Highway 90: The Southern Route 66
Since 1928, this coastal corridor has been traveled by millions of tourists and citizens alike.
Before the advent of massive freeways and the interstate network in the United States, most commutes were made via narrow country roads and relatively short four lanes. As the popularity of automobiles grew during the early part of the 20th century, bigger roads were needed to carry the ever-expanding number of motorists. In the years following the Great War, a new motorway was proposed for four coastal states. A route that would run from the West end of Texas to the Atlantic Ocean, with some breathtaking views along the way. This route would be nicknamed the "Old Spanish Trail", but would be officially titled US Route 90. The original plan was for the route to run from Los Angeles, California to Jacksonville, Florida, however that never came to fruition. Gradual construction continued throughout the 1920s, with many ambitious bridges and coastal stretches being paved during the interwar era. In fact, the twenty-five-mile-long step seawall protecting Highway 90 was the longest concrete seawall in the world, at the time of its completion. Officially finished in 1928, the highway went from the small town of Van Horn, Texas in the West, and ended in the East at Jacksonville Beach, just three blocks away from the Atlantic Ocean. For nearly half a century, Highway 90 was the main travel corridor for the Gulf states, providing a much easier journey to places like New Orleans, Mobile, Houston, and Jacksonville than the smaller, slower, and much more dangerous backroads.
The Sun 'n Sand overpass in Biloxi, Mississippi, sometime before Hurricane Camille ravaged much of the Gulf Coast in 1969. Photographer unknown.
A New Road in Town
During the 1950s, the United States road networks would expand in record numbers, thanks to the efforts of Dwight D. Eisenhower's strong focus on infrastructure. Interstate 10 was slated to pass very close to Highway 90 at multiple points, as well as do what the "Spanish Trail" could not, go from coast to coast. Running from Santa Monica, California to Jacksonville, Florida, the new interstate would no doubt steal a good number of motorists away from the coastal highway. Upon I-10's opening in the locations near Highway 90, the drop in traffic was almost immediate. The new, faster, and more modern option was the easy choice for those who needed to travel quickly from city to city or across the South. On August 17th, 1969, as the Gulf Coast began to gain popularity among tourists, Hurricane Camille would hit the reset button. Making landfall in Bay St. Louis, Mississippi just before midnight, the Hurricane would decimate the Gulf Coast, destroying nearly everything in its path. With a 24 ft tall storm surge, and winds exceeding 175 miles per hour, very little stood a chance. Highway 90, which hugs the coastline, was heavily damaged. Nearly every bridge along the route was also demolished during the hellish storm. Whilst now a secondary corridor, tens of thousands of people still relied on the little coastal run that was now in tatters.
The Eastbound lanes of Highway 90 in the weeks following Hurricane Camille. Photo by the Coast and Geodetic Survey.
Reconstruction of the region continued into the 1970s, with I-10 continuing to grow in popularity with the commuting public. New landmarks, businesses, and homes began to repopulate the decimated coastline, many of these would become staples of the Gulf Coast for years to come. Unfortunately, mother nature would not be finished with the scenic highway, not by a long shot. By 2005, the Gulf Coast was at its best. Tourism was at an all-time high, residences, casinos, and businesses dotted the roadside of Highway 90. Everything was looking great! August 29th, 2005 would change all of that. Hurricane Katrina would strike the Gulf Coast in a way not seen before or since. Entire towns were wiped off the map, over $125 billion ($171 billion in 2021) in damage was done, and 1,836 people lost their lives. Once again, the reset button was pressed on the Gulf Coast.
The remnants of the Biloxi Bay Bridge, looking Eastward towards Ocean Springs, Mississippi. Photo from the Gate.
The bridges that were constructed in the wake of Hurricane Camille in 1969 were wiped out, including the Biloxi Bay Bridge in Biloxi, Mississippi. Images of the bridge in the wake of Katrina's wrath became some of the most infamous photographs following the record-breaking hurricane. Just like Camille 36 years before, nearly every attraction along Highway 90 (in the Gulf Coast region) had to be rebuilt. The cleanup in the aftermath of the storm was some of the most extensive on record. Ships had to be returned to the ocean or scrapped outright, bridges had to be mended or completely written off, and some severely damaged casinos had to be removed from the lanes of Highway 90 itself. It took years for the Gulf States to recover from the catastrophic storm, with some areas still showing the scars from Katrina's wrath. Over a decade and a half later, the steadfast roadway and the communities it serves have rebuilt back better than ever.
The Route Today
The new Bay St. Louis bridge in Bay St. Louis, Mississippi, a replacement for one of the many bridges that were destroyed in 2005. Photographer unknown.
Today, the "Old Spanish Trail" is the backbone of the South's tourism industry. All along the coastline, towering resorts and casinos dot the shore, bringing in hundreds of thousands of visitors every year. In Mobile, Alabama, the iconic battleship USS Alabama is docked just off of the route. Of course, many might just travel to the coast to stay at the beach for a week or two, enjoying the beautiful views and bracing breezes. From Van Horn to Jacksonville, this 1,600 mile stretch of beautiful road has held strong through adversity that would have taken down lesser routes two times over. As the region continues to grow, Highway 90 continues to see increased traffic. Along with this, cargo ports such as Mobile and Gulfport, Mississippi have also grown in size and use since Katrina, prompting a planned auxiliary interstate to connect from the latter port to I-10 to help ease overall traffic on the coastal route. This new route, however, has not seen any physical development as of August of 2021. Other projects along the route have also been thrown around, including widening certain areas to six lanes, but many of them have also floundered in the implementation phase.
What lies in store for this iconic route, more adversity or greater prosperity? Only mother nature truly knows. Maybe I'll take a road trip along the best parts of the route at some point, and take DriveTribe along for the ride. Let me know if you want to see that in the comments below! As always, thank you all for reading, bumping, and following, and I will see you down the road!