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Charm of the Old South

February 03, 1985|JUDITH GAINES

PASS CHRISTIAN, Miss. — "Why in God's name are you going over there?" asked the woman at the tourist information desk at New Orleans Airport. Visions of rough and embittered rednecks living in squat backwater towns danced in her head.

You would have thought Mississippi was some kind of national wilderness area, rude and mean and dirty, and very poor. Why would any civilized traveler leave New Orleans to go there?

People in the elegant little community of Pass Christian--one of the most charming and distinctive of the Mississippi coast towns--were not horrified or even surprised by that story.

"Yes, tell them we're terrible," one local leader urged "We want to stay a secret. We keep a low profile--and we scowl," he said, smiling roundly.

Although they may not talk about it much, wealthy folk from New Orleans, inland planters and other gentry have been coming to Pass Christian for years. Some wanted to escape the steamy summers and yellow-fever epidemics that beset New Orleans and other Southern cities in the 19th Century. Others came, and still come, for sun and seaside fun. Recently, Northerners have begun to winter here, too.

Pleasure in Genteel Forms

Pass Christian is, above all, a place of pleasure in its most genteel forms. The town is an unusual kind of resort, without a single hotel, motel or nightclub, and just a few restaurants to call its own. The pleasures of Pass Christian, as with several communities along Mississippi's Gulf Coast, are not obvious, although at least some of them are visible to the touring motorist seeking a scenic spot about an hour's drive from New Orleans.

As you head out U.S. 90 from New Orleans toward Mississippi, the first sights are not particularly inviting. The road passes assorted flood-prone houses; fishing camps with names like "Witt's End," "Dis and Dat," and "Blood, Sweat and Beer," and a snake farm.

Eventually the low-lying marshes give way to cut-over pine lands. Soon the highway skirts the community of Waveland and heads to Bay St. Louis. In the years before completion of Interstate 10 to the north, and the stretch of road was proclaimed "The Praline Capital of the World." Dozens of small, family-owned praline factories and shops selling pralines, shells and other souvenirs dotted the roadway. A few still remain, with sweets worth sampling.

The Bay St. Louis-Waveland area also was the first stop on the Louisville & Nashville Railroad heading east of New Orleans. After Louisiana outlawed dueling in 1870, gamblers, aristocrats and other offended souls came here to settle some of their personal quarrels.

Water sports abound. Another pastime, seen only rarely now, is moss gathering. George Janvier, who vacationed here as a boy, remembered how "people carrying long, hooked poles used to go out in shallow boats--we called them pirogues--to spear Spanish moss. They'd collect it and dry it to make moss mattresses."

Route of Old Spanish Trail

After bridging the bay, U.S. 90 follows the route of the Old Spanish Trail. Rounding Henderson Point, it becomes a picturesque beach boulevard with sand and sea to the south and, to the north, a delightful assemblage of antebellum mansions, plus a few Creole-style cottages.

Magnificent old oaks and magnolias come down to meet the sea, forming an archway over a scenic drive on a sandy bluff slightly set back from the main highway. This is Pass Christian, coy belle of the coast.

The community, population 4,600, has almost as many explanations for how it got its name as it has residents. Most people agree that the name has to do with a navigable passage in its otherwise shallow coastal waters. However the name came about, the town, founded in 1699, became a resort in the 1840s. Monied Louisiana planters raced their boats from New Orleans to Pass Christian and stayed for the weekends to sail and fish and golf and party. Stylish vacation homes and boarding houses were built along the coast. The first yacht club in the South formed here in 1849.

Just after the turn of the century, railroad ties linked the new nearby city of Gulfport with the north, and most businesses moved from Pass Christian to its booming neighbor. Within 20 years, Pass Christian's hotels went out of business and its tourist trade shifted elsewhere.

Today "The Pass," as it's known, continues to function as a resort for wealthy cognoscente who maintain vacation homes or have retired here or manage to rent a guest cottage.

But Pass Christian is remarkable less as a resort than for the glimpses it provides into the structure and style and enduring conventions of Southern society, Deep South version. The community is stratified vertically and horizontally, and a driving tour of its streets makes the patterns plain.

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