Peter Martin Skrmetta, “Captain Pete”, Croatian immigrant and Biloxi, Mississippi entrepreneur established what is today known as “Pan Isles, Inc.” in 1926. The company is owned and operated by the son of the founder, Peter Mathew Skrmetta and his four sons and consists of Ship Island Excursions and Ship Island concession services. Louis Skrmetta is chief operating officer for the company. Pan Isles operates through a competitive 10-year contract with the U.S. National Park Service.
The Park Service administers the entire string of Mississippi barrier islands as part of Gulf Islands National Seashore. The Pan Isles fleet consists of three large comfortable passenger vessels that provide daily ferry service to West Ship Island and Fort Massachusetts, with the season running from March through October. The company also provides food service and beach rentals on Ship Island as well as private charters to East Ship Island for camping.
In addition to the island ferry services, the fleet remains active with year-round chartered shoreline cruises for corporate parties, class reunions, and other types of special events cruises, day or evening. A two to three-hour charter usually includes a short tour of the Gulfport State Ship Harbor followed by a cruise near the Gulfport-Biloxi shoreline. Catering and entertainment are optional.
The Early Years
The Skrmetta family boat service had its origins near the turn of the century. In the late 1800s, the harvesting and canning of oysters and shrimp had become Biloxi’s chief industry. Biloxi had emerged as a challenger to Baltimore for the title of “Seafood Capital of the World.” Several large canneries were built on Biloxi’s waterfront to process the tons of oysters arriving at the factory docks each day. Demand for workers in the seafood industry was great. At the same time, many immigrants from Eastern Europe were arriving in South Mississippi and Louisiana. Cannery owners hired hundreds of these immigrants to work in their plants and crew their boats.
Many of these workers were fishermen who arrived with their families from the islands of Dalmatian coast in southern Croatia. Like millions before them, all were looking for improved economic conditions and a better life in America. However, there were also secondary causes such as the desire to be united with relatives living here, to escape oppression of the Hapsburgs and compulsory military service in Austrian armed forces, and for some, to satisfy their adventurous spirit.
Hard working with superior boat building, net making, and boat handling skills, these Adriatic Fisherman easily adapted to working in Biloxi’s booming seafood industry. The Dalmatians or “Austrians,” as locals called them, quickly began building and operating the shallow draft, wood sailing schooners that hauled oysters harvested from the Mississippi Sound and Louisiana marshes. The Biloxi Schooner became the workhorse of a fleet that boasted an annual harvest of millions of pounds of oysters.
In 1903, 18-year-old Pete Skrmetta arrived in Biloxi from the Dalmatian Island of Brac to live with his uncle, Nick Skrmetta. Nick was a seaman who came to Biloxi after jumping ship in New Orleans in the 1890’s. Nick had been working in the Laz Lopez oyster cannery for several years. Lopez appreciated Nick’s hard working traits and invited his Croatian relatives to come to work in the factory. Skrmetta relations with names like Sekul, Pitalo and Barhonovich started arriving from Brac to work in the seafood plants.
Pete went right to work crewing with his uncle and other island fishermen from the old country on the factory owned schooners. He became an excellent skipper, eventually piloting some of Biloxi’s most famous sailing schooners, including the I. Hiedenhiem and H. E. Gumble. A tireless worker, Pete quickly gained a reputation as a proven moneymaker for the factory owners and their employees whose salaries were dependent on the amount of the catch arriving each day by schooner.
By the early 1920s, Pete Skrmetta had his own boat built by the Fountain Shipyard in Biloxi. The vessel was a 56-foot, diesel-powered schooner lugger he named the Pan American.
Summer Island Excursions Begin
By 1920, an increase in refrigerated warehouses, coupled with advances in fishing technology, including diesel engine power, allowed larger shrimp harvests to be shipped throughout the country. In summer, the Mississippi Sound offered fisherman an unlimited supply of brown shrimp,which were indigenous in the north. However, a shortage of freezer facilities during this time caused the shrimping industry to virtuously shut down during the hot summer months. Boats sometimes arrived at the docks forced to shovel tons of catch over the side because factory owners had no place to store catch. By early summer, most local freezer plants were loaded to capacity. Many factory-owned boats were moored to the docks for weeks. Industrious boat owners found other work for their vessels. When Pete wasn’t shrimping, he used his vessel for hauling general cargo. For example, he frequently hauled small clam or “key” shells to beachfront properties from Bay St. Louis to Biloxi to be used for building private driveways. Many of his shells became part of the public beach road that evolved into Highway 90.
Pete and his crew often hauled summer watermelons from Grand Bay, Alabama to the French Market in New Orleans. To maximize profit, he would pick up a load of key shells on his return trip from suppliers in Lake Ponchatrain to be sold in Mississippi. It was during this time that Pete began to charter his diesel-powered lugger for summer pleasure cruises into the Mississippi Sound.
For years, local residents and tourists enjoyed excursions into the Sound. People had sailed or rowed out the eleven or so miles to the Mississippi islands since the arrival of the French explorers in 1699. After WWI, the tourism industry grew as a complement to the Gulf Coast’s simultaneous boom in timber and seafood. The prosperity of the twenties, along with the Coast’s reputation for lax enforcement of prohibition laws, brought hundreds of tourists to Biloxi. As a result, construction of beachfront hotels quickly followed. Famed resort hotels like Tivoli, Biloxi, and Whitehouse were built to accommodate the growing number of visitors arriving each summer by rail.
Each property had a long boat dock jutting out into the Sound for boats to pick up site-seeing and island excursion passengers. In 1923, Colonel J.W. Apperson, owner of Biloxi’s Buena Vista Hotel, decided to offer gambling as well as drinking to his patrons. To accomplish this, he had to go beyond the so-called “12-mile limit” which was considered legal for gambling and alcohol. He began working with the owners of a small sand spit between Horn and Ship Islands called “Dog Island”, The island was renamed the “Isle of Caprice”. The new resort quickly became popular.
Pete Skrmetta became one of several boat owners that ferried visitors and equipment to the island’s casino and dance hall during the summer months. The Pan American would make stops at each hotel pier picking up passengers wanting to “surf bathe” in the clear green Gulf waters surrounding the island. The excursions became popular and Pete was soon realizing a profit. In 1926, a round trip ticket to the island was 50 cents per passenger. Food, “Barq’s” rootbeer, and highballs made from imported bootleg whiskey sales were an important profit center of the excursion business. As many as three trips a day were offered, including an evening cruise complete with orchestra, roulette table, and slot machines. The excursion business became so popular that Pete extended the Pan American 20 feet to 76 foot total length, added a second deck, and increased seating to accommodate over 150 passengers.
Unfortunately, the ill-fated Isle of Caprice operation lasted only a few years. The island literally sank into the Gulf due to natural and man-made causes. A series of storms and strong, persistent, westward moving currents constantly washed the fragile island into the Gulf of Mexico. Visitors had picked the protective sea oats and combined with the natural forces, this destroyed the sand dunes, adding to the beach erosion problem. By 1932, the island was completely below sea level.
Captain Skrmetta realized the economic potential in continuing a tourist attraction of this type, and in 1932 purchased property on the eastern section of Ship Island to begin his own resort development. That same year he formed the Pan American Association and began construction of a new island pavilion and dock using some of the lumber from the abandoned buildings on the former “Isle of Caprice.” He completed a 100-foot dock and small beach pavilion in the spring of 1932. Later that summer he began carrying passengers to his new resort. Ship Island would prove to be an attractive resort destination because of pristine gulf waters for swimming.
Fort Massachusetts Becomes a Fishing Resort
On the Western tip of Ship Island sits Fort Massachusetts, a nineteenth century brick fortification commissioned to protect New Orleans from foreign invasion. The British had used the island’s protected, deep-water anchorage in January of 1815 for their unsuccessful attack on New Orleans. Senator Jefferson Davis pushed to include Ship Island in the Federal Government’s coastal fortification program that had started in the 1830s. Senator Davis’s efforts paid off and fort construction began in 1859 and was completed over 9 years later in 1868. The magnificent brick and granite structure was considered obsolete by the 1870s, and abandoned by the federal government in 1900. The one remaining 15-inch Rodman cannon that was not sold by the federal government still stands guard from on top of the fort today.
The Fort sat empty for over 30 years until June of 1933 when the government sold the western section of Ship Island, including Fort Massachusetts, to the American Legion Post 119 of Gulfport. The Legion planned to use the Fort as part of an island fishing resort for veterans of WWI. Legion members added improvements to the Fort, including a diesel powered lighting plant, and hotel style living quarters. Overnight accommodations were established by building screened enclosures in the lower casemate areas which once housed 10-inch cannons. A 300-foot pier was built next to the fort to accommodate arriving excursion boats. Later, a large beach pavilion and restaurant were built next to the fort, turning the spot into what Legion Commander Luther Maples described as a “real playground and fishing resort.”
To capitalize on summer tourists flocking to Biloxi, the Legion began a partnership with Pete Skrmetta offering him an exclusive Biloxi ferry contract to haul passengers to their new resort. The agreement called for him to give up his fledging operation on east Ship Island. He accepted the offer and began an association with the American Legion that lasted until the National Park Service purchased the Island in 1971. As the number of patrons increased, Captain Pete built three increasingly larger excursion boats: Pan American Clipper (1937), Gulf Clipper (1950), and Pan American II (1963).
Captains Pete’s ferry service did well during summer, operating two boats daily at capacity. Captain Pete and his crew brought thousands of visitors from Biloxi to the island resort each summer. They also offered evening cruises with music, dancing, and gambling. Each winter Pete pressed his excursion boats into shrimp harvesting work.
The resort ultimately became a financial burden for the Legion. Maintaining equipment and providing fuel and supplies to the island was costly. Equipment did not last long in the harsh saltwater environment. Storm damage frequently called for continued and expensive repairs to the pier.
Island challenges came in many forms. Even during the depression, good workers were hard to find. The island isolation was not popular with the employees and many quit after working a few weeks. In the days before climate control, living on the island was difficult. Daytime summer heat and humidity were sometimes unbearable. In winter, freezing north winds made the treeless island feel like the Arctic. On most spring and summer nights, mosquitoes forced residents to remain inside. The sale of alcohol sometimes led to problems with rowdy patrons. The staff had no law enforcement assistance and had to fend for themselves when encountering belligerent customers.
During WWII the island resort was shut down. The resort was off limits to the public for four years. This added to the Legion’s financial problems. After a particularly destructive hurricane in 1947, the American Legion decided to get out of the resort business and turned the island operation over to Captain Pete and his family. Pete and his wife, along with their two sons and six daughters, managed and financed the island operation until Captain Pete’s death in 1963. The early years of the Skrmetta family operations on western Ship Island are fascinating to consider.
Skrmetta Family Begins Island Operation
During the 24 years from 1947 to 1971, the Skrmetta family provided all the labor, equipment, infrastructure, and financing to build and maintain several 300-foot docks, beach pavilions, and bathhouses on the island. They were the sole providers of food service, trash collection, security service, fort maintenance, and all infrastructure and utilities needed to operate the island facilities. Many times the family paid for dock and building repairs after storms and hurricanes. In 1959, eldest son Peter personally contracted and paid over $4,000 to keep Fort Massachusetts from collapsing on the north side due to rising water. Hurricane Camille in 1969 was especially destructive, completely destroying everything on Ship Island, including a new 3,000 sq. ft. snack bar, power plant, and 300-ft. boat dock. In 1970, Peter mortgage everything he owned to replace the island facilities. Providing infrastructure and services on a continuing basis has been key to Ship Island’s popularity. Expanding the service with departures from Gulfport in the early sixties was important to the continued success and popularity to the company.
Gulfport to Ship Island Ferry Service
Pleasure boats traditionally operated day excursions out of this Mississippi City since to the Civil War days. A regularly scheduled Gulfport Island service was available through an operator affiliated with the American Legion starting in the 1930’s. Dr. Lee Darron, a Gulfport optometrist, operated a Ship Island excursion service up through the 1950s. The current Gulfport ferry service to Ship Island began in 1963. The Skrmetta family started operating a daily Gulfport excursion service that summer after expanding its fleet with an additional vessel for the Biloxi operation, the 76 foot, 250-passenger, Pan American II in 1963. Pete Skrmetta, Senior died that same year and left two vessels and the business to his sons, Peter and Jimmie.
The brothers decided to split the business into two services, one in Biloxi, and a new service in Gulfport. Peter chose to manage the Gulfport ferry service. Working with the American Legion he moved the 65 foot, 224 passenger, Pan American Clipper to the old Legion Pier located next to “Marine Life” on the west side of the Gulfport Yacht Harbor.
The years of outfitting the boat for shrimping in winter were long gone. Hard work and investment had paid off for the Skrmetta family. By 1973, the two businesses were year round operations with government contracts and over 25 permanent and seasonal employees. For many years the volume of passenger ferry service from Biloxi remained considerably higher than the service from Gulfport. Although Biloxi remained an important tourist destination; each season saw a steady increase in visitor traffic to Gulfport. This fact was mainly due to the growing popularity of the Marine Life Ocearium and the increasing number of motels being constructed in Gulfport. With the completion of Highway I-110 near the Biloxi terminal in the early eighties, the number of passengers carried from the Gulfport Yacht Harbor to Ship Island surpassed the number of passengers carried from Biloxi.
In 1981, Peter built another ferry, the 65-ft., 150-passenger, Island Clipper, to support the increasing Gulfport passenger counts. In 1984, a new schedule was introduced with more frequent departures, resulting in a 23 percent increase in business over the previous year. In 1986, Peter bought the Biloxi ferry operation from his brother Jimmie.
The next decade brought significant growth to the Pan Isles fleet and business. In 1990, the company purchased the largest vessel yet, the 110-ft., 374-passenger, Gulf Islander. This spacious boat greatly expanded the capacity of the ferry service and allowed for year-round, climate-controlled charters.
In 2000, Pan Isles purchased another large aluminum vessel, the 100-foot, 308 passenger, Capt. Pete. Today three Ship Island vessels operate from Gulfport, March through October. The company now offers six round trips per day to and from the island on weekends, and three round trips per day on Monday through Friday. The Ship Island Ferry service has carried over 1.2 million passengers from the Gulfport Harbor since its arrival 50 years ago. In addition to our Gulfport location, the company now offers regular passenger service from east Biloxi. The island ferry service, established by Capt. Pete Skrmetta in 1926, still remains the most popular water borne attraction on our Gulf Coast.