With Casinos Calling, Island Won't Cash In
Park Service to Acquire Pristine Miss. Land
By Sue Anne Pressley
Washington Post Staff Writer
CAT ISLAND, Miss.
When U.S. Rep. Gene Taylor (D-Miss.) was a boy here on camping trips,
he would look up at the bright stars and listen to the sounds of the wild
creatures in the
live oaks, and hope that nothing on this virtually untouched island in the Gulf of Mexico would ever change.
"Oh, Lord, as a little kid, you really expected to see a pirate walking around," he said. "It was always a thrill."
For generations, Cat Island -- 2,000 acres, full-time population 1 --
has been appreciated for its white-sand beaches, deer thickets and gator
other-worldly quality. As the largest remaining privately owned island left in the Gulf of Mexico, it also had begun to attract a different sort of attention in the last few
years. Developers, including Gulf Coast gambling casinos, saw the T-shaped island about seven miles off the coast of Gulfport as a moneymaker waiting to happen.
But Cat Island is not destined to become Condo Island. The family that
has owned the retreat since 1911 recently agreed to sell most of it to
the nonprofit Trust for
Public Land for $25 million. By January, the island will become the westernmost point of the Gulf Islands National Seashore, operated by the National Park Service.
As it turned out, Taylor was able to play a role in negotiations to
save his boyhood haunt, as did Mississippi's Republican senators, Trent
Lott and Thad Cochran,
who helped get the first federal appropriations to finance the purchase. All have a sentimental interest in the place.
Cala Boddie Colbert, the great-granddaughter of Nathan Boddie, who bought
Cat Island 90 years ago for $10,000, understands the attachment. Although
father, also named Nathan, had lobbied to exclude the property from the national park when it was created in 1971, and envisioned more extensive development,
Colbert and her two siblings took another approach.
"We have had a lot of different people express interest at different
times. But we really believe the island should be preserved in its natural
state," said Colbert, a New
Orleans lawyer whose earliest childhood memories of Cat Island are of the "scary" free-roaming cattle that were later swept away by Hurricane Camille in 1969.
Colbert thought then, and still thinks now, that the island was magical,
with its pirate legends, the still forests of slash pines and live oaks
hung with Spanish moss, the
sea birds flitting in and out, and the antique bits of pottery washed up on the shore, conjuring fantasies about the long-ago people who might have eaten from the
The island's dirt roads and trails are easily negotiable on caretaker
Walter Gaudin's two-seat Kawasaki Mule. On a recent golden day, he showed
off its many
assets, including the pale sand dotted with horseshoe crabs and driftwood that stretches north-south for three glistening miles.
There is not a single cat on Cat Island -- only a dog, a black Labrador
named Hurricane -- but French explorers who recorded the spot in February
struck by the abundant population of raccoons that ransacked the men's food stores every night. Thinking the creatures a type of cat, they named the island
Chats-aux-huitres -- cats with oysters -- which evolved into today's name.
Over time, Cat Island saw its share of blood and derring-do. In the
1750s, French marines stationed there to protect New Orleans from British
against their corrupt commander and shot him dead on the beach after he returned from a fishing trip. In the early 1800s, the island was the special playground of
pirate Jean Lafitte, who used it as a way station for his ships carrying contraband and slaves to and from New Orleans.
During Prohibition in the 1920s, smugglers hid caches of whiskey in
the island coves. After Colbert's great-grandfather bought it in 1911,
the family looked the other
way as friendly trespassers, including weekday shrimpers and weekend campers, ventured to the island and became enchanted.
But it was during World War II that Cat Island served perhaps its oddest
purpose, reportedly becoming a secret government training ground for an
whether dogs could be taught to sniff out the Japanese enemy. Japanese American soldiers from Hawaii, unapprised of their mission, were shipped in to don padded
suits and dodge the dogs.
In a 1960s interview, Colbert's father said that he viewed the property
as a "business investment," and dreamed of building a clubhouse, marina,
condominiums. Except for a canal and three large weather-beaten houses called fishing camps, though, nothing ever materialized.
With Boddie's death in 1985, and the beginning of riverboat casino development along the coast, the island's future became a more urgent question.
Boddie's son, George, an engineer, said he realized one morning about
seven years ago that the family had a difficult decision to make when he
and some friends
went goose-hunting on the island's Goose Point.
He turned, he said, to see two sailboats full of tourists, gaping in
horror: "I thought, I ruined the morning for those folks. It was a wake-up
call that times were
changing, there are more people on the coast and they were going to be coming out here." Boddie never hunted on Goose Point again.
By 1998, Jerry Eubanks, superintendent of the Gulf Islands National
Seashore, had heard that mainland casinos were interested in Cat Island
and approached the
family about inclusion in the park, which begins in the east at Fort Walton Beach, Fla. Soon, the Trust for Public Land became involved in the negotiations.
A nonprofit agency established in 1972, the Trust often steps in and
buys property, holding it until the federal government or another entity
has the time to approve
the funding. The Cat Island project was particularly satisfying, Senior Vice President Alan Front said.
"I have been to Gulfport, and I have seen the flash of neon [of the
casinos], and had Congress not appropriated this money and had the Park
Service not been so
forward-looking, the only person who would be going out to Cat Island would be the one spending time at a casino," Front said. "The casinos have the money --
they don't have to wait until the next appropriations cycle."
There is a nice irony, however, involved in the long delay in the island's
inclusion in the national park. If it had been part of the original plan
30 years ago, it would
have been developed as "the centerpiece," Eubanks said, with the construction of extensive campgrounds and facilities; now, it is likely to stay "pretty much the way it
is," he said. The Boddie family has retained 150 acres, and the fishing camps will remain.
As Cat Island's lone human inhabitant, it suits Walter Gaudin just fine
if nothing here changes very much. He loves to play a flashlight across
the canal at night and see
only "the red eyes" of the alligators and other creatures.
A former tile layer who speaks in the musical cadences of his native
New Orleans, Gaudin, 50, has lived here for five months, and has quickly
learned to appreciate
the solitude. He acknowledges that he is hardly roughing it, occupying one of the fishing camps outfitted with electric generators, cellular telephones and satellite TV.
Visitors happen by every few days, and he makes it to the mainland once or twice a month in a 19-foot fishing boat.
And yet, the outside world can easily slip away: A bald eagle swirled
overhead on a recent afternoon, and spotted deer crashed through the saw
alligators lined up in an interior pond, only their heads cracking the surface as they waited for some unsuspecting food to trip by. On the beach in the far distance,
Gulfport was visible, but easy to ignore.
"I've had my share of fun in my life," said Gaudin, contemplating an
evening meal of grilled redfish or speckled trout he had caught himself,
with the dog and the
nocturnal island animals as his company. "But if heaven is any better than this, I can't wait to get there."