Tuesday, May 4, 2010

NATCHEZ, MS AND THE NATCHEZ TRACE

Natchez, MS and Vidalia, LA, was to be our home for a little longer than we originally planned. Upon our arrival, bad weather surrounded us. We stayed 3 additional days and the bad weather and deadly tornadoes were north of us and forever affected the lives of thousands of others throughout the southeast.

Natchez, MS is located along the southwestern edge of MS, overlooking the Mississippi River. The city was built on high bluffs overlooking the river at an altitude of 195 feet above sea level.

Our campground, River View, located in Vidalia, LA, was immediately across the Mississippi River Bridge and on the shores of the river. The only thing we could find that set Vidalia, LA apart was the story about Jim Bowie, who became involved in a duel with 2 well-known area residents, Wells and Maddox. Jim Bowie, although seriously injured with a gunshot wound, killed his assailant with a knife that later became known as The Bowie Knife. This area, on the Mississippi River, is known as The Sandbar, and is now the site of a local and popular restaurant.

Since the entire city of Natchez is literally packed with historical markers and places of national historic interest, it is impossible to do everything. You pick and choose - maybe we'll be lucky enough to return one day for one of their well publicised spring and fall pilgrimages.

We chose to attend church at the Washington United Methodist Church on Highway 61 in Washington, MS - just a couple of miles north of Natchez. Washington United Methodist was opened in 1799, and is considered the birthplace of Methodism for the state of MS, it is the first Methodist Church organized in the MS territory. We were not aware of the significance of this area in the history of our country. Mississippi became a state in 1817. The territorial legislature met on the grounds of historic Jefferson College, named in honor of Thomas Jefferson, across the street from the Washington United Methodist Church. In 1830, Jefferson College purchased the Methodist Church building that was the site of the 1817 MS statehood convention.

The members of the church were very hospitable and friendly toward us and invited us to lunch after church. One of the elder members of the congregation told us that back in the days of cotton and sugar plantations there were 7 millionaires in the United States - and 5 of them were from the Natchez area.

Natchez survived the Civil War with little loss to property. The antebellum mansions are what you think of when you think about Natchez. Tours of these properties began in 1932 by the Women's Garden Club. We visited 2 of the plantations - Longwood and Melrose, and enjoyed them thoroughly.

Longwood, the largest octagonal house in America, was started in 1860, by a wealthy cotton planter, Haller Nutt and his wife. Work progressed until 1861 when the Civil War began, and the craftsmen (all from Philadelphia), dropped their tools and fled North for fear of their lives. The owner completed the basement level enough for his family to use as living quarters. He died in 1864, depressed and penniless, but his wife and 8 children lived in the basement until 1897. Many of the family's original furnishings are displayed as well as tools, carriages, and other reminders of the past. This property belongs to the Pilgrimage Garden Club and was presented to them to care for in perpetuity.

We also took an opportunity to visit Melrose, one of the original pilgrimage homes in 1932, and a property of the National Park Service since 1990. The original owner, John McMurran, established a successful law practice, won election to the state legislature, married into a respected local family, and acquired the first of five plantations and slaves. Melrose represents one of the most completely preserved antebellum estates in Natchez with many original furnishings and outbuildings. The estate is under renovation, and while we attended the tour there were many areas throughout the home we were unable to enter.

We visited Stanton Hall which was built in 1857 for a local cotton magnate, Frederick Stanton. The property is magnificent, and it is obvious that no expense was spared in any of the 5 levels of the house which has 3 parlors and 6 bedrooms. The house is a preservation project of the Pilgrimage Garden Club since 1938, and is used for weddings and special events. A restaurant is located on the grounds, the Carriage House, and is known for its Southern cuisine.

The Natchez Trace Parkway, a 450 mile national park, originates in Natchez and winds through Mississippi and eventually ends in Nashville, TN. The parklands along the Trace parallels the old trace, which was recognized in 1995 in the National Scenic Byways Programs, designating it an All American Road, beginning at Natchez, milepost 0, the southern terminus, and continuing to milepost 444, the northern terminus in Nashville, TN.

The Trace was probably a hunters' path from the Mississippi River over the low hills into the valley of the Tennessee River. By 1733 the French knew the area well enough that it appeared on maps; by 1785 Ohio River valley farmers had begun to float their crops down the rivers to Natchez and New Orleans.

There are no trucks - a 45 mph enforced speed limit - hunting is prohibited - it is a designated bike path - there are no gas stations on the parkway and it is a part of the National Park System! We would never tire of this scenic road and all its beauty and hope to return to the Natchez Trace Parkway another day!
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