Posts Tagged ‘Natchez Trace’


A creek runs through my property, a small creek hardly worthy of a name. My front acres are high and dry but I chose to build in the pine flatwoods on the backside of the creek. Why? Because I like it here. Where the driveway crosses the creek I installed culverts. For years, every hard storm washed out my culverts and left me with expensive driveway repairs. Finally, an old farmer suggested that instead of running the culverts straight across the driveway, they should slant with the course of the creek. Now, why didn’t I think of that? My creek and I have coexisted quite well since.

Look closely at a map of the Mississippi River and you’ll see oxbow lakes where the river once flowed. Parts of states remain on the other side of the river, isolated from the rest, where the river changed course after state lines were drawn. Where does an 800 pound Gorilla sit? Anywhere he wants to! And he is capable of crushing whatever he sits on.

Grand Gulf, Mississippi was once a boom town. In my travels I picked up a flyer on Grand Gulf and this summer I paid a visit. Not far from the Natchez Trace, Grand Gulf Military State Park offers both history and camping. A small museum exhibits, among artifacts from pre-history to the Prohibition, a letter written by George Washington himself. The grounds display a collection of historical buildings that have been moved here: a church, a dog-trot cabin, and a grist mill, as well as cannons from the Civil War.

The only original house is the little Spanish House built in the 1790s. You see, officially, the town of Grand Gulf no longer exists. But its history is fascinating.

Native Americans, the Natchez and lesser know tribes, lived in the area before Europeans arrived–DeSoto, the French, the Spanish, and the French again. After the Revolutionary War, settlers from North Carolina traveled to what is now Claiborne County and, in 1828, laid out the 80 city blocks of Grand Gulf. During the hey-day of King Cotton, Grand Gulf became an important river port. Steamboats brought theater companies and shipped out cotton. With a post office, newspaper, taverns, churches, a school, a hospital, and several stores, Grand Gulf grew to be the third largest city in Mississippi. By the late 1830’s the town had over 1000 inhabitants. Then its luck changed.

Grand Gulf was named after a great whirlpool in the river. That should have been a clue to its eventual fate. Yellow fever decimated the population in 1843. Nine years later, a steamboat exploded, destroying the docks. The following year, a tornado devastated the town. Then the Gorilla shifted his weight. The Mississippi began to eat away at the town. By 1860, over 50 blocks had been washed away, obliterating the business district and whittling the population to 158 souls.

During the Civil War, this was a strategic location for the defense of the Mississippi. On each side of the town, the Confederates built forts which frustrated the Union’s attempt to gain control of the river. I won’t go into the details of the battles of Grand Gulf. You can find that information elsewhere. Suffice it to say that what little remained of the town was destroyed and it was not rebuilt after the war.

On the way to Grand Gulf, I passed a nuclear power plant and hoped this does not spell the town’s final tragedy.

As I drove to the park, on my left mud flats extended to the river. On my right rose the bluffs where the park is located. The charming Sacred Heart Catholic Church shone like a jewel halfway up the hill. This building was moved here in 1983 from Rodney, another victim of the Mississippi, a port town whose history parallels that of Grand Gulf, except that its demise occurred because the river moved away from the town.

Ft. Wade is located on the north side of the park. Behind it sits the Spanish House which miraculously survived the war. Uphill beyond the house is the old cemetery, most graves dating to the 1800s. Wisely, the townspeople buried their dead on top of the bluffs. Otherwise, the cemetery would have suffered the same fate as the town.

After touring the park and spending the night, I asked the museum staff exactly where the town had been. “Down the road about a mile, near Ft. Coburn.” The lady shook her head.  “There’s nothing left.”

Expecting just that, to my surprise I found, certainly not a bustling town of 1000, but a community that refuses to die.

An old store building still stands. Grand Gulf Business DistrictEmpty paved streets lead to an ancient, falling-down church. DSCF7557The road continues uphill past Ft. Coburn and a few modern (occupied!) houses.

But the amazing thing is, between the paved road and the river are at least a dozen mobile homes and a handful of campers. And I never saw the like—the house trailers were set on stilts! Many had screened porches. The SmithsOne sported a sign declaring, “The Smiths—Soul survivors of the flood of 2011.” The trailer of a neighbor, whose loss that year probably made him more gun-shy of the river than most, perched on two stories of metal supports.

So Grand Gulf is not inhabited solely by ghosts. It has been rebuilt, destroyed, and rebuilt again. I wouldn’t be surprised if the Gorilla still has unfinished business with this town.

What makes people so stubbornly defy fate and the elements? Some day I will go back and ask the residents why they insist on living here. But I expect no better answer than I’d get from a homeowner who builds on the other side of the creek, when it would be less trouble to build elsewhere.


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“A truly happy person is one who can enjoy the scenery on a detour.” What wise man or woman said this? No one seems to know. It was probably only a cynical quip, but then, the Cynics were philosophers. Anyway, I guess that makes me a truly happy person. My life has been full of detours, both figurative and literal.
One of my most memorable was when I got off the Interstate and discovered the Natchez Trace. It was the summer of ’99. We were on our way home from a family reunion in Arkansas. I still traveled the Interstates in those days, always anxious to get to a destination as quickly and directly as possible. That year, I-20 seemed to be under construction everywhere and we were tired of sitting in traffic in the hot sun. After we crossed the Mississippi River and made it through Vicksburg, there was another construction zone. We crept forward. An exit with a brown sign indicated the Natchez Trace. I had seen those signs before on my trips to and from Arkansas but I had only a vague idea of what the Natchez Trace was. At least it wasn’t a construction zone.
“Let’s check this out,” I said. My life hasn’t been the same since.
Originally an Indian trail, the Trace was used by “Kaintucks” returning home from Natchez after floating their produce down the Mississippi to market. There they would also sell their rafts and make their way back home on foot. As more white settlers invaded this part of the country, traffic increased and the Trace became a rough wagon road between Nashville and Natchez. It reached its heyday in the 1800’s only to be virtually abandoned after steamboats took over the river traffic and other roads were built.
In the 1930’s, during the Great Depression, a Mississippi congressman, Thomas Jefferson Busby, saved the Trace and its history for future generations. He proposed construction of the parkway as a public works project to benefit his unemployed constituents. Of course it took an Act of Congress, much money, and many years to accomplish, but it was well worth the trouble.
The 500 mile long Trace is a leisurely drive through some lovely country, with picnic areas, restrooms, and campgrounds. The speed limit is only fifty and commercial vehicles are prohibited. With no stop signs or traffic lights to impede your progress, you stop only when you want to. I stop often. Every few miles there are historical and geological sites. I have spent days on the Trace, steeped in History. Even when I lack sufficient time, I never drive through Mississippi or Tennessee without visiting some part of the Trace.
I became so enamored by the Trace that I began to study it. One family’s story has so gripped my imagination that I am researching them with a historical novel in mind. It has been quite a detour.
I seldom take major highways anymore. I can read a road map and, if the roads are properly marked, I can follow a planned route. I said, “If.” For the most part, Florida roads are well marked, but that is not the case every where. I often find myself on unplanned detours. To be honest, I get lost. No matter, the scenery can be enjoyable and eventually I stumble across a town or roadway that I can locate on my map and steer myself back in the right direction.
One time I passed a mound of kudzu in the shape of a house. It was so remarkable that I had to turn around and check it out. Indeed, it was an abandoned house, chimney and all, that had become totally engulfed with vines. I have encountered many such interesting things on my “detours” but I haven’t been able to find the vine covered cottage again.
In 2006, heading south through Pennsylvania, I ran out of road signs. I had little idea where I was or, the way the roads wind among the mountains, no idea in what direction I was going. Oh, well, the scenery was beautiful, so I kept on. Whenever I came to an intersection, I’d take the road that felt right. Before I knew it, I had descended into Pennsylvania Dutch farmland and was not far from a highway which would take me home.
Our detour philosopher was probably referring to life, not roads, but isn’t it the same thing? I’ve always marveled at the people who can boast with confidence, “In five years (or ten or twenty), I will be at (a certain job, income level, or other goal).” Wouldn’t it be boring to have your life play out in an orderly succession with no surprises? I will never know. In high school my goal was to go to college and that was probably the last thing that worked out the way I’d planned. Another philosopher has said, “Life is what happens while you’re busy making other plans.” How true!
In college, I majored in Literature. I wanted to write, but journalism did not appeal to me. By my senior year I realized that I would have to make a living somehow, so I went into teaching. When I had children I wanted to be a stay at home mother and write in my spare time. How unrealistic. I did not plan to be a single parent who had to work. Since I had become disillusioned with teaching, I tried social work. This required a lot of writing and that helped me hone my craft. Quite a detour, wasn’t it? This career also exposed me to a lot of things I would not have encountered in a boring, well planned life. I learned a lot about people – good material for fiction. Now, with my state pension, I don’t have worry about where my next meal will come from, even though it is more likely to be hamburger than steak. I have the leisure to write without worrying about how soon it will sell. I don’t aspire to live in a mansion in a gated community. I’m happy with my little house in the woods.
And when I travel, if I end up somewhere unexpected, it’s not a detour, it’s an adventure.

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Bonnie T. Ogle

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