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Ask McGehee

I noticed a new marker in front of Admiral Semmes’ statue Downtown reads “Duncan Place.” Who was Duncan, and why is the sign there?

This photograph of Duncan Place, circa 1900, shows the beautification efforts of a wealthy New Yorker, William Butler Duncan. The picturesque median would be destroyed during the construction of the Bankhead Tunnel.

This photograph of Duncan Place, circa 1900, shows the beautification efforts of a wealthy New Yorker, William Butler Duncan. The picturesque median would be destroyed during the construction of the Bankhead Tunnel.

Photo courtesy Library of Congress

While many Mobilians may believe that the Government Street median east of Royal Street was created to hold the 1900 statue of Admiral Raphael Semmes, this was not the case. William Butler Duncan, president of the Mobile and Ohio Railroad, had installed the median several years earlier. The original site for the statue was to have been one block west, in front of the county courthouse.

A native of Scotland, Duncan was an 1860 graduate of Brown University in Providence, Rhode Island. In 1865, he founded a New York banking firm where J. P. Morgan would eventually apprentice. His home at Number 1 Fifth Avenue was one of that city’s most prominent, and it was there that the affable Duncan hosted the future King Edward VII of England among other celebrities of the day.

Gateway to Mobile

Duncan was a frequent visitor to the Port City and eventually purchased the Battle House Hotel. The original train station for the Mobile and Ohio stood at the foot of Government Street. The blocks between the station and Royal Street held a series of bars catering to the waterfront workforce and seemed to provide a poor first impression to visitors arriving by train or boat.

To beautify the area, Duncan put up the funds to install a landscaped median. It was sodded and decorated with a pair of cannons, as well as horse watering troughs. In 1903, the city planted 50 Lombardy poplars, which were ill-suited for Mobile’s climate. They did not survive.

A decade later, Duncan died in New York, and over time his legacy faded. The Mobile and Ohio Railroad built a new, grand terminal a few blocks to the north of its old one, and the area around Duncan Place deteriorated even further over time.

Drunken Women

In 1936, the city’s mayor demanded that “lower Government Street east of Royal” be cleaned up. Mayor R.V. Taylor exclaimed that conditions there “have been described to me as a hell-hole — nothing like it this side of Suez!” He was particularly upset at the “drinking by women at bars in that section” and declared: “I will not tolerate a place where women can get drunk.”

The median was destroyed with the construction of the Bankhead Tunnel soon after that. Following the end of World War II, the space served as a parking lot for a new police station, which had been built east of Royal Street. When the median was finally restored, its original creator had long been forgotten.

Two signs have recently appeared noting its original name, but sadly they offer no information on the median’s history or the once famous New Yorker who tried to beautify Mobile. 

Comments to this blog are moderated. We review them in an effort to remove foul language, commercial messages, and irrelevancies.

Jul 30, 2017 04:19 pm
 Posted by  MrR

Mr. McGehee, I enjoy reading your articles in Mobile Bay mag. & also Gulfcoast today TV show. Druing the late 40's I remember visiting an US Aircraft carrier at Mardi Gras. I was probably 8 or 9 at the time and It seemed huge, but was probably an escort or jeep carrier. Could You shed any light on this. Have learned much about history of Mobile .
Thank You
Richard Donaldson

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