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Today is August 14, 2018

Hey mister, throw me a little Mardi Gras history at the Bay St. Louis Depot

By Nancy Jo Maples

Hey mister, throw me a little Mardi Gras history at the Bay St. Louis Depot

Among the attractions at Bay St. Louis' historic L&N train depot is the Mardi Gras Museum, a rotating exhibit of elaborate costumes from local parades and balls. Admission is free. Photo courtesy of Hancock County Tourism Department

Considering its residents once rode the rails to participate in New Orleans’ Carnival season, it is only fitting that Bay St. Louis’ historical train depot houses the Mardi Gras Museum.

Today, the former Louisville and Nashville Railroad Company (L&N Railroad) station serves as home to the Hancock County Tourism Development Bureau and Visitors Center with museum exhibitions on local history, art and Mardi Gras customs.

Tourism manager Myrna Green said the rail line was once a vibrant passageway for those travelling between New Orleans and Bay St. Louis. The first railroad depot opened in 1876. Located about an hour from New Orleans, Bay St. Louis residents visited the city for amenities and festivities such as Mardi Gras parades while New Orleans residents ventured to Bay St. Louis to vacation on the beaches of the quaint seaside town.

“We are hopeful that Amtrak will be back within the next year or two,” Green said. “If that happens, the depot will be a stopping point, which will bring us even more visitors.”

Inspections by Amtrak and the Southern Rail Commission took place earlier this year, and the Bay St. Louis depot was approved as a stop on the line. Rail service once carried passengers from Los Angeles, Cal., to Jacksonville, Fla.; however, the line running east from New Orleans has been closed since 1993, except for a stretch from New Orleans to Mobile, Ala., that operated until 2005 when Hurricane Katrina damaged the line.

The Mardi Gras Museum, opened in 2013, gives visitors a glimpse into the glamour and background of the local custom. Hancock County began its own parade and masquerade ball in 1896. The Mardi Gras Museum explains the history of Mardi Gras and the local traditions associated with the season. It also showcases costumes worn by kings and queens of local Carnival balls. About a dozen costumes are on display and are rotated yearly.

Most of the costumes are from the all-female mystic society, Krewe of Nereids, which hosts a Mardi Gras parade each year starting in Bay St. Louis and ending in nearby Waveland. Gowns, tunics and headpieces are adorned with rhinestones, feathers and intricate appliques; each costume can take 400 to 600 hours to create.

The Mardi Gras Museum is on the first floor of the depot along with the visitors center and an exhibit depicting Hancock County’s general history. The second floor houses the Alice Moseley Folk Art and Antique Museum. Moseley was an artist who began painting at age 60 and became nationally recognized. She moved to Bay St. Louis in her late seventies and continued to paint until her death in 2004 at age 94.

The depot also served as a backdrop for the Tennessee Williams play, “This Property is Condemned,” which was adapted as a film starring Robert Redford and Natalie Wood. The visitors center offers guests a 30-minute self-guided tour on the surrounding grounds that showcases scenes and artifacts from the 1966 movie.

Bay St. Louis’ first depot was destroyed by fire in the 1920s. L&N Railroad rebuilt the current facility in 1928. Fashioned after Spanish Mission architecture, the structure remains the largest of its style in the United States. It is listed on the
National Register of Historic Places and as a Mississippi Landmark Property.

After the depot closed, the building later served as the site of city offices. Immediately following Katrina, the building and surrounding park-like grounds became a staging area for city government, health care services and volunteers providing relief to storm victims.

While the depot withstood the injurious storm, some restoration was necessary. The area tourism department, which had previously been housed in a local bank, relocated to the depot in 2007. Municipal government offices moved to a newly built City Hall.

The visitors center and Mardi Gras Museum are open 9 a.m. until 4 p.m. Monday through Saturday. There is no charge for admission. For more information, visit mswestcoast.org or call 228-463-9222. For information about the art museum visit AliceMoseley.com.

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