A lost year in the history of Isle of Caprice has resurfaced, though the slip of land itself, once know as the “Monte Carlo of the South” remains submerged between Horn and Ship islands south of Biloxi.
History books had always put Isle of Caprice’s opening day 90 years ago in 1926, but new research shows the island resort actually debuted a season earlier — July 5, 1925.
The Daily Herald reported the news of July 4, 1925:
“The Isle of Caprice will be opened tomorrow night. Many entertainments will be provided for at that place, including which will be surf bathing, restaurant, barbecue and music. The boats Louis, Jolly Jack and Silver Moon will operate between Biloxi and the island. Dancing will be held in the pavilion, which has been constructed recently, and music will be supplied by the Buena Vista Orchestra.”
By all accounts, the island was the place to go on summer weekends during the Roaring Twenties. It was 12 or 13 miles out in the Mississippi Sound and offered sandy beaches the Coast didn’t have at that time, as well as cabanas, a pavilion for dancing and a wheel for gambling. Liquor wasn’t sold on the island during Prohibition, but people were known to bring their own.
Walter Henry “Skeet” Hunt was one of three men who built and operated the resort. His granddaughter, Susan Hunt, tells about the island and “the Wonderful Era of Nonsense” when she speaks during Biloxi’s popular History Cruises.
In 1925, Hunt’s grandfather received the deed to Dog Keys from the U.S. District Attorney in Jackson County for $1.25 per acre, a total of $183.75. He changed the name to Isle of Caprice, she said. “That was a lot more playful than Dog Island.”
Fellow Biloxians Col. J.R. Apperson, who built the Buena Vista hotel in Biloxi in 1924, and H, Arbeau Caillavet, pooled their resources with Hunt and hired architect Carl Matthes and contractor Eric Johansen. By late June 1925, two buildings were up and connected by boardwalks, and a power plant with a 20-horsepower engine was ready to generate electricity. A 600-foot-deep well provided fresh water.
An instant hit
The first season was so popular, the Isle of Caprice was able to expand the next year, and kept expanding. A marathon swim from the mainland and bathing beauty contests were popular. Families and conventioneers went there to fish, swim and picnic. Caillavet bought a lighting plant that doubled the electrical capacity and lit the whole island. A 250-foot boat-landing pier was built and Biloxi’s first casino was set up on the island.
“The casino, empty and bare last year, has undergone a remarkable change,” a Daily Herald front-page article reported in 1928. “It now presents a duplication of the great arenas of ancient Rome. These columns are placed about the hall and entrance, giving one the impression that he is entering a sporting place of the ancient city in all its glory. Three huge, artificial tigers, of life size and color, are about the arena.”
Most locals had been to the Isle of Caprice for the boat ride and for surf bathing, the Daily Herald reported, “and some have even come back feeling complacently wicked over trying the roulette and craps games. Some have come home grouchily, disappointed because they could find no strong drink for sale on the island.”
Ride was part of the fun
Excursion boats ran the one-hour trip to the island three times a day, charging $1 for a round trip.
What now is Ship Island Excursions got its start 90 years ago, when Pete Martin “Captain Pete” Skrmetta’s $14,000 Pan American boat made its first trips to the Isle of Caprice in 1926. Skrmetta quickly invested $10,000 to enlarge the boat.
In 1927 alone, the excursion boats shuttled an estimated 40,000 people to the island.
“This must have been like paradise,” said Captain Louis Skrmetta, grandson of Captain Pete, who still operate the family’s Ship Island Excursions. Biloxi was a major resort area in the Roaring Twenties, and the Pan American carried a jazz band, tap dancers and a roulette wheel aboard the boat, he said. Biloxi had a history of gambling long before casinos were legalized and he said, “The Isle of Caprice was just the start of it.”
Hunt can compare her grandfather to the island — small but restless. Skeet Hunt was a Biloxi alderman at age 26, an actor, the owner of a seafood restaurant and other businesses and a captain in Washington D.C.’s Capitol Police, assigned for special duty to the U.S. Senate. He also was a founder of the Biloxi Mardi Gras parade.
“He had his hand in a little bit of everything,” his granddaughter said. He died in 1961, 30 years after his Isle of Caprice slipped under the waves.
The island, 3 miles long and a quarter-mile wide, a swath of sand dunes and windy beaches. As visitors picked the sea oats for souvenirs, nothing was left to stop sand from blowing around.
After the 1930 season, vandals set fires that destroyed the buildings. A year later, the island was under water, with only a pipe from the artesian well above the water until a boat reportedly hit it.
The Isle of Caprice is still there. “You can actually stand on it — in waist-deep water,” Skrmetta said. It’s now called Dog Keys Pass.
Indian legend says the island disappeared once before, resurfacing several years later. Although she’s never been out to the island, “my sister and I continue to pay taxes on it,” Hunt said, “In case it comes up again — the Hunts will own an island.”
The latest tax bill was $8.78.