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Somewhere out in the Sound lurks one capricious island
Reappearance due any day now
By JIMMIE BELL
THE SUN HERALD
Forget Atlantis. It was only a glorified myth of a probably non-existent city resting at the bottom of an ocean. But do remember Dog Island, just off the Jackson County coastline. For centuries, this island has disappeared and returned right here in our own back yard. The last time it disappeared, it took a casino resort with it.
If you lived on the Mississippi Gulf Coast during the first half of the 20th century, then you knew it as the fabled Isle of Caprice. ("Caprice" here meaning flighty but fun.) One of his first research encounters took him deep into the legend of the Isle of Caprice.
The story begins not with humans but with a canine.
"The Isle of Caprice was located some 14 miles offshore between Ship and Horn islands," Ellis said. "It was originally called 'Dog Keys' because following an unnamed hurricane, a dog was supposedly found on one of the keys in that vicinity," supposedly blown in by the zesty winds.
"Mapping the island through the years verifies its phantom 'on again, off again' nature," he said.
In his book, “Lighthouses and Islands of the Gulf Coast,” Ellis is intrigued with the fact that “Dog Island was known to have been mapped August 30, 1847, as an official military reservation and was noted in 1859 as having ‘disappeared.’ ” The island was reportedly up and running again in the 1890s as it shows up again on a 1908 map. But it disappeared again in the early 1930s after having its day of glory as the fabulous Isle of Caprice.
In the mid-1920s, Col. Jack Apperson, builder of Biloxi's Buena Vista Hotel, had a vision of the future that went far beyond Biloxi. And with adequate reason: As long as a major hotel sat on the mainland, it was governed by the Constitution's 18th Amendment, which prohibited the sale of liquor.
Somehow, that was a determining factor in the creation of a successful vacationland. If it was denied, some would go elsewhere to find it and take all their tourist dollars with them.
And so Apperson recounted his view of Dog Island to Walter "Skeet" Hunt and Arbeau Caillavet, both noted Biloxi entrepreneurs, with the idea of building a "Monte Carlo of the South."
“Once they all saw the vision, the island began to pop. They bought the key from the U.S. government, renamed it Caprice, built a pier, sank a fresh water well and began construction on cabanas and a dance and gambling hall,” Ellis said.
The grand opening was May 30, 1926. It was capricious; it was happy; it was fun. Bring your bathing suit and your wallet was the cry of the island.
Four excursion boats a day began the 90-minute run from the mainland to Caprice, bringing fun-lovers from allover the South.
A clipping from The New Orleans Item reported Caprice as "a long, sandy stretch, a few feet above water, with dune grass waving over its hummocks like thin hair on an old man's head." Ellis learned that the island at that time in history was 3.5 miles long and 400 yards wide.
"There were soft, thick carpets on the floor and a general atmosphere of quiet luxury," the 1926 New Orleans newspaper reported. "Divans along the wall were tapestried and deep cushioned, mahogany colored and cane-bottom stools were on hand for the gamblers. A roulette table, two craps tables, a bird cage and a Faro layout comprised the paraphernalia that made the place spin.
"A busy money changer (the one in the cap) with a capacious bankroll, walked about, and each table was operated by a croupier plentifully supplied with chips and funds."
But while you're imagining all this, don't forget to imagine the jazz band, and savor that 75-cent ticket for the long ride across the Mississippi Sound to the land of capriciousness.
Once on the island, they surfed, danced the "Charleston" or played at the slots and tables. It was liquor for the asking in the days of Prohibition; the long arm of the law never reached that far.
Caprice played before a regional audience, gaining national attention. In a first-time national event held there, a 19- year-old Memphis lad won a timed swim event from the mainland to the island; his time clocked at 5 hours, 56 minutes. The next year, 1928, Athenais Eichling of Memphis, who later became a podiatrist in Gulfport, took first place in the women's division.
But at the very height of Caprice's success, destiny frowned.
A hurricane split the island in two. Then, the Great Depression zapped away America's fun money, and Caprice was left with nowhere to go but down.
One of the legends that has persisted - despite scientists saying otherwise - is that before everyone abandoned this little paradise, the customers wanted souvenirs - plumes of sea oats. Some also dyed them and sold them by the bundles through retail florists. That sea oat legend claims that because the island was picked dry of its flora, the sand was set free and the subsequent storms carried off the remaining sand – and with it the island.
For years, the only evidence of Caprice was an artesian water pipe that fishermen stopped long enough to take a slug of what The Daily Herald defined as "sweet water." The pipe disappeared decades ago.
But Ellis said the Walter Hunt heirs have continued paying property taxes on the submerged island in hopeful anticipation that it will re-emerge and retake its place among the commercial wonders of the Coast. After all, it's only four feet from reality.
Not only did the current Isle of Capri Casino on Biloxi claim it took its name from the Isle of Caprice, the Isle has on display a roulette wheel and slot machine thought to have come from Caprice.
Will the Isle of Caprice defy the change in the currents and the whims of storms to rise again from the ocean? The timetable, based on activity in previous centuries, places the disappearances at 50 to 75 years long and the appearances at 14 years to 18 years. So, the next rise from the ocean could occur from 49 years to 75 years from its last demise.
Seventy-four of those have already passed, which puts its next date with destiny at just about day after tomorrow. But believe it, the ticket no longer will be 75 cents.
Jimmie Bell is a freelance community news correspondent.
displayed Sun, June 19, 2005