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The town of Gainesville was one of several towns which formerly stood on what is now the Stennis Space Center, and the only such town in the fee area. It had its origin in 1810, when Dr. Ambrose Gaines acquired a land grant for over 500 acres along the Pearl River in what was then Spanish territory. The first European settlement in this area appears to have occurred in the 1790s, in the form of a small shipping point called Cottonport. Cottonport was the destination for flatboats carrying cotton grown upriver, where it was loaded onto schooners and sent to New Orleans. Beginning in 1802, the settlement seems to have gone by the name English Bluff, having been named by one William Baites. It was not until 1810 when Ambrose Gaines received his patent and laid out a new town, which he called Gaines Bluff, that the town began to grow substantially. The name of the town was later changed to Gainesville.
Just prior to the Battle of New Orleans in 1813, Andrew Jackson marched his troops through Gainesville to avoid detection by British troops. Pierre Rameau, an infamous pirate operating from nearby Honey Island who raided ships in the Gulf of Mexico, joined Jackson’s troops while they were camped in the town.
An important figure in the growth of Gainesville was W. J. Poitevent, a settler who came from North Carolina in 1832 and founded the Pearl River Lumber Company in the town. This mill became one of the largest lumber companies in the South, and Poitevent later moved downstream and opened another mill at Pearlington.
Gainesville experienced rapid growth thanks primarily to the shipping and logging industries, and became one of the most prosperous towns in southern Mississippi. It was incorporated in 1846, and served as the Hancock County Seat until the courthouse burned in 1853.
After this blow, the town continued to be an economic center until the introduction of the railroad outmoded shipping by water. In 1883, the Southern Railroad Line between New Orleans and Meridian bypassed the town by 10 miles. New towns, including Picayune and Nicholson, sprang up along the railroad, and Gainesville suffered rapid decline as its residents moved to search for better jobs. By 1961, when the area was being considered by NASA for the development of an engine test facility, the town had only one store and about 35 families.
Though most no longer stand, many of the structures of Gainesville are known from descriptions or photographs. The three most famous structures of the town’s history were the courthouse, the Poitevent house, and the Carver house. Historian S. G. Thigpen describes them in a 1917 visit:
"All the houses of Gainesville were built of rough lumber with the boards placed up and down, except the big two-story mansion on the river banks built by Captain Bill Poitevent, and one other nice two-story house a little back from the river and known as the Carver House. The Poitevent place was a big, old style two-story Southern Mansion with a porch all the way around." (Picayune Item, April 26, 1962)
We know from other records that the town also included a hotel called the Gainesville Exchange, a track for horse racing, one or more coffee houses, two barrooms, two drug stores, a Masonic Lodge, shops, stables, brick factories, a telegraph office, dry dock facilities, a steamboat landing, stores for distilling turpentine and other resinous products, and, of course, saw mills.
Several Gainesville buildings were used for various purposes in the early days of NASA ownership, including the fishing lodge of Dr. Rouchon (known as the Rouchon House) which served as the original center headquarters and was the site of the first flag-raising ceremony in 1962.