Tales from the Swamp

Dig into the Stories and Secrets of the now-lost and almost-forgotten Wragg Swamp.

A 1935 map showing Wragg Swamp, with Old Government Street Road cutting through the middle, and Dauphin Street dead-ending at the east edge of the swamp.

Stretching east to west between Mobile County at the Mississippi state line and the city of Mobile is a restless expanse of road home to a vibrant hodgepodge of small businesses, a booming influx of national retail chains and more restaurants than you can shake a fork at. Airport Boulevard — the bustling thoroughfare extending from the edge of the Magnolia State to the Civil War cannon in Midtown — is truly an amalgamation of all things south Alabama. It’s a melting pot of multiculturalism, Gulf Coast traditions, fine dining, retail, academia and family life. In short, it’s everything Mobile on one hot street. Spectacular shopping. Sensational sightseeing. Snazzy souvenirs. Scrumptious seafood. Splendid schools. Spacious subdivisions and sensible suburbs. It’s all there for the taking. Drive past the Schillinger intersection on any given day, head east, follow the road for several miles and you’ll be hard-pressed to find a sliver of this highway that has not evolved and grown dramatically over the last several decades. 

Few Mobilians can recall a time when the city’s most famous street was not as crowded as Dauphin Island during Spring Break. Even fewer still can reminisce of the days of old and the tales of yesteryear when Airport Boulevard was a simple two-lane road, and when wildlife and nature were more common than traffic lights and coffee shops. 

Long before the chicken gods blessed us with Foosackly’s and the heavens rained down Yellowhammer Coffee, the Shoppes At Bel-Air (formerly Bel-Air Mall) and the Springdale Mall (formerly Springdale Plaza) were two of the most recognizable local landmarks on the east end of Airport Boulevard. They remain just as recognizable today. But it was not always so. During the mid to late 1800s, this entire area was nothing more than a vast swampland bubbling with more mystery than a Hitchcock thriller — or so the teenagers of the 1950s would tell you. Strange noises. Wild animals. Harsh living conditions. Maybe even a ghost story or two. Take a stroll down memory lane, and join us as we unearth the history, folklore, personal stories, hearsay and tall tales that make the area previously known as Wragg Swamp one of the most captivating, albeit often overlooked, parts of our city’s origins. 

But first, for the sake of providing some context, a little history lesson is in order. 

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It was the mid-1830s when British immigrant George Wragg — who came to south Alabama by way of Manchester, England — first established a watermill in a swampy region west of what was then Mobile proper. Powered by Eslava Creek, the mill allowed Wragg to grind grain for the production of sugar and molasses, both of which were priceless business commodities in that day. As Wragg
Enterprises grew, the need for roads became a pressing concern. Meanwhile, local and regional area farmers were settling the western and southwestern parts of Mobile County and began using the roads that went through Wragg’s marshy property as a shortcut to reach Government Street Road, which ran through the north end of the swamp and led back to Mobile. It was these early commuters who would give the swampy region its owner’s name: Wragg. 

Wragg passed away in 1851 at the age of 50 and was buried in Church Street Graveyard. Folks continued to refer to the local wetland as Wragg Swamp. The entire area — which extended from present-day Sage Avenue to McGregor Avenue and from Old Shell Road to Cottage Hill Road — remained a source of mystery and fascination for much of the 19th century. Creepy moss trees, boggy terrain and spooky animal sounds ensured that it maintained an element of the macabre. Rumor has it that mid-1800s American outlaw James Copeland buried over $30,000 in gold there and, in 1884, the Comic Cowboys commandeered the swamp as the base for their secret hideout. Wragg Swamp has
undoubtedly seen more than most of us could imagine. If only those trees could talk! 

By the late 1930s, urbanization and industrialization were looming on the horizon. Houston native John H. Weisenberger made his way to the area to invest in land and, in 1938, did precisely that. His $12,000 purchase scored him 800 acres and he managed to retain 200 of those acres well into the late 1950s. At this time, the property was producing over $6,000 a month in income. Weisenberger theorized that, once construction on the newly-formed Beltline Highway was complete, this amount would skyrocket to $20,000. 

February 1959 brought much of the aforementioned urbanization, and a bit of commercialization, as construction began on Springdale Plaza just north of Grant Street. Traffic had become an issue and the city was in the process of widening Grant Street to four lanes. The 50-store shopping behemoth, modeled after a similar development in Texas, would require between 50 and 60 acres to operate at peak performance. Area creeks were drained and dredged as concrete channels were established to ensure that the excess runoff flowed properly into Dog River. Unfortunately, this would also include quite a bit of car pollution and construction sediment. As you might imagine, Wragg Swamp gradually went the way of the dinosaur, ultimately dissolving altogether under a sea of asphalt. Perhaps no one was more outraged by these developments than the Comic Cowboys who, during their 1960 parade, protested the expansion of the mall with a banner reading: “No Springtail Plasmas or Politicians are Going to Drive us out of Wragg Swamp!” 

Bel Air Mall, which arrived in 1967 on the south side of Airport Boulevard after 20 long months of construction, brought another shopping hub to the city of Mobile, this time in an enclosed space. 

And, just like that, Wragg Swamp went extinct, lingering only as a distant memory in the minds of those who remember it best. But not all memories are meant to perish forever. MB recently sat down with three longtime Mobilians who say this piece of local history will always be intricately intertwined with their own.

Royce Ray and a friend fishing in Wragg Swamp in the late 1950s.

Royce Ray 

SIPCO Inc. | Sales 1966-1970 | President 1970-2004 
Printing, office supplies, computer supplies 

Royce Ray, 86 and now retired, spent his teenage years traipsing through Wragg Swamp with his childhood best friend. He says it was the perfect place for young boys to hunt, fish, explore, camp and seek out adventure. 

“Before I-65 and Springdale Plaza were ever built, there was a little lake called Mirror Lake where Spring Hill
College is now located,” says Ray. “It flowed across where I-65 is now and it went across where Cockrell’s Body Shop is located, right around Dauphin Street, and drained into the back of what is now Springdale Mall. That whole area was so swampy, muddy and boggy.” 

The treacherous terrain was no obstacle for two boys determined to have the time of their lives, however.   

“I graduated Vigor High School in 1955 and my best friend, Bobby Peacock, who was from Prichard, would go out there with me,” he recalls. “We would usually cut out of town on a Friday afternoon and go down to the swamp and stay real late, or even camp there overnight and stay into Saturday morning or afternoon. I was about 16 at the time. Our parents were pretty good about letting us go down there. We’d tell them, ‘We’re going to go camp out at Wragg Swamp,’ and they’d say, ‘Ok, we’ll see you later!’ This would’ve been around 1951 or ‘52. We had old Army shelter halves and we’d just button them together and make a little tent. Bobby and I would crawl up in there and I can remember plenty of nights when we didn’t sleep at all. We’d just be listening to all sorts of weird sounds in the swamp, making up stories, wondering what was out there. We would carry Vienna sausages or cans of Spam with us and have cookouts. We thought we were big-time campers! Those were some fun times. I look back now and wish that we would have had even more weekend excursions in Wragg Swamp than we did.” 

But it wasn’t just about camping and exploring.  

“We did a lot of hunting and fishing,” says Ray. “There were some huge rabbits in the swamp back in those days, and we used to hunt those. There were all kinds of animals, really. Bobby and I never ran into any alligators, but I don’t doubt that there were some out there. Usually, we just
explored to see what we could find, but we always had so much fun plodding around in the mud. It wasn’t quite as bad as quicksand, but it was very boggy.” 

One special type of swamp creature stands out unmatched in Ray’s memory.

“There  was  also  some  nutria  in  Wragg Swamp,” he says. “You know, the  big  rodents. They  would  cry  so loud  and sound like babies at nighttime. I remember one of the first nights we ever spent down there, we heard all these wild noises. It was the
nutria! And being two young guys who didn’t know what was going on, we were too scared to move!” 

LeeVones Fisher 

An early promotional photograph for Springdale Plaza. Photo courtesy Delaney Development, Inc.

Co-founder; Executive Director, Bay Area Women’s Coalition 

Deep in the heart of a rural community outside of the Mobile and Prichard city limits, one neighborhood’s name had become synonymous, even interchangeable, with Wragg Swamp. Trinity Gardens, the historically impoverished suburb just to the north of Crichton and Three Mile Creek, may not be inside the geographical boundaries of Haskin’s 1935 map. But, for former residents like LeeVones Fisher, Wragg Swamp will always be home. 

“Wragg Swamp technically starts a little past Highway 45, somewhere in between Chickasaw and Prichard, and it runs over to Airport Boulevard,” says Fisher, who left the Gulf Coast years ago to pursue a career as a chemistry and physics educator. “I was always interested in the swamp, not just because I was a science teacher, but also because it’s where I spent my childhood.”

Fisher’s return, years later, brought her right back to Trinity Gardens and only deepened her love for the local community and her appreciation for the simple life she had as a young girl both in the Mobile countryside and Wragg Swamp. 

“My parents came here in 1945,” she recalls. “I’ve grown up here and lived here for most of my life, and my mom and dad always told me that we lived in what was called ‘Wragg Swamp.’ Most of the people out here have never heard of George Wragg and would not be familiar with him. I did some research at one point on Trinity Gardens and I was told, though I’m not sure of the accuracy, that the same man who sold and named this area bought it from George Wragg. But I was so happy when the name was later changed to Trinity Gardens! Every time it rained when I was little, the water would come up to our doors. We did not have sufficient ditches to drain the water. Back then, there were no streets; it was all dirt. Water moves dirt. And if you don’t have heavy equipment, shovels, poles and a lot of strong men and women who can move the dirt back where it needs to be, then you wouldn’t be able to get out of your house. Some people had those little flatboats and knew how to make rafts. It was an interesting life. You might see someone floating on a raft in the water in Trinity Gardens back when I was growing up. It was a sight!” 

Fisher says the topography has changed dramatically since her childhood, mostly due to urbanization and the need for electricity. 

“I can sit here now and look out the window at that telegram pole [power pole] outside,” she observes. “But when I was growing up as a little girl here, we didn’t have those. I’ve seen us go from not having electricity to having it and eventually, hopefully, those utility poles will disappear. We only have two streets right now where all the wires are underground. There used to be a lot of vacant lots that had not been sold. When I was little, I would take our cows over down the street to a nearby vacant lot and they would stay there all day so that they could graze and eat. We always had to watch out for snakes and alligators. The snakes seemed to love me for some reason, so I quickly learned how to get along with them. We had a lot of possums, raccoons and deer. We still have all of those.” 

Life in Wragg Swamp might not have been easy, but it did afford women like Fisher the opportunity to learn and achieve things that, today, many people take for granted. 

“Things were rough in the 40s and 50s,” she says. “We made our own soap back then, grew our own food, killed our own meat. There were all sorts of animals out here and you learned to cook at a young age. Anything that would grow in the neighborhood, we grew it. We had an underground pump that allowed us to bring water to the surface so that we could take water indoors to use for cooking. We gathered wood outside for the potbelly stove. We had all sorts of fruit trees: lemons, plums, satsumas. We lived off the land, and that’s truly what I remember the most. You didn’t go to the grocery store for your food because, well, there was no grocery store.” 

During the 1950s, there were negative connotations with “living in the swamp,” and the history of the area was never much of a discussion. Now, Fisher holds those years near to her heart as a treasured memory and says that, even if you grew up in a rough area or during hard times, you can still take pride in who you are and where you are from. 

“I grew up knowing about everything from Africatown to Wragg Swamp. However, not everyone’s families talked about these things because these were not necessarily things to be proud of. No one wanted to say, ‘I grew up in the swamp.’ People might laugh at you and say, ‘You’re a swamp rat.’ See, we were over here living with snakes and alligators. We didn’t have any nice streets worth talking about. We were still walking around barefoot in the mud. When I was growing up, most people did not own more than two pairs of shoes. If you saw someone with their shoes on, you thought, ‘You better take those off and save them for Sunday.’ People would save their shoes for Sunday so that they could look nice when they went to church. I never washed my feet and put shoes on until I had to go to school. It was a period when you didn’t quite understand why you did certain things, but you did know where you came from, and you had a sense of pride about it. But, at the same time, there were certain things you simply did not talk about.” 

Judy Stout, PhD

Marine Biologist | Associate Director for Academic Affairs & Graduate Studies | 1972-1998 | Dauphin Island Sea Lab 
Associate Vice President for Academic Affairs | 1998-2005 | University of South Alabama 

As a marine biologist and wetlands oncologist, Dr. Judy Stout has always been more than just knowledgeable about local environmental history and topography. She’s been utterly fascinated by it. Her prestigious career has taken her from the Dauphin Island Sea Lab — where she spent over 20 years as a researcher, teacher, mentor and much more — to the University of South Alabama, where she worked as an adjunct professor and associate vice president for academic affairs. She retired from the latter in 2005. But for the 77-year-old former educator and scientist, Wragg Swamp is not just another topic of study and academic discourse. Having spent most of her childhood in the area, it will always be an integral part of her life.   

Aerial photograph of a shrinking Wragg Swamp in 1973 with Eslava Creek paralleling I-65, and Springdale Plaza and Bel-Air Mall to the right of the cloverleaf. The Alec and Roy Thigpen Photography Collection, the Doy Leale McCall Rare Book and Manuscript Library, University of South Alabama.

“When I was growing up [here in Mobile], my dad worked for International Paper Company and often had to travel for his job,” remembers Stout, who was one of five children. “Before we moved to Wragg Swamp, we only had one family car. We would all often have to pile into the car to take him out to the airport. We had to take Old Government Street to get there. The first I can recall even hearing about Wragg Swamp was when we drove to the airport and these 4 by 8-foot signs began popping up. They said, ‘Future home of Gayfers,’ future home of this store or that store, you know, it was all the stores that were going to eventually become Springdale Plaza. This was all yucky land! My parents couldn’t believe it. They were saying, ‘They’re going to build the mall in Wragg Swamp?’ They were familiar with that area. My dad grew up at the Loop. That’s my first recollection of anyone talking about Wragg Swamp.” 

Stout would eventually become all too familiar with the swamp when her family moved there, built a house on the south edge and subsequently began to encounter structural challenges due to the topographical changes in the area. 

“When they built Azalea Road Middle School, and Davidson High School adjacent to it, my parents moved closer for schools to be within walking distance from us,” she recalls. “And that’s when Wragg Swamp became very personal because my house was built there. I didn’t know that at the time. The first subdivision built adjacent to Azalea Road and Davidson on Pleasant Valley Road was Heritage Estates. It extended from Pleasant Valley Road to Michael Boulevard. There were woods between it and Davidson High School. We moved into that house around 1960 or 1961. We didn’t think anything of it back then until the house started settling a little and other neighbors started complaining about their houses settling. I was getting old enough back then that my parents would pay me an allowance to push the lawnmower and mow the grass. After a while, the flat yard began to have relief and holes and the backyard was sinking and rising. Eventually, logs began to float to the surface through the mud where they had been felled in the swamp and never been removed. There were literally trees and logs floating up! Daddy had to cut them up, dig them out and level everything out. Our house was cracking but the neighbor’s house was the worst. It’s no wonder that, shortly after my parents moved from there, that house was bulldozed. There are other houses in Heritage Estates to this day that appear to have been sitting abandoned for quite some time and may have cracks [in the walls or foundation].” 

Living on top of a wetland did have its perks, however, particularly during those scorching-hot Mobile summers. 

“I was band geek back in high school,” reminisces Stout with a smile. “All my friends were band geeks and all of my siblings married band geeks. When they created Davidson High School, we went to school with the middle schoolers at Azalea Road until they finished construction on Davidson. But they had started a football team and marching band. The older kids were in the marching band. Azalea Road and Davidson had kind of been built on a platform. When you went out behind the ground, back behind the school for summer camp, it dropped off to Eslava Creek drainage. There were woodlands back there where there are apartments today. We had summer band camp back there when they would mow the field for us. It would be blazing hot outside during the summer. We all wore bathing suits under our clothes and when they would give us a break, we went back to the Eslava Creek drainage to cool off. I still have pictures of us throwing mud at each other and things like that. There were sandbars back there and clear water. It was probably polluted as heck, but it was awfully clear. That was long before they developed that whole area.” 

Looking back, with all the education and experience of a seasoned wetlands oncologist, Dr. Stout now realizes what a strong and lasting impact the development of that area had on the local environment. 

“Mobile had to grow somewhere, and it couldn’t grow into the Bay,” she says. “Soldiers came home and they all had fairly large families. The city had to build new schools and new subdivisions. And you don’t typically head toward the Mississippi state line as your first choice of growth. You try to grow in the city limits. Malls had become the thing [during that time] and people fell in love with shopping malls rather than having to drive all the way downtown. All of that certainly had to impact any decision to pave over a wetland. But it was so extensive. I cannot even imagine the quantitative effects. The amount of water that runs through those ditches is amazing. Some of it is coming from groundwater and springs and all the pavement and rooftops, the impermeable surfaces. That’s a long-term, persistent impact. Previously, all of that water, whether it was rainfall or whatever, went through the swamp. The swamp absorbed it, held it, released it slowly, filtered stuff out of it — everything that wetlands do. It’s like putting a cap on the bottle.”

Today, very few traces of the historic wetland remain. The decades-long metamorphosis of Airport Boulevard and greater Mobile — fueled by the winds of change, the hands of time, and the wheels of progress — has all but eradicated its physical presence. Despite its exodus from local geography, though, Wragg Swamp still thrives in local memory and  both its folklore and its history will forever be preserved for future generations.

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