Some History and a Mystery

Friday, July 19, 2013 Road Junkies 0 Comments

Natchez Trace Parkway
Nashville, TN to Florence, AL

After spending a few days in Franklin with Woodie and his family and Nanamama, who was also visiting, we decided it was time for us to wind our way through history on the Natchez Trace Parkway. Stretching from the Tennessee Valley through the Shoals of north Alabama and southward to the banks of the Mississippi River in Natchez, the path that became known as the Natchez Trace was first trod by buffalo.  Native Americans followed their path and then United States pioneers. 

Early settlers throughout the Ohio River Valley hired traders to float agricultural products, coal and livestock down the Mississippi River on flatboats to markets in Natchez and New Orleans.  Because the river current flowed so strongly south, these boatmen would usually dismantle their boats at their southern destination, sell them for lumber, and walk back north along the Natchez Trace, an arduous and often dangerous trek.  This was no blossom-lined thoroughfare.  Early travelers faced oppressive heat, voracious mosquitoes, swollen rivers, and sucking swamps.  If the natural threats weren't enough, hostile Native Americans and roving bandits lurked along the path in search of lone travelers. 

After President Thomas Jefferson designated the trace a national post road for mail delivery between Nashville and Natchez, negotiations with the native tribes along the path permitted the establishment of privately owned inns ("stands" in the parlance of the day) to offer basic food and shelter to those journeying on the trace.  Generally located about ten miles apart, these rustic structures must have been a soothing sight to weary travelers at the end of a long day.

Stands of hospitality notwithstanding, by the middle of the 19th century, the old trace had fallen into obsolescence as the advent of the steamboat facilitated northward river travel.  Almost a century later, interest in the overgrown footpath was reawakened through the efforts of historical researchers and the Daughters of the American Revolution.  In 1938, the Natchez Trace Parkway became a unit of the National Park System and work began to identify the path of the trace and develop it into a modern scenic road, a task that was not officially completed until 2005.

Having driven the first few miles of the Trace with Woodie a couple of days earlier, we did not begin this journey at the northern terminus, mile marker 444.  Rather we started at MM 438.0, Birdsong Hollow, where the Trace intersects TN-96.  Spanning the heavily wooded hollow and the highway is the award-winning Double Arch Bridge, completed in 1994, a spectacular point of departure for our excursion.

Double Arch Bridge
With a speed limit of 40 mph, the Trace got off to a slow start, sweeping in gentle curves through the woods of Tennessee lush with thick summer growth.  By MM430, the speed limit had reached its peak of 50 mph and we were on our way.  At Garrison Creek (427), it was too hot and steamy to hike but we were pleased to find the restrooms open.  Squeezed by the recent 'sequestration' budget cuts, the park service has reduced staffing, leading to staggered restroom closings along the parkway, Monday morning through Wednesday morning at some locations, Wednesday morning through Friday morning at others.

Near Birdsong Hollow
Like the Blue Ridge Parkway, the Trace is bounded by a NPS-owned greenbelt isolating the road from development.  Some land is leased for farming, but its use is limited to livestock or crops traditional to the South (corn, cotton, soybeans).  With the world of commerce left behind and soon forgotten, signs along the Trace seem more meaningful and require a bit more attention.  Each one announces a point of interest that one may want to consider visiting.

At MM407, just before the parkway crossed the Duck River near Williamsport, TN, we stopped to check out the John Gordon House, one of the few surviving structures that date back to the time when the Trace was still just a footpath.  A loyal friend and military comrade of Andrew Jackson, Gordon and his wife Dolly moved to this spot on the Duck River in 1812 to operate an inn and ferry.  John was soon called off by Jackson to fight in the Creek War, leaving Dolly to operate the business.  While he was away, John sent her letters describing the house he dreamed of building.  Dolly oversaw the construction, and John returned in 1818 to find the home completed, only to die less than a year later.  Though Dolly built the house, operated the inn, and lived there another 40 years after her husband's death, this most elegant home on the frontier still bears the name of her husband.  (Did I forget to mention that Dolly was also raising their 11 children?)

The house built by Dolly Gordon, completed in 1818
A bit further south at MM404, we hiked down to Jackson Falls, which was no more than a trickle today.  The intermittent creek that supplies the flow lacked the wherewithal to fall today, no doubt a big disappointment to the eager swimsuit-clad children prancing down the trail as we were on our way back up.  After straying off the Trace to find a place for lunch in the hamlet of Hohenwald, TN (pop. 3,751), our attention was riveted by the Meriwether Lewis Historic Site at MM 385

A representation of Grinder's Stand (inn) houses the ranger station and interpretive exhibits.
In 1809, Meriwether Lewis was governor of the Upper Louisiana Territory.  With his friend and mentor Thomas Jefferson no longer in the White House, some of the bills Lewis submitted for payment by the government were questioned, prompting the governor to set out from the territorial capital of St. Louis en route to Washington to defend his accounts.  Traveling through a remote wilderness along the Natchez Trace, Lewis stopped at a small inn known as Grinder's Stand.  After eating a meal prepared by Mrs. Grinder, Lewis retired for the evening.  Later gunshots were heard, and 35-year-old Lewis was found with mortal wounds to the head and chest. 

He was buried near the inn, but the circumstances of his death remain a mystery.  Whereas the official NPS stance describes his death as suicide, others have raised the possibility of homicide or assassination.  A group of Lewis's collateral descendants (nieces, nephews, cousins—he never fathered children of his own) have petitioned the state of Tennessee and Department of the Interior to have the body exhumed for forensic evaluation.  Their request has not been granted, but their unremitting efforts keep the question alive, as reported in their Solve the Mystery web site.

Our minds teeming with questions about this intrepid explorer and how he met his demise in this patch of Tennessee woods, we returned to the Trace and continued our southward journey through thick hardwoods and across the Buffalo River.  At MM375, we turned onto Old Trace Drive, a one-way 2.5-mile undeveloped stretch of the old road looping along a scenic ridge that took us briefly northward again.

After we turned back south, our vista opened up to farmlands briefly before the forests of oak and hickory returned to the roadside.  At numerous locations along the Trace, signs point to spots with remnants of what is descriptively called the sunken trace, deeply eroded sections of the trail cut in nearby woods when the main path became so waterlogged that wagons could not be pulled through.  We paused briefly at MM350 to see an example of this Sunken Trace.  

Sunken Trace
When the Trace crossed into Alabama just north of MM340, the land became noticeably flatter, and the woods more dominated by pines, including cultivated stands.  A bit further south, at MM327, we crossed the wide Tennessee River at Colbert Ferry, where Chickasaw leader George Colbert ran an inn and ferry in the early 1800s.  Though he fought beside Andrew Jackson in the Creek War, commanding an auxiliary troop of 350 Chickasaw braves he himself recruited, Colbert is rumored to have once charged Old Hickory $75,000 to transport his Tennessee army across the river. 

John Coffee Memorial Bridge across the Tennessee River
Our crossing today was quicker and exceedingly less expensive on the sleek bridge named for a 19th century Alabama general.  Soon we exited the Trace onto AL-21 in hopes of taking in the Helen Keller birthplace in Tuscumbia a half hour away.  By this time, the clock was pushing 3:30, and a quick check of the Ivy Green web site indicated we would arrive just in time to see the doors locked for the day.  Shifting gears, we settled for a place with no set hours—the Coon Dog Cemetery.
The well-tended resting places of some fine hunting hounds
Deep in the Alabama woods near a popular hunting lodge miles outside the little town of Cherokee (pop. 1,237), Key Underwood sadly buried his faithful dog Troop after more than 15 years of adventures together.  The year was 1937, and before long, other hunters began laying their special hounds to rest near Troop.  Though it hadn't been Mr. Underwood's intention to establish a coon dog cemetery, that's exactly what he had done.  Interments are limited to coon dogs and include treasured hunting dogs from various parts of the U.S.  Now something of a tourist attraction, the cemetery is well-tended with more flower-bedecked graves than most burial places for humans.  Markers run the gamut from simple rocks to traditional granite markers.  Our favorite epitaph was one etched out on sheet metal for Track (1976-1989):  "He wasn't the best, but he was the best I ever had."
Bidding farewell to the hounds and the other visiting tourists, we continued east to Florence (pop. 39,354), where we plan to spend the night and visit the W.C. Handy Museum before heading to the Keller home and back to the Trace tomorrow morning.
FRIDAY, 19 JULY 2013
An Alabama timber rattlesnake in a postprandial road crossing

Grand horse farm near Franklin, TN, as viewed from Double Arch Bridge