminal built.

Title to Arlington pier passes to city, then to Mobile Airport Authority.

Mobile Airport Authority takes possession of city’s Brookley interest.

Late 1980s
Mobile banana docks razed to make way for a new convention center.

Mayor Mike Dow proposes Monroe Park as the site for Hank Aaron Stadium.

Committee to restore Monroe Park forms.

The Mobile Cruise Terminal opens.

Arlington Park is developed and opened by the Alabama State Port Authority.

GulfQuest Maritime Museum opens.

Dr. Allen Perkins, chair and spokesperson of the Committee to Save Monroe Park, became an advocate for a recreational waterfront when he moved to Mobile thinking it was on the water, but found “if it was, it was a well-kept secret.” Perkins worked closely with the environmental group Mobile Bay Watch to ensure that a public waterfront facility would be built, along with the ASPA container facility. “People are realizing that just housing and jobs and food are not enough to make a city,” he says. “They’re realizing now that we have to work for a city with greater quality of life.” 

Get the best of Mobile delivered to your inbox

Be the first to know about local events, home tours, restaurant reviews and more!