Chatawa secrets: Boulders, tombstones, tung trees

Danny ‘Pharoah’ Spencer, in orange, and Dr. John Dale Dumas examine boulders reportedly set up by railroad workers in the 1920s at the entrance to Chatawa.

A couple winters ago, Dr. John Dale Dumas of Chatawa was riding his bicycle in the neighborhood when he noticed an unusual rock formation off in the woods off St. Mary Road near the intersection with Highway 51 — one huge boulder stacked on top of another.

His brother, a landscape architect in Starkville, suggested it was some sort of “waypoint,” or direction marker.

But placed by whom? When? Why? And how?

Last week Dumas and his neighbor, Danny “Pharoah” Spencer, took me out for a look.

The boulders have obviously been there a long time, and they weigh tons. It didn’t look like a natural formation.

“It was placed that way,” Spencer said.

He noted the old Holmesville Trail a short distance to the east that connected Tennessee to New Orleans. Perhaps this was a marker on a side route.

“My daddy, who would be nearly 100, would tell you these were here when he was a little boy,” Spencer said.

The Tangipahoa River is not far to the east, as is the railroad.

“I would think a steam-driven dragline” set them in place, Spencer said.

The rocks are the same size, 5 by 10 feet by 5 feet tall. Moss and leaves grow on top, and a hole underneath showed where some critter had been burrowing.

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I sent a photo of the stacked rocks to a historian, who said it looked more like a topic for a geologist than an archaeologist.

But the landowner, Dr. David Snow, had the best answer.

“Supposedly they were put there in the ’20s when they were digging up sandstone for the railroad to put near Manchac,” Snow said, speculating a steam shovel hoisted the massive rock.

“You can rock the top one with just one arm,” he noted.

The purpose of the stacked stones was “to mark the entrance to Chatawa, I was told,” Snow said.

He cited a local legend, which he said is not true, that a man was killed when placing the rocks and his skeleton is still between them.

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From there we drove down to where the old artesian well had been before it was closed off by the railroad because of relentless litter.

We crossed the railroad and the iron bridge.

Dumas pointed out that a walkway on the upstream side of the bridge should have been placed on the downstream side, since when you cast a lure off the upstream side the current carries it under the bridge.

Farther down St. Mary Road, Spencer and Dumas pointed out other massive sandstone rocks.

We hung a left on narrow Bentz Road and worked our way around to St. Mary of the Pines, which is in the process of being closed and put up for sale.

It and the old Sunshine Mountain Seventh-Day Baptist Church compound make two sizable properties for sale at Chatawa, each with its own unique history.

Dumas is part of a group that has gone Christmas caroling to the nuns at St. Mary for years and will continue to do so this Christmas, since the last ones won’t move out until February.

With 100-plus people clustered inside singing to the sisters, “There’s not a dry eye in the house,” especially when the sisters sing their blessings back upon the carolers, Dumas said.

We finished up on Scott Furr Road, where Spencer directed us to a burial plot back in the woods.

We walked beneath towering hardwoods and pines amid lots of young tung oil trees, reminiscent of a plantation from decades ago when tung oil was a valuable commodity.

The burial plot had two graves. The larger stone was for Emily Amanda Scott, wife of Dr. J.S. Knapp, who died Feb. 15, 1871, at age 45. Next to her was a smaller stone for two children: Lillie Courtney Knapp, born and died on Nov. 20, 1855; and Horace Dresser Knapp, born Oct. 19, 1855, died Aug. 2, 1856.

“There was a plague in New Orleans that ran a lot of people up here,” Spencer said. “The sawmill was here, and it employed 1,500 people. That thing was crazy. They had people living in shanties and tents. ...

“People would ride the train from New Orleans to come up here and stick a stick in the ground and that’s where they would live and work for the sawmill.”

One day a couple from Atlanta flagged Spencer down and asked if he knew where Stevens Switch was. He not only took them there but to the old Stevens house — the house where Dumas now lives.

Turns out it was built by the woman’s great-grandfather.

It appears history is alive and well in Chatawa.

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