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50 things You Didn’t Know About the Port City

Even if you’re as familiar with Mobile as the back of your hand, discover a few new little-known trivia treasures.

Illustration by Kelley Beville Ogburn

1

Hail to the Chief. Mobile’s first five mayors were called presidents.
They were appointed, not elected.

2

More presidents, more hail. Five U.S. Heads of State — Theodore Roosevelt, Woodrow Wilson, Richard Nixon, Jimmy Carter and George W. Bush — have visited Mobile while in office.

3

Mobile’s oldest continuously operating business is the Mobile Press-Register, established in 1813.

4

Roll Tide and watch your seat. Paul “Bear” Bryant’s first game as the University of Alabama head football coach was in September 1958 in Ladd Stadium. The bleachers collapsed.

5

The George C. Wallace Tunnel breathes 40 feet under water. People think there are two office buildings above the tunnel, but they are actually facades concealing a massive ventilation system, which “inhales” fresh air into the tunnel tubes below and “exhales” through ducts at nearby road curbs.

6

Every 100 years, for the past two centuries, a group of citizens has assembled at 27 Mile Bluff to remember Mobile’s founding in January 1702. Markers note the group’s visits in January 1902 and 2002. The next event is slated for January 2102. Mark your calendar.

7

The YouTube Crichton leprechaun video is the fifth most popular Google search pertaining to Mobile.

8

Call letters “K R G” in WKRG-TV are the initials of the station founder, Kenneth R. Giddens. In 1967, Giddens and partners opened Bel Air Mall, an innovative retail center.

9

Bel Air Mall is the oldest continuously operated mall in the state of Alabama.

10

Premiering in 1927, the Mobile Azalea Trail and maids were so popular, girls from across the South wanted to participate. Trail sponsors decided to limit maid competition to young Mobile ladies, only. They were dubbed Azalea Trail Maids. Another contest was started for non-Mobilians in 1958 – America’s Junior Miss scholarship program.

11

No, the 3.4-mile knee-high fence along the Mobile Bay Causeway is not a pen for the Crichton leprechaun (see number seven). It protects red-bellied turtles from motorists. The species is native to only four U.S. coastal counties, one of which is Mobile.

12

The Exploreum’s IMAX Theater projector is more than 6 feet tall and weighs 2,000 pounds. The projection lamp can reach 1,300 degrees Fahrenheit and has a brighter intensity than the sun as viewed from Earth.

13

The Port City’s population in 2008 was 192,278.

14

Mobile welcomes 2.1 million visitors annually.

15

The Cathedral of the Immaculate Conception opened in 1850, after 15 years of construction.

16

The large globe inside the University of South Alabama’s Mitchell Center was built in 1946. Originally, the 12-foot-diameter orb graced the lobby of downtown’s Waterman Building. The globe is made to scale. One inch equals 55 miles.

17

Jimmy Buffett holds a bachelor’s degree in history from the University of Southern Mississippi. He attended school at McGill Institute (now McGill-Toolen Catholic High School). Buffett’s parents wanted the original parrothead to be a Jesuit priest. But in 1965, at Auburn University, a fraternity brother taught young Jimmy how to play guitar. Goodbye, Auburn. Hello, Margaritaville.

18

On a foggy Monday morning in April 1995, one of the worst automobile accidents in U.S. history occurred on the Bayway. A fog bank rolled in and visibility was instantly zero. Five separate pileups in east and west lanes slammed 130 cars together. The chain reaction spanned two miles. One person died, and 87 people were hospitalized.

19

Many people think Mardi Gras originated with Joe Cain’s impromptu street parade in 1866. Check again: Cain revived Mardi Gras. Our first recorded Carnival was in 1703, repeating for the next five years. The celebration was born here when French colonists established Masque de la Mobile, a Mardi Gras society in remembrance of their homeland roots.

20

Another Mardi Gras misconception: the MoonPie was not our first choice of throw. Originally, revelers leaped for tossed boxes of Cracker Jack. But, in 1972, the boxed treat was banned because the packages’ sharp edges injured spectators. Desperately seeking a replacement, maskers searched for something soft, round and safe to throw. They decided on the MoonPie.

21

With more than 5,000 employees, the University of South Alabama is Mobile’s largest employer.

22

The city’s mounted patrol unit horses are so smart they have diplomas. Each must graduate from Mardi Gras school. They are
trained to handle large crowds, sudden loud noises and other unusual sights and smells. All police horsemen are volunteers.

23

In 1963, 900,000 schoolchildren from across the state became honorary members of USS Alabama Memorial Park as part of a publicity drive supporting the move of the “Lucky A” from Washington State to Mobile Bay. Membership included a card, worth one free visit to the ship. The card had no expiration date. To this day, middle-aged cardholders redeem their tickets and are welcomed aboard.

24

Of 52 Alabama governors, only one was from Mobile: Don Siegelman (1999 - 2003).

25

In October 1955, local newspapers ran a tiny advertisement promoting acts at the Greater Gulf State Fair. There were juggling shows, musical groups and some new kid named Elvis Presley.

26

Before planning your next weekend outing, check the directional sign near the Fort Condé parking lot. It points out the direction and miles to Mobile’s sister cities: Worms, Germany, 6,911; Pau, France, 6,525; Malaga, Spain, 5,905; Katowice, Poland, 5,391; Ashdod, Israel, 8,063; Kagoshima City, Japan, 11,310; Zakynthos, Greece, 6,070; and Santo Tomás, Guatemala, 940.

27

The statue of Confederate naval hero Adm. Raphael Semmes is posed with field glasses in one hand, maps in the other. This man of the sea was designed as though he was gazing toward Mobile Bay in search of enemy ships – the only problem is, his back is to the water.

28

In more peaceful waters, until May 2010, the Carnival Cruise ship Fantasy left Mobile Bay with 2,056 passengers, 3,000 pizzas and 2,400 pounds of chicken for every trip.

29

In 1864, the Barton Academy building served as a hospital for wounded Union soldiers.

30

The Northrop Grumman tanker deal was not the first time the federal government clipped our aviation wings. President Lyndon B. Johnson terminated Brookley Air Force Base in 1969. It was the largest U.S. military base closing in history and left nearly 10 percent of Mobile’s
citizens unemployed.

31

Mobile Tennis Center is the nation’s largest public facility, with 50 hard courts in one grand location.

32

Bellingrath Gardens is mentioned in the movie “To Kill a Mockingbird.” Gregory Peck’s character, Atticus, compliments a neighbor’s yard work by saying, “Why, the gardens at Bellingrath have nothing to compare with your flowers.”

33

Speaking of flowers, our trademark azaleas came from France in 1754. Frenchman Frise Langlois brought clippings here from his father’s garden in Toulouse.

34

Everyone knows about the Abraham Lincoln versus Stephen Douglas presidential debate (roughly four score and seven years ago). What you may not know is that in November 1865, Douglas monitored election night returns at the Mobile Register with active supporter, editor and publisher John Forsythe Jr. Douglas lost.

35

And, before Lincoln was elected, there was Old Shell Road. Built in 1824, this ancient thoroughfare was named when early 19th-century Spring Hill residents paved the path with old shells.

36

Only New York City and Chicago have more players than Mobile in the Major League Baseball Hall of Fame. Ours are: Hank Aaron, Billy Williams, Willie McCovey, Satchel Paige and Ozzie Smith.

37

Musical artists, including Bob Dylan, Cher, Dolly Parton, Robert Palmer, Johnny Cash and Hank Williams Jr., have recorded more than 26 hit songs with Mobile in the lyrics.

38

In 1860, America’s first war submarine, the H.L. Hunley, was secretly assembled in downtown’s Seamen’s Bethel Church. The church was saved, restored and moved to the University of South Alabama’s campus.

39

Our three four-year colleges, University of Mobile, University of South Alabama and Spring Hill College, have the following mascots, respectively: ram, jaguar and badger. None are native to Mobile or Alabama.

40

Mobile is 117 years older than the state of Alabama.

41

“Close Encounters of the Third Kind” was filmed here. Many townspeople were extras. The film’s conclusion shows Roy Neary, played by Richard Dreyfus, being escorted to the mothership by pint-sized aliens. The aliens are girls from a local children’s ballet class dressed in rubber spacemen suits.

42

Mobile’s city flag is white, with a red stripe at the top and a blue one at bottom. The city seal is positioned in the middle.

43

Founded in 1830, Spring Hill College is the first Catholic college in the Southeast, and the fifth oldest Catholic college in the U.S.

44

The massive, majestic chandelier hanging from the Saenger Theatre’s ceiling has 10,000 pieces of crystal.

45

This past May marked the 145th anniversary of Mobile’s greatest catastrophe. In 1865, a Beauregard Street warehouse, with 200 tons of Civil War munitions, exploded and killed 300 people. Newspaper accounts reported, “Horses, men, women and children’s bodies co-mingled and mangled in one immense mess as this rain of death fell from the sky.”

46

Is Mobile really America’s rainiest city? Yes, according to San Francisco-based WeatherBill Inc. Contrary to popular belief, number two is not Seattle, but Pensacola.

47

During the yellow fever epidemic of the 1800s, Church Street Cemetery received as many as 274 burials a month. The disease killed entire families. One sad epitaph reads: “Dear husband, friends and children three, prepare for death and follow me.” They did.

48

The oldest known person buried at Church Street Cemetery was 102; the youngest, 7 hours.

49

Mayor J.L. Childress planted Bienville Square’s oak trees in 1847. Some are still there.

50

In 2008, National Geographic named Mobile one of the 50 Best Places to Live and Play.
We tend to agree.

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