You never know what you’ll see on the Western Shore of Mobile Bay. In 2007, Desiree Tait and her 12-year-old son Camden stood out on their pier to watch President George W. Bush fly into Mobile over the Bay. When Mobile Marine Police ordered them off, they ran back to their yard to watch Air Force One’s descent over the water beyond their pier. As Desiree tells the story, she uses the term “pier” very specifically.
“Wharf is what they say on the Eastern Shore, ” her husband Tim explains. Desiree adds, “Here, it’s a different way of life. It’s more casual.”
“There’s a twang to it!” neighbor Chris Holmes exclaims in what may be the ultimate explanation of what makes this little neighborhood so special.
Desiree, Tim and Chris are all residents of Mobile’s Western Shore, living only yards away from the beautiful Bay. Chris has owned his home there for 17 years; even after it was destroyed by Hurricane Katrina, he and his family moved away only for the duration of the repairs. Other residents share similar stories of falling in love with the Western Shore for its coastal atmosphere and relaxed community.
Driving to Susan Rouillier’s home on a humid twilit evening, one side of the road offers an unobstructed view of the Bay. Piers stretch out into the water and birds dip down to catch their prey. On the other side, quaint cottages sit in a row, looking out into the great expanse. In between and all around, grand oak trees reach their limbs over the roofs and road. It took perhaps a hundred years for them to obtain such grace. Susan has her fair share of beautiful trees, and decorative lighting hang from the oak on the corner of her piece of property.
Susan was born in her grandmother’s house on this road. “I had an obsession to come back, ” she shares of her yearning to return to the Shore in adulthood. “I did about eight years ago. I bought the lot and built this house.” I understand her nostalgia and obsession. Even as I drove down the road toward Rouillier’s home, I found my eyes drawn to the water, almost unable to look away. This community that encompasses the area from Dog River to Brookley Field boasts some of the best scenery in Lower Alabama. It is so spellbinding and welcoming that the real wonder is how it remained unspoiled and avoided becoming overcrowded.
ABOVE On one side of the road sits a neat row of picturesque homes. On the other, each home has a pier that stretches out into the Bay.
ABOVE Wide front porches, relaxed Adirondack and rocking chairs and plentiful windows around this cozy Western Shore cottage create a light and welcoming home. The Holmes family added a charming outdoor shower enclosed with shutters and old windows.
ABOVE Along with their son, Aiden, and loyal pups Kai and Scout, Chris and Lisa Holmes enjoy their bayside home, which was rebuilt following Hurricane Katrina in 2005.
Roots Run Deep
“There is such a tremendous amount of history here, ” Susan says. “Starting in the early 1700s, the French built a warehouse for the king right at Dog River. The City of Mobile was built upriver, and because the Bay was silty, they’d ferry the supplies there. This was the first French settlement, and just as important as Jamestown was to the English.”
From Colonial days through the Depression, the Western Shore was Mobile’s favorite playground. Its shady trees and breezes were a respite from sultry weather. But the breezes could also transform into brutal winds. Hurricanes throughout the centuries have battered the shore. In modern times, the bridge that connected Dauphin Island Parkway to the neighborhood was destroyed in Hurricane Camille in 1969 and Rangeline Road replaced it. The destructive force of Hurricane Katrina in 2005, as Holmes experienced, also desolated and isolated the area.
Such an expanse close to water also didn’t escape notice from government and developers. Bates Field, built in 1929, and popular Arlington Park were swallowed up in 1938 by Brookley Army Air Field, now an aerospace complex. Bay Front Road — formerly Bay Shell Road — used to turn into Broad Street before Brookley Field disconnected them.
The construction of I-10 in the ‘60s also closed in the northern border. “We have friends who’ve lived in Mobile 50, 60 years who tell us that until the late 1960s, this was really a hopping area, ” Desiree explains. “This was how you got to Dauphin Island, so it was a major thoroughfare.”
After that, as Desiree says, “It’s the same principle as what interstates did to small towns. It’s bypassing what used to be a very populated and really busy section of Mobile.”
Despite its uneven past, residents are proud of the Western Shore’s history. The Taits, for instance, researched their home’s ownership dating back to 1915. (A courthouse fire in 1914 wiped out all prior records, but they believe that the house was built around 1897.) During interviews, everyone chimes in with tidbits: that Elvis Presley played at a nearby bar is to me among the most interesting of the facts. But what’s truly fascinating is the amount of time and effort these families put into discovering the hidden pasts of their homes and neighborhood.
ABOVE Desiree and Tim Tait
ABOVE On the Western Shore of Mobile Bay life is a little slower, a little more casual and a whole lot of fun.
ABOVE Desiree and Tim Tait researched documents showing their home’s ownership dating back to 1915. A courthouse fire in 1914 wiped out all prior records, but they believe that the house was built around 1897.
ABOVE As the owners of High Cotton Consignments and Antiques at the Loop, Desiree and Tim know how to furnish a home with finesse and class.
Cost, Convenience and Natural Beauty
Another great perk of living on the Western Shore? “In so many ways, this is like living on the Eastern Shore, except it’s easily half the price, ” Tim shares with a chuckle. “Plus, we have all the convenience of being in the city, but we’re in the country.” And that’s certainly true. As I prepared to venture to Bay Front Road from Cottage Hill Road, I expected my journey to take around half an hour, possibly more. I arrived in a mere 12 minutes.
Soon, the area will be even more connected to the heart of Mobile as plans continue for the Crepe Myrtle Trail. Chris, who has volunteered for park beautification efforts in the area, believes the trail could be a huge boost for the area. “That’s just one piece of the puzzle for the whole city. They’re trying to get a trail either starting or ending here, and going all the way to Municipal Park. That’s a pretty good thing!”
Even without the trail, Bay Front Road plays host to many weekend bicycling groups from Midtown and Oakleigh. Chris claims (and the others nod in agreement) that as many as a few hundred cyclists will peddle through on Saturday and Sunday mornings, and it’s hardly a secret why, with gorgeous trees sheltering the road and the crisp blue water clearly visible from the route.
Wildlife that shies away from the bustling city finds refuge out here, as well. Aside from the occasional fox or bobcat (which, yes, Susan has witnessed in her own backyard!), the birdlife proves diverse here on the shore. “I’m a bird photographer now, ” Susan says with a smile. Chris joins in, sharing that late summer brings saltier water to the Bay, and with that, come the dolphins. Add in “the best floundering around, ” and the Western Shore seems to be a veritable menagerie.
ABOVE Since moving to the Western Shore, Susan Rouillier has relished the local birdlife. “I used to have a career I can hardly remember, ” she says with a smirk. “Well, alright, I was a teacher. But if you ask me now, I’m a bird photographer.”
ABOVE Bay Front Road is covered with a thick canopy of oak tree limbs, making it the perfect route for early morning cyclists wanting to enjoy the view. Another great view? The water from each home’s private pier.
Sight for Sore Eyes
Despite the relative obscurity of the neighborhood, the views are anything but. Holiday fireworks from Daphne, Fairhope, the Grand Hotel, Downtown Mobile and even Dauphin Island are all visible here on a clear night. Another envious view from the West? The ships. Just under two miles away from the channel (as opposed to around six miles away on the Eastern Shore), those on the Western Shore observe incredible ships that pass by on a daily basis, an experience exclusive to them.
“One morning, we walked out and it was just like a movie, ” Desiree says breathlessly. Her gesticulating hands draw a picture and give form to her excitement. “There was a big paddleboat coming in for repairs. And it was foggy, and the sun was about to come up. I felt like I was in ‘Gone with the Wind’! And when the cruise ships come by, you feel like you can reach out and touch them!”
But the view that trumps them all is also the simplest: the water itself. “I usually get up very early, ” Chris shares, “and my desk in my office faces the Bay. So I watch the sun come up. My wife will get up a little later and go play with the dogs in the water. It’s nice to wake up and look at those things, and I always try to.” Desiree pipes in, proclaiming that living on the shore is “a privilege” for them all.
“The beauty and the calmness of living on the water and the convenience of being only 10 minutes away from anything you want to do — that’s the best part of living here, ” Tim shares. Susan nods, adding, “It’s an instant refreshment when you look outside.” Here, they all agree, the neighbors know and enjoy one another as well as the water. Everyone clamors to tell their favorite story: from the friendliness of several other women coming to Desiree’s rescue when she was almost swept into the Bay trying to rescue her dog, to late-night gatherings at the water, trying to catch soft-shell crab.
Desiree describes a party she and Tim once threw at their home with a lot of out-of-towners. “They were sitting in rocking chairs, and the moss is hanging from the oaks, and everybody’s drinking and the music’s playing. And somebody replied, ‘This is what I pictured when I thought of Mobile.’”