December 7, 2023 in Alabama

The Wild and Colorful History Behind Alabama’s Orange Beach

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Early History

The area now known as Orange Beach, Alabama has a long history going back centuries before European settlement. Evidence indicates the coastline was inhabited by Native American tribes including the Cherokee and Creek. These tribes lived off the bountiful natural resources of the Gulf Coast including fish, shellfish, and game animals.

The first known European explorer to reach the area was Spanish conquistador Hernando de Soto in the 16th century. Later French explorers arrived in the late 17th century, gradually establishing trade relations and temporary settlements with Native tribes.

For most of its early history, the Orange Beach area remained sparsely populated with small Native American encampments and occasional visits from European ships and traders. This began to change in the early 19th century as more permanent European settlement took hold. The abundance of fish and shelfish drew fishermen who built seasonal fishing camps along the coastline and in the bay areas. These primitive fishing villages formed the genesis of what would later become the city of Orange Beach.

19th Century

Orange Beach was originally part of Baldwin County when it was founded in 1809. During the Civil War, Union forces occupied Fort Morgan and laid siege to the city in an effort to blockade Mobile Bay. This hindered the growth of fishing and timber industries that had begun developing in Orange Beach in the early 1800s.

After the war, Orange Beach slowly began to rebuild and grow again. The fishing and timber industries expanded as the city’s location on the Gulf of Mexico made it an ideal port town. Orange Beach incorporated as a town in 1907 as it continued to develop into a hub for coastal industries. The arrival of the railroad in 1923 further connected Orange Beach to other parts of Alabama and allowed it to export seafood and lumber.

Overall, the 19th century saw Orange Beach transition from an area ravaged by war to an incorporated, growing port town fueled by fishing and timber. It laid the groundwork for further expansion of the city’s economy and population in the coming decades.

20th Century

The 20th century brought both devastation and growth to Orange Beach. In 1906, a major hurricane made landfall, causing widespread destruction. While the hurricane was devastating, it did not deter the town’s growth.

In the post-WWII era, Orange Beach began to develop as a tourist destination. The warm climate, sandy beaches and sport fishing opportunities attracted visitors from across the region. Tourism rapidly expanded in the 1950s and 1960s. Numerous hotels, restaurants and attractions catering to tourists emerged during this time.

Sport fishing, in particular, grew in popularity in Orange Beach throughout the 20th century. The offshore waters near Orange Beach offered excellent fishing for species like tuna, marlin and snapper. Charter fishing boats began operating trips for anglers, establishing Orange Beach as a premier sport fishing hotspot.

While bringing economic benefits, the growth of Orange Beach also brought new challenges like managing development and preserving natural resources. Overall, the 20th century represented a pivotal time of change for the once-small town.

Recent History

Orange Beach has seen significant changes and development in recent decades. One major event was the impact of Hurricanes Ivan and Dennis in 2004 and 2005, which caused extensive damage. The city worked hard to rebuild and recover after the storms.

Since the hurricanes, Orange Beach has continued to grow as a popular tourist destination. Its beautiful beaches, nearby Gulf Shores, and proximity to the Gulf of Mexico make it an attractive place to visit. New condominiums, hotels, restaurants and shops have opened to serve the growing number of tourists. Sport fishing, dolphin cruises, parasailing, and charter boats for deep sea fishing are some of the popular activities drawing visitors.

Several master-planned communities and luxury beach homes have been built in recent years, especially along the beachfront. Examples include Cotton Bayou, Romar Beach, Caribe Resort, and Orange Beach Villas. As more people buy vacation homes and condos and make Orange Beach their permanent residence, the year-round population continues to increase.

The growth of tourism and beach communities has brought economic development. However, it has also raised concerns about conserving natural resources and maintaining a balance between development and preservation of local ecosystems. Overall, Orange Beach continues to thrive as a beach vacation destination while working to manage the impact of its popularity.

Government

Orange Beach has a mayor-council form of government with a mayor and five city council members who are elected at-large every four years. The mayor serves as the chief executive officer of the city while the city council is the legislative body.

The current mayor of Orange Beach is Tony Kennon, who was first elected in 2008. Previously, Kennon served on the city council from 2004 to 2008.

The five city council members are Jeff Boyd, Jerry Johnson, Joni Blalock, Jeff Silvers, and Annette Mitchell. The council is responsible for enacting local ordinances, approving the city budget, and providing policy direction for the growth and development of Orange Beach.

Some of the city’s departments and offices include Administration, Building, Finance, Fire and Rescue, Parks and Recreation, Planning and Development, Police, Public Works, and the Municipal Court.

Orange Beach contracts with Baldwin County for services including emergency medical services, animal control, public health services, street maintenance, and sanitation.

Economy

Orange Beach’s economy relies heavily on tourism. Located along the Gulf of Mexico, the city’s beautiful beaches, resorts, restaurants and entertainment venues attract visitors year-round. Over 3 million people visit annually, generating substantial revenue. The hospitality industry employs a large portion of the workforce.

Major employers in Orange Beach include The Wharf, Phoenix West II, OWA, Caribe Resort, San Roc Cay, Cotton Bayou Condominiums and The Beach Club. These resorts, retail centers, amusement parks and condominium complexes provide thousands of jobs in hospitality, entertainment, retail and real estate.

The real estate market has boomed in recent years due to high demand for vacation homes and investment properties. Coastal property values have steadily increased, with the median sales price of homes currently around $487,000. Luxury beachfront condominiums can sell for over $1 million. Real estate and property management are major components of the local economy.

Tourism has fueled rapid growth, but also led to challenges like traffic congestion and overcrowding during peak seasons. As the city grapples with managing further development, maintaining a healthy economy and quality of life for residents remains a priority.

Culture

Orange Beach has a vibrant arts and culture scene. The city hosts several major cultural events each year that attract visitors from across the region.

The National Shrimp Festival is one of the most popular annual events, drawing over 250,000 people each October for three days of live music, food, and family activities centered around the shrimping industry. You can sample shrimp dishes prepared in endless varieties by local restaurants at the festival.

For music lovers, the Orange Beach Festival of Art features local musicians, craft vendors, and fine artists in March. Concerts are also frequently held at The Wharf amphitheater and Florabama venue, which bring major rock, country, and pop acts to the city.

The arts thrive in Orange Beach through organizations like the Coastal Arts Center of Orange Beach, which offers classes, workshops, camps, and hosts exhibition galleries for local artists. Many restaurants and businesses also display works by local painters, photographers, potters, and other creatives.

Seafood is the star of the show when it comes to Orange Beach cuisine. Fresh Gulf shrimp, oysters, crab, and finfish appear on menus across town. Popular local dishes include shrimp po’ boys, crab cakes, gumbo, fish tacos, and oysters on the half shell. Laid back beach bars and upscale resort restaurants alike highlight the bounty of the Gulf waters.

Beyond seafood, Orange Beach offers a variety of other dining options spanning American, Italian, Mexican, sushi, and more. Longstanding mom and pop restaurants mix with newer chef-driven spots, providing something for all tastes and occasions.

Education

Public Schools

Orange Beach has an excellent public school system that is part of the Baldwin County Public Schools district. There are four public schools located within the city limits:

  • Orange Beach Elementary School (K-5)
  • Orange Beach Middle School (6-8)
  • Orange Beach High School (9-12)
  • Gulf Shores High School (9-12)

The schools have outstanding facilities, strong academic programs, and a wide variety of extracurricular activities for students. The district as a whole is consistently ranked among the top public school districts in Alabama.

Higher Education

There are several options for higher education nearby Orange Beach. The University of South Alabama is located just 20 minutes north in Mobile and offers bachelor’s, master’s and doctoral programs. Faulkner State Community College has a campus in Gulf Shores, about 15 minutes from Orange Beach. Bishop State Community College and Spring Hill College also have campuses in Mobile.

Many local residents take advantage of the close proximity to these higher education institutions. The community is known for having an educated workforce.

Parks and Recreation

Orange Beach is known for its beautiful beaches and abundant outdoor recreation opportunities. The city has over 5 miles of sandy white beaches along the Gulf of Mexico that are perfect for swimming, sunbathing, and beachcombing.

The Orange Beach Public Beach is the most popular and features beach chair and umbrella rentals, restroom facilities, showers, and food vendors. Other notable beaches include Cotton Bayou Beach, Romar Beach, and Alabama Point. These wide beaches have public access points with parking and are ideal for fishing and birdwatching.

Gulf State Park is located just east of Orange Beach in Gulf Shores. This 6,150 acre park has over 6 miles of beaches, camping facilities, fishing spots, hiking trails, and one of the country’s largest zope and aquariums. Visitors can rent everything from bikes to pontoon boats to fully enjoy the park’s amenities.

For outdoor enthusiasts, Orange Beach has many opportunities beyond the beach. Charter fishing excursions depart regularly from the marina to catch snapper, shark, tuna and more. Parasailing adventures offer amazing aerial views of the coastline. The Hugh S. Branyon Backcountry Trail is a spectacular nearly 6 mile trail through wetlands and maritime forest for hiking and biking.

With its stunning white sand beaches, state parks, and abundant water activities, Orange Beach is a recreational paradise for beach lovers and outdoor fans.

Notable People

Orange Beach has been home to many notable figures over the years. Here are some of the most famous and influential people who have lived in or been associated with the city:

  • Jimmy Buffett – The famous singer-songwriter and author spent time living in Orange Beach while writing his bestselling book Tales from Margaritaville. His song “Bama Breeze” is inspired by Orange Beach.
  • Winston Groom – The author of Forrest Gump was an Orange Beach resident for over 20 years up until his death in 2020. Many of his novels were written while living in the city.
  • Scott Phillips – This bestselling crime fiction writer and author of The Ice Harvest has called Orange Beach home since the 1990s. The city has inspired some of his writing.
  • Melinda Doolittle – This singer and American Idol finalist hails from Mobile originally but has long lived in Orange Beach where she owns a thriving vocal academy.
  • AJ McCarron – The former University of Alabama and NFL quarterback has a house in Orange Beach with his wife, Katherine Webb-McCarron.
  • Ozzie Smith – The legendary St. Louis Cardinals shortstop known as “The Wizard” lived in Orange Beach while playing for the team in the 1980s. He helped put the city on the map.

The beautiful coastal setting and warm climate of Orange Beach have attracted many famous artists, writers, athletes and entertainers over the years who have contributed to the culture and identity of this Gulf Coast city. More are sure to call Orange Beach home in the future.




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