On the Trace
Posted on October 2, 2015
Crossing the Mississippi River from Louisiana to Natchez, you enter one of the historic gems of the South. Standing high on the bluffs, overlooking the vastness of the mighty waterway, this city marks 300 years of culture married to the River in a way that few other cities have. From the time of the French at Fort Rosalie, the inhabitants of Natchez reflected this relationship between the river and the land.
The Mississippi River from Natchez Bluffs
Its heritage is reflected in the great plantation homes from the classic southern Greek revival of those like Rosalie just atop the bluffs near the site of the old fort to grander estates like Melrose with its Main house, kitchen and dairy, octagonal cistern house and out buildings. Looking out from its widow’s walk, all that can be seen was once a part of this great cotton plantation.
Or like the more outlandish antebellum home Longwood, whose octagonal brick form with its ornately detailed porches and cupola topped by a unique onion shape dome reflect the position and eccentricities of the family that built the estate.
The real reason that Natchez and its wealth existed was its connection to the river at the south end of the “Natchez Trace”, a roadway that existed before trains and highways that stretches 440 miles to the north to Nashville, creating a prime stop for traders and shipping merchants. This winding road today tells a story of the history of Mississippi and Tennessee, from their natural wonders, to native Indian cultures that predated the French and early Americans.
The pace of the road slows, this is not the freeway to Jackson and Memphis, but is a country lane that lets you immerse yourself in the beauty of the land and those who have inhabited it.
Walking trail along the Natchez Trace
Leaving Natchez, we discovered the old Bayou Pierre Church, a simple hand hewn log structure that is now lost in the woods, the remnant of an old French outpost. Over time it would grow and shift with the cultural transition, going onto become the great mid-19th century city of Port Gibson, a town whose historic core survived as Ulysses S. Grant declared as “too beautiful to burn” during his Vicksburg Campaign. The Bayou Pierre Church would grow as well, eventually relocating and becoming Port Gibson’s First Presbyterian Church, Romanesque in its details with its unique steeple – a gold hand with a finger pointing to heaven reflecting the passion of its creator, Reverend Zebulon Butler.
The rustic Bayou Pierre Church
Port Gibson steeple pointing towards the heavens
As the roadway continues north you can find the vestiges of its once glorious past in the ghost town of Rodney, a one-time cultural center on the Mississippi frontier, was left high and dry when the Mississippi river changed course in the 1830’s. Its church with a civil war cannonball logged in its façade is all that is left as a reminder of a time gone by. Similarly, Rocky Springs has a similar legacy, with only its church resisting the town’s lapse back into nature.
Rodney church with cannonball
Rocky Springs Chapel
Perhaps the most surreal image off the Trace is the remains of the Windsor Plantation, who’s once plastered brick columns topped by cast iron Corinthian capitals are all that remain of a once great river plantation. The columns stand alone in the woods, overcome by ferns and vines allowing the dappling of light to filter through, a romantic reminder as a living ruin.
Cast Iron Capitol at Windsor
Columns of Windsor Ruins
Predating all of this are the historic Native American mounds, dotting the path along the trace and telling use a bit of the story before western culture made its mark. Emerald mound is one of the largest in North America, dating from sometime between 1250 and 1600, this was the ceremonial center of the forefathers of the Natchez Indians. Continuing norther along the Trace, the Pharr Mounds are older yet, dating form 100 AD, this grouping of eight dome shaped mounds scatter across 90 acres.
But is probably just the sheer beauty of the natural landscape along the Trace and outweigh any of man’s contributions. The rich color play of red and orange leaves of the trees as they turn in fall, the tranquility of Rocky Springs trail and the discovery of Owen’s Creek Falls, or the sublime feeling of walking along the boardwalk, footsteps echoing above the stillness of Cypress Swamp, as one quietly passes among the water tupelo and bald cypress that stand tall among the waters. This only describes a few of the places along this great parkway that I hope you will explore and enjoy.
Roadway Along the Trace
Waterfall at Owen’s Creek