Natchez and the Mississippi

Friday 19 to Saturday 20 April

The drive from Memphis TN to Natchez MS was via the I55 to Jackson, and then the last part of the 444 mile (714km) Natchez Trace Parkway. The parkways are a beautiful way to explore the backroads of the United States. They are slow narrow roads, with occasional passing pullouts, that travel through unspoiled country – forests or rural areas. They typically have outdoor activities and attractions associated with them.

The parkway roughly follows the “Old Natchez Trace” a historic travel corridor used by American Indians, ‘Kaintucks’, European settlers, slave traders, soldiers and future presidents

We drove the parkway in teaming rain and brilliant sunshine. Towards the end of the parkway a lot of trees blown over. Mostly very big trees. Unfortunately, a motorcyclist had come to grief in the soft verge trying to skirt around a tree that had fallen over the road.

Natchez, named after the local tribe of Native Americans, is on the Mississippi River and was once a junction where goods were transferred from road to ferries. The flow of the Mississippi was too strong or boats to travel northwards.

We had booked into an antebellum house decorated to the period. Natchez is known for its many antebellum mansions, dating from the late 18th century until the start of the American Civil War in 1861. It was a period marked by the economic growth of the region, largely due to its heavy reliance on slavery, and of its political influence on the U.S. federal government.

The mansions were built by both white and black people who had become rich farming and trading, including slaves. This area escaped the civil war therefore there was little destruction of the big houses.

We stretched our legs before dinner and conveniently found a brew pub where there was music. It made for a pleasant pre-dinner drink, before returning to the hotel for dinner.

In the morning we found an excellent coffee shop, reminiscent of home, before exploring the city. The Mississippi River is wide and fast flowing and a lovely garden sits at its edge. There is no shortage of beautiful buildings – the courthouse, jail and numerous churches as well as the well-preserved antebellum mansions.

A tragic story of the Natchez Burning caught our eye:

One of the deadliest fires in American history took the lives of over 200 people, including bandleader Walter Barnes and nine members of his dance orchestra at the Rhythm Club on April 23, 1940. News of the tragedy reverberated throughout the country, especially among the African American community, and blues performers have recorded memorial songs such as ‘The Natchez Burning’ and ‘The Mighty Fire’ ever since.

The blaze probably begun from a discarded cigarette which ignited the decorative Spanish Moss. Windows and doors in the hall had been forced shut so people wouldn’t get in without paying admission. The metal structure kept the flames inside the building causing a death trap.

New federal and local safety laws were enacted after the disaster, to provide clearly marked exits, occupancy levels and rules about locked doors.

The Natchez Burning song performed by Howlin’ Wolf (blues legend Chester Bennett) became the symbol of the tragedy.