In the early 1930’s, the Federal Government bought land, and land was donated by the local landowners (700 acres by George C. Meyers alone) to create what would become Gulf State Park.
From 1933 until 1939, the Civilian Conservation Corps. (CCC) occupied what is now Gulf State Park. The CCC program was designed to build national and state parks all over the US and gave many young men jobs to help them and their families to make it through the depression. They made a $1.00 a day, 5 days a week. At the end of the month they were paid $25. Most of it went home to their families. A CCC camp was constructed and consisted of a barracks, a sawmill, resident houses for management to live in, and a maid’s quarters. Until the permanent structures were complete, the CCC “Boys” lived in large tents.
During the time the CCC occupied the park, they built a beautiful casino (a concession stand and dance hall on the beach), a bunk house (near where the pier is now) for the life guards to live in during the summer time, cabins on Lake Shelby, residences, and a maid’s house. The maid’s house served as an overnight area where cabin visitor’s maids could sleep. These maids cared for the children of cabin guests during the day, but were not allowed to spend the night in the cabins. Each of Alabama’s State Parks had a maid’s quarters.
The CCC built the old cabins along the north shore of Lake Shelby. They numbered them 1-16, but skipped the #13 and built a duplex (where our cabin #1 is now). Cabin #1 as on the north side of the cabin road and was the last one that would rent every time. People would say, “I want anything but #1.” There nothing was in front of it, with plenty of space and access to the water, but people didn’t want that one. Whoever was in charge of the placement of the cabins had to have been a gambler. Cabin #3 and #7 and #11, lucky dice numbers, were built sideways. They faced to the east. It was just a quirk and the guy in charge just did it. However, there are ramifications from that to this day because those three cabins are slightly smaller than the others. So, when Frederick hit, FEMA gave Gulf State Park money to build them back, they had to be built with the same square footage as the old ones. Therefore, three of the existing cabins are smaller than the rest.
During the early years of Gulf State Park, the entire park system of Alabama was just being formed. Until 1939, the State Parks in Alabama were under supervision of the Forestry Commission. In 1939, a bill was passed by the legislature creating the Department of Conservation and separate divisions of parks, game & fish, and lands. The chief of the parks division of the Department of Conservation, W. G. Lunsford, then announced that after funds were made available by Governor Frank Dixon, five state parks would be opened. Gulf State Park was officially dedicated with informal talks on Saturday, May 20, 1939. Visitors came to participate and spent the rest of the day in the park and on the beach. Gulf State Park was open for two-week intervals during the summer and was first managed by Mr. Henly.
In 1942, Jim Segerst, the Chief of the State Parks System, asked Mr. Monroe McCloud (Mac) to manage Gulf State Park for the summer. Mr. McCloud was a high school teacher in Wedowee, Alabama and accepted the job with every intention of returning to Wedowee to teach the following fall. He came down to Gulf State Park and told his wife, Thelma, to remain in Wedowee and he would return in a few weeks to bring her to the Gulf for the remainder of the summer. She got tired of being alone and taking care of their child by herself, so she got her brother to load all of their stuff in the truck and just showed up one evening. Mr. McCloud said he looked up one evening and there she was! At the end of the summer he told a “story” that after Thelma came down, he didn’t have enough money to buy the gas to go home so they decided to stay. In reality, they loved it here and the state agreed to pay him $50 a month to manage Gulf State Park year round. They lived in the Superintendent’s house and ran the park from the office in the front room. Eventually, he was allowed to build an office outside of the house, just across the street. The new office included a small “paint house,” and a radio room. In the 50’s he added a Florida Porch to the superintendent’s house and added an additional bedroom on the back.
To enter into the park, guests would pay at the small brick building and go through the gates. Each evening, the gates could be closed and locked. At that time, Co. Rd. 2 went through the woods and out to Cotton Bayou. Hwy. 135 ended at the Casino (into the parking lot). Along side of the Casino, there was a little store, the manager’s house, and a barracks. Just to the east of the casino parking lot, guests could drive along a little road that was called the Beach Drive Out. The little drive out was a rough road with a restroom and showers. It was referred to as a horseshoe. A little further to the east was a second horseshoe and parking area (about where the pavilion is now.) That was the end of the road. You could not go any further to the east. There was also no road going west from Hwy. 135 into Gulf Shores along the beach.
By 1944, all of Alabama’s major state parks, Cheaha, Chewacla, DeSoto, Gulf, Monte Sano, and Oak Mountain, had become very popular. The demands for the use of the facilities were so high that Conservation Director, Ben C. Morgan, announced plans for expanding Alabama’s State Parks. At the time, the Conservation Department recognized that Gulf State Park was in a position where its revenue alone would provide for a major share of the park system’s operating cost. With 17 cabins, two cottages and two duplex apartments, Gulf State Park was capable of accommodating a total of 96 guests. Because the park was so popular, reservations for the park facilities were very difficult to obtain. According to the Alabama Conservation Magazine (August 1944,) through the proposed postwar expansion program, Gulf State Park would have receive 60 additional cabins and a 30-room hotel with increased space for dancing and dining at a cost of $250,000. Unfortunately, the postwar project was dependent upon the availability of state and federal funds that did not come about until the late 1960s.
With the end of World War II, families were making the most of the time they had to spend together. However, the average person did not have a car. So, many people were unable to travel to south Baldwin County to visit Gulf State Park. In 1946, W. W. DeGroat, a member of the C. and D. Transportation Company informed Mr. Segrest that the Mobile Transportation Company was going to extend a bus service from Mobile to Gulf Shores. The bus service made stops in Spanish Fort, Malbis, Loxley, Robertsdale, Summerdale, and Foley on its way to Gulf Shores. This allowed people who lived in more distant counties an opportunity to visit Gulf State Park, fulfilling its purpose as a recreational area. With the increase in visitors, the shortage of overnight facilities continued to be a problem.
Eventually, Mr. McCloud started allowing people to camp in the picnic area. A man named Earl Stone, from Tuscaloosa, designed a wooden “form” that the parks division used to pour concrete picnic tables in one piece. The Parks Division had five table forms and poured tables throughout the picnic area. Each spot that had a concrete table was considered a campsite. Several years later, maintenance added wooded posts all around the picnic area to prevent people from driving through the campsites. Mr. Stone became the first state wide crew supervisor for state parks. His picnic table forms were passed around and a man named Zulie Franklin, from the parks division, poured tables all over the state of Alabama in many of the state parks, cities and county parks. All the cities had to do was pay the Parks Division $50 per table and Mr. Franklin would go out to the city pour a concrete table for them. Many of these concrete picnic tables are still used in the picnic area today.
Senator Carr rallied support for Governor Lurleen B. Wallace to get legislative approval for this 1967 bond issue. Gov. Wallace envisioned a state parks system similar to that of Kentucky. Her emphasis was placed on the desire to promote economic development, promote tourism, and create jobs in economically depressed areas by the “Resort” state park concept.
Even though she died before she saw her dream come true, the parks system in Alabama did grow and develop in the way she had planned. Under this bond issue and another $8 million bond issue, eight parks, including Gulf State Park, were developed with new resort facilities.
During the years of construction, Gulf State Park grew into a beautiful Resort Park. The 825-foot saltwater fishing pier was completed in November of 1968. In 1972, the present 468-site campground, 18-hole golf course, and a grand beach pavilion were completed. Finally, in 1974, Gulf State Park completed the Resort Hotel along the south side of Hwy. 182 on the beach.
In 1976, our present park superintendent, Mr. Hugh Branyon, took over the leadership of Gulf State Park. His skills as a manager and dedication to the park and its employees have brought it to its present level of popularity and prosperity.
Over the years, Gulf State Park has undergone several major natural disasters. On September 12, 1979, Hurricane Fredrick hit the Gulf Coast with winds of 135mph. The park was covered by more than 3-5 feet of salt water. The bottom floors of the resort hotel were blown out, leaving the basic structure intact. The pier parking lot and large sections of the pier were destroyed. Most of the original cabins (built by the CCC) were washed away, and approximately 900 trees were lost at the golf course.
In June 1984, Gulf State Park Campground was threatened with evacuation and destruction due to a fire, started by a youth playing with a flare gun. The fire spread very quickly due to brisk onshore breezes and drought conditions. The blaze was extremely hot and had quickly moved around the north side of the campground. 1,500 acres had been consumed in Gulf State Park and Orange Beach. After 3 days, an Alabama National Guard Sky Crane arrived with a bucket that held 2,000 gallons of water. It was lowered into Lake Shelby 89 times during “Operation Rainfall” to help extinguish the hot spots of the fire.
Other major disasters include Hurricane Elena of 1985, Hurricane Opal of 1995, and Hurricane Georges of 1998. Although these storms were not direct hits, the damage was substantial. Park Employee homes, the Governor’s mansion, Pier, and other structures were badly damaged by water and wind. Hurricane Ivan made landfall in Gulf Shores on September 16, 2004 and devastated Gulf State Park. This category III storm (categorized as one of the top five worst storms to make landfall on the Gulf Coast) broke the pier into three sections, washed out the bottom floors of the hotel, totaled one of the cabins, and flooded the majority of the park with salt water. As a result of the salt water and clogged drainage canals, approximately 85% of the trees in the low-lying areas (cabins, campground, picnic area, and marsh) perished.
However, after each natural disaster, park employees and locals rallied together to help rebuild Gulf State Park and get it operating again. In 2005 the campground was completely renovated and 28 additional pull-thru campsites were added. Eleven new, three bedroom cottages were built along Lake Shelby, and a new Saltwater Pavilion was completed on the beach in 2006. The old convention center/hotel was demolished in 2007 and the ruble was used to build an artificial reef in the Gulf of Mexico. In addition, Gulf State Park enhanced three beach accesses along the Gulf Coast. At Romar Beach Access, a new parking lot and boardwalk were installed. Cotton Bayou Beach Access also received a new parking lot, boardwalk and bathroom. Finally, the Beach Access at Perdido Key was enhanced with picnic pavilions, parking, bathrooms, and three new boardwalks.
In 2007, Gulf State Park and the City of Orange Beach opened a new bike path through the old Maritime Forest and along Catman Road. This trail was named the Hugh S. Branyon Backcountry Trail in honor of our park superintendent, Mr. Hugh Branyon, recognizing over 30 years of service and dedication to Gulf State Park.
After 32 years of service with the state of Alabama, Mr. Hugh Branyon retired in 2009.
Gulf State Park's Pier opened July 23, 2009. The new pier is the largest pier on the Gulf of Mexico at 1,540 ft. The pier boast features such as indoor seating for concession area, indoor retail area for tackle and souvenirs, comfort stations at the midpoint of the pier and wheelchair accessible rail fishing. The new pier has 2448 feet of fishing space available along the rails. It is also designed to be sea turtle friendly with lights that are amber in color so that they do not distract nesting turtles or new born hatchlings.
In October of 2010, the campground opened a new swimming pool, renovated the laundry facility, campstore, and nature center. By the end of 2011, the educational classroom and outdoor amphitheater was completed.
in 2014, eleven primitive campsites were added to the campground offering guests an opportunity to get back to the basics. Following this theme, in 2015 Gulf State Park partnered with the city of Orange Beach to develop a unique camping atmosphere along one of our trail. This adventurous location requires our guests to hike in carrying their supplies with them, the Outpost. The Outpost has 4 permanently build tents on a platform. These tents are equipped with limited solar electricity and cots. For more information click here.
Gulf State Park is now made up of approximately 6,500 acres. It consists of three beautiful fresh water lakes, an 18-hole golf course, 496 campsites (with power, water, and sewer), 27 lakeside cabins, 4 woods cabins, a new saltwater pier, and 2 ½ miles of beautiful sugar-white beaches. With the help of the Gulf State Park Project we are seeing many changes and enhancements throughout the park. Over 25 miles of trails and boardwalks have been added or enhanced allowing our guests to explore many of the park's different ecosystems. In the near future, our new lodge, restaurant, learning campus and interpretive center will be up and running.
By incorporating our historical and cultural heritage, along with promoting conservation, Gulf State Park is becoming a world class destination!
Information provided by Gulf State Park Staff.