What You Didn’t Know About NoMo
It’s time for a trip up north, but not too far. We speak of North Mobile County and the wonders it holds.
Pump that Saved Chickasaw
Visitors do double takes driving past Chickasaw’s monument to a pump engine. But folks here are proud of the candy-apple red, minivan-sized 40-ton machine, enshrined in a gazebo. For without it, there would be no Chickasaw.
In the 1920s, a two-cylinder diesel engine powered that swamp-sucking pump, allowing Chickasaw to be built on dry land. “It originally drained the city, enabling our port and housing to be established,” Mayor Byron Pittman says. It was something to behold.
“The engine fired up slowly,” says the mayor. “The rotating flywheel would spin with a loud boom, boom, boom!” You could hear it throughout the city.
Until moved to its present location a few years ago, the engine was in the same spot for 70 years. Most believe it still works, but no one wants to find out. Chickasaw is a boom-boom-free zone.
The Colossal Tree of Creola
The largest Southern live oak in the state grows in Creola. Towering at 82 feet, with a 136-foot crown spread, Quercus virginiana was designated a “Champion Tree” by the Alabama Forestry Commission in a July 1, 2013, ceremony.
“I remember being amazed at the diameter of the trunk,” recalls forester Ronnie Grider, who attended the proclamation service. “It is massive, well formed and beautiful.” It is 363 inches in circumference (30 feet 3 inches).
“We had a feeling this tree was the largest in the state,” Creola Mayor Donald Nelson notes about the oak that has an estimated age between 200 and 400 years old. “So in May  I filled out a nomination application with the Alabama Forestry Commission.” The mayor was correct, and the tree measured up. Creola’s award-winning live oak sits at the intersection of Highway 43 and Dead Lake Road. It has no sign and doesn’t need one.
A Twin Peaks Passageway
Think Rodney Dangerfield gets no respect? Try being Gen. W.K. Wilson Jr. — the real namesake of the thoroughfare spanning 6 miles over the Mobile-Tensaw Delta. And nobody cares.
Everyone incorrectly calls the 10th longest bridge in America “the Dolly Parton Bridge,” because it looks like, eh, some of her.
Wilson, a Mobile resident, was a chief engineer with the U.S. Corps of Engineers. He advocated for a high-rise bridge, connecting Mobile and Baldwin counties over I-65. The State of Alabama named it in his honor. Signs on both entrances clearly read, “Gen. W.K. Wilson Jr. Bridge” — not Dolly Parton. So stop it. In fairness, we reached out to Dolly Parton (I know what you’re thinking, and stop that, too). She did not return my calls. Sadly, she never does.
Carved In Stone
The woods near Mount Vernon leave no stone unturned, especially the Ellicott Stone, which has not budged since 1799. It is North Mobile County’s rock of ages, and it is older than Cher.
On Highway 43 North, just past Axis, look for the historic marker. Standing 2 feet high and 8 inches thick, the slab is sometimes mistaken for a tombstone. But 217 years ago, U.S. surveyor Andrew Ellicott placed the rock marker, denoting the dividing line between the United States and Spanish West Florida.
On the American side, the inscription is in English; on the Spanish West Florida side, in Spanish. Though faded, it still reads: “Domino De S.M. Carlos IV, Lat. 31, 1799” (Dominion of His Majesty King Charles IV, Lat. 31, 1799).
Primitive by today’s GPS navigational standards, you say? Perhaps, but in its two centuries the Ellicott Stone has never said, “Lost satellite signal, updating route.”
From Outer Space to Saraland
Saraland’s Kali Oka Road community has a street named Space View Drive — and not for scenery. In the 1960s, UFO sightings were common there.
Newspapers described the phenomenon as soft-glowing green orbs at treetop level. Chickasaw City Councilman Henry Phillips was a 1960s Prichard police officer who saw the light — literally. “I saw the glow but never the source,” Phillips recalls about his close encounter of the Saraland kind. “But sometimes the story was enhanced by teenage boys to frighten teenage girls.”
Kali Oka Road is also known for an 8-foot-tall man who allegedly lurks around at night. Some said he had a hook hand. Others claimed he had no head (perhaps from absentmindedly scratching it with his hook hand). Others swear the giant piloted the glowing orb.
The UFOs vanished as mysteriously as they appeared. No conclusive explanation was ever given, just theories of swamp gas. Right, like swamp gas is driven by an 8-foot headless man with a hook for a hand.
Axis: The Original Downtown Mobile
Two markers, laid 100 years apart, rest on the banks of the Mobile River at 27-Mile Bluff, commemorating the 1702 founding of Mobile. It is the lost world of Fort Louis, on private land, with no publicly accessible roads.
University of South Alabama professor Greg Waselkov and students frequently dig the area that was the first settlement of Mobile. “It is actually an incredible site,” the archeologist professor says. “Some call it South Alabama’s Jamestown.”
USA’s explorers have uncovered and pieced together pottery and other items left behind. As for the two stone markers, each was unveiled by different dignitaries over time. One marker was placed in January 1902, the other in January 2002. The next will occur 86 years from now in January 2102. Lunch will be provided.
UM’s Lyon Chapel — Some Assembly Required
Most visitors to the University of Mobile see Lyon Chapel as a nostalgic picturesque little church in the woodsy area of a fine college’s campus. It is all that … and more. This church is going places. Actually it already has — about 70 miles. Built in 1833, the building was acquired from St. Stephens First Baptist Church, in the town of the same name. It was an uplifting experience, after which it was then loaded on a flatbed truck, bound for the school.
The chapel underwent restoration work, including a new cedar shingle roof, replicated pews and a donated pump organ. The move, work and rededication took place in 1988. Today, the chapel is used for services and contributes to the University of Mobile being named one of the “50 Most Beautiful Christian Colleges in the U.S.”
When Life Gives You Lemons, Ask for Satsumas
According to the 2010 U.S. Census, Satsuma, Alabama, has an Asian population of 1.1. I’ve seen the one, but the .1 guy is a mystery to us all. However, the town does have a more prominent Asian connection: its name.
In 1915, Fig Tree Island was renamed Satsuma, after the Japanese citrus fruit was introduced. Satsuma saplings were also called “money trees,” as they intended to bring great wealth and prosperity in citrus gold. And then came winter.
In the 1920s, Satsuma’s pine forests had been cleared, leaving fruit trees with no protection from icy January blasts. Citrus gold met winter’s cold. Cold won.
The little orange that could was no more. Incidentally, the same 1920s winters that destroyed Satsuma’s namesake fruit also clobbered Orange Beach’s oranges.
But Satsuma’s name lives on, and so does its people, in a city of “a-peel.”