Natchez Trace, Day 4: Jackson to Natchez

Monday, July 22, 2013 Road Junkies 0 Comments

Our day began with an early morning self-guided tour of the majestic Beaux Arts style Mississippi Capitol, but that's a topic for another post.  By 10:15, we were back on the Natchez Trace Parkway, ready to complete the final 100 miles today, rolling past a few minor sites en route to seek out some ghosts.

Near MM 40, we turned west onto MS-18 and drove into the historic town of Port Gibson (pop. 1,567), chartered in 1803 and home of the first library in the Mississippi Territory, built in 1817.  By the time of the Civil War, the town had established itself as a cultural center of the territory, competing with Natchez and Vicksburg in both commerce and the grandeur of its antebellum homes.  Though the town has since suffered decades of economic decline, local legend holds that General Grant spared Port Gibson because he found it "too beautiful to burn."

Claiborne County Courthouse (1845)
In addition to its fine homes, Port Gibson is home to two most unusual centers of worship.  By the time the town was chartered, a Presbyterian congregation was already meeting there.  After outgrowing a couple of previous buildings, the church determined to build a new sanctuary in 1860 and added a singularly unique feature.

"Church of the Golden Hand"
When the new church was complete, the steeple was topped with "The Hand Pointing to Heaven," a wooden sculpture created by a local craftsman.  Though its symbolic meaning is immediately apparent, a little online research suggests that it is quite an unusual design.  Not surprisingly, First Presbyterian is known colloquially as the "Church of the Golden Hand."  Copied from the original, the current hand was forged from iron in 1901 and most recently regilded in 1998.

Just down the street from the "Hand" stands another surprising structure, Temple Gemiluth Chassed, the town's distinctive 1892 synagogue with stained glass windows and a Moorish doorway incongruously topped by a Russian style dome. 

A synagogue with no congregation
After the last remaining members of the town's once thriving Jewish community moved away in the 1980s, the building was sentenced to the wrecking ball to expand parking space for a convenience store next door.  A local couple bought the historic structure to save it, and it has since been adopted by a Jackson congregation that now maintains it.

From Port Gibson, we meandered west toward the Mississippi River on rural back roads that all but kudzu seems to have forgotten.  After driving about 13 miles past occasional abandoned homesteads and overgrown cemeteries, we came to a small sign indicating we had found the 'Ruins of Windsor.'  Up a short gravel road, we found the remains of what was once the state's grandest Greek Revival antebellum mansion.

Ruins of Windsor
Built at a cost of $175,000 (equivalent to $4.5 million in today's dollars), Windsor comprised more than 25 rooms and such advanced features as interior bathrooms with water supplied from an attic tank.  Completed in 1861, the mansion was occupied by both Confederate and Federal troops before the Civil War ended.  Later it served as the scene of lavish parties, hosting such luminaries as Mark Twain, until a fire ignited by a careless smoker reduced the house to ruins in 1890, leaving only the 23 spectral Corinthian columns that now support nothing more than memories.

Rodney street on Google Maps (L) and in reality (R)
On a mission to find a couple of letterboxes, we continued west on MS-552 in search of the ghost town of Rodney.  Founded as a river town in 1828, Rodney was once so populous and prosperous it fell only three votes shy of becoming Mississippi's capital city.  That was before it was betrayed by the Big Muddy.  At its peak, Rodney was a leading river town, primarily because it was set at a relatively easy place to cross the river.  Streets were lined with 35 stores, hotels, saloons, barbers, doctors, dentists, a newspaper office and a bank.  Traveling thespians on riverboats often performed in the town to packed audiences.

Then, as it does periodically, the river changed course, and Rodney's population dwindled, hovering near zero today.  Though Google Maps shows a couple of main streets in what was Rodney, the reality is quite different.  Roads into the town are overgrown and some within the town have almost been reclaimed by nature.  We were able to locate the two churches where the letterboxes were hidden, but both were too overgrown by weeds to approach.  As in Port Gibson, the Presbyterian church was of particular interest.

The former Presbyterian church of Rodney (with a cannonball still lodged above the top central window)
After the fall of Vicksburg during the Civil War, Union troops were stationed aboard the gunboat Rattler in the river at Rodney to maintain federal control.  One evening, a group of two dozen sailors decided to attend the Presbyterian church service in defiance of their orders to remain on board the ship.  Some time after they were seated, a Confederate officer approached the pulpit, announcing that his men had surrounded the building and demanding the sailors' surrender.  When a Union sailor shot at the officer, chaos ensued.  The tumult spurred the few troops remaining on the Rattler to begin firing on the town.  The church and four homes were hit, but the small contingent of Confederates managed to seize most of the ironclad's crew, including two officers.

Our GPS had no idea where Rodney was, nor did the AAA road map, so we were sort of winging our way, following MS-552, also known as—Rodney Road!  It seemed a logical strategy to us, and as a side benefit, it led us to the campus of Alcorn State University.  Of course we had both heard of the historically black college, primarily because of its gritty football teams, but we had never learned exactly where it was located—until today. 

Alcorn State's remote campus
Forty miles north of Natchez, 45 miles south of Vicksburg and 80 miles southwest of Jackson, the Alcorn State campus gives new meaning to the word remote.  For any parent concerned that their college age offspring needs to be shielded from the temptations of city living to concentrate on school, Alcorn State is the place.  On the Google Maps image above, all the developed area is the campus, some 80 buildings to serve a student body of five thousand.  It is surrounded by forests and kudzu.  Some of the roads leading from the campus—like the one that goes to Rodney— are narrow unpaved gravel lanes.  Nope, no urban distractions here, not a single, solitary one.

Mount Locust Inn
After all this wandering, we finally returned to the Natchez Trace around 3 p.m., entering around MM 30.  Fifteen miles south, we stopped at Mt. Locust, the only remaining example of the 50 original inns on the old Natchez Trace.  Built in the 1780s and restored to its 1820 appearance, the simple house was built on pilings to keep the interior cooler in the summer.  It would have been a day's walk from Natchez and likely the first place travelers north would encounter.  A meal of corn mush and milk and some kind of sleeping arrangements on the porch or grounds were offered for 25 cents, an economical and welcome alternative to foraging for food and shelter in an often hostile environment along the trail.

Just north of Natchez, at MM 10, we stopped at Emerald Mound, the most significant native landmark on the parkway.  The 35-ft high ceremonial site, built and used between 1300 and 1600, stretches across eight acres, making it the second largest temple mound in the U.S.  Unlike dome shaped mounds used primarily as burial sites, this flat-topped knoll supported temples and other ceremonial structures of the ancient Mississippians, ancestors of the Natchez tribe.

Emerald Mound
Just after 4:00, we entered Natchez, the end of our drive down the parkway.  But there is still much to see in this historic city.  And that will have to wait for tomorrow.

More Photos from Today

An employee at the old Claiborne County courthouse in Port Gibson showed us the trap door in the hanging tower.
Time has added an elegant patina to the Windsor Ruins.
Remain in one place too long southwest Mississippi, and the kudzu may drag you into its clutches. 
Nature is reclaiming the one paved street in Rodney.
The Mount Locust Inn kitchen