Finding the Fire Dog Saloon along Bay St. Louis’ old town waterfront isn’t hard. It is the only building still standing. At least its shell has survived – its innards flooded or sprayed across town like all the neighboring buildings were on that horrible August night.
If it were not for the train trestle that stretches across the water to Henderson Point, what was once the old town would barely be recognizable. The landmarks: Trapani’s, Dock of the Bay – they’re all gone. The once picturesque street, North Beach Boulevard, is now a dusty, bumpy road.
On the eve of July 4, 2005, I watched a fireworks show from the far end of a pedestrian pier extended over the gentle waves. The flashes were ignited from Casino Magic docked over on the bay side of town. Bay St. Louis was in its glory that night. Next to Our Lady of the Gulf Church the annual Crab Festival had drawn a crowd to the old town. Now the pier is gone, the church yard’s green space is mostly brown and Casino Magic has been replaced by the Hollywood Casino. The Magic is gone from the casino in more ways than not. I thought about fall Monday nights when Buddy Diliberto broadcast live over WWL radio from the gaming boat, most often wailing against the Saints who had usually played poorly the day before. That was only three autumns ago, though seemingly a life time away.
My mind tried to paste in the missing waterfront buildings but with nothing there to provide context the task was more difficult than imagined. All I could see was emptiness where a picturesque bed and breakfast once stood or where there was a gift shop that was always closed on Saturdays, despite that being a prime day in the tourist business. A sign on the door had explained that the owners were Seventh Bay Adventists – and that Saturday was a holy day. In 2005, the last Monday in August would be a day of horror.
A bridge linked both sides of the bay, but it’s closed now awaiting major repair. The drive across it was once a few minutes; now the trip requires looping around via I-10. Taking the detour is hardly worth it. The site of the condo resort at Henderson Point where we sometimes stayed is hard to find. Where buildings stood there are now fields of weeds. No place depicts the charm and danger of coastal living better than Henderson Point. Natives recall that the condos were built on the location of a grand beach home that once stood on the point – until it was destroyed in 1969 by Hurricane Camille. Henderson Point might now be remembered as the Mississippi Gulf’s bull’s-eye.
Back on the Bay St. Louis side there are signs of life beginning a few blocks away from the beach out of the storm surge’s clutch, but it’s life lived with a barely beating heart. Bay St. Louis will regain its vitality. There will be happy nights along the beach again. What is different in this sea town though, is that when the locals reminisce, instead of recalling the one that got away they will always remember the one they couldn’t avoid.