Natchez Trail offers glimpse of Miss. River past

Robert Herndon stands on Natchez Trai.

NATCHEZ — I love Natchez: the deep history, the tall bluffs. It’s like the New Orleans French Quarter but without the sleaze and big city.

Founded by the French in 1716, Natchez is actually two years older than New Orleans — though of course Native Americans lived here long before there was a town.

On Wednesday, Angelyn and I played tour guides to my brother Robert and his wife Julia of San Marcos, Texas. They spent a few days with us, then wanted to see Natchez on the way home.

They booked a room in a bed-and-breakfast, and we ate lunch at The Camp, a restaurant at Natchez-Under-the-Hill.

In frontier days, Natchez-Under-the-Hill was a mile wide, bustling with commerce. Now the Mississippi River has crept eastward, leaving a narrow strip of land with a couple of restaurants, a gift shop, saloon, some old buildings and a boat ramp.

A riverboat casino is usually docked here but it was gone, no doubt due to the coronavirus, so we had an unobstructed view of the river as we ate lunch on an outdoor balcony.

Rob and I walked down to the boat ramp while the women hit the shop. We inhaled the smell of river and mud and weeds.

I’ve launched and landed canoes at this ramp. On one trip, Steve Cox of McComb and I spent four days paddling down Bayou Pierre from Port Gibson to the Mississippi and down to Natchez. I’ll never forget the sight of the bluff from far upriver.

On another trip, I accompanied John Ruskey of Quapaw Canoe Co. from Natchez to St. Francisville, La., a three-day float.

I’ve also run trotlines with buddies across the river out of Vidalia, La.

From the Highway 84 bridge high overhead, the river looks too big and scary for a small boat. But once you get down on its level, it’s manageable if you’re careful.

Today the river was calm, the air sticky, with dark clouds to the south.

We rousted the ladies and headed back up to the hill, where the main town is. Again we left them to shop while we returned to the river, this time to walk the “Natchez Trail” along the bluff.

Natchez is doing a brilliant job of showcasing the river. The trail is a paved walkway along the top of the 200-foot bluff with sweeping views. The bluff is armored with cement and topped with sturdy wire fence. The walkway is lined with benches, historical markers  and Natchez crepe myrtles, which were in full white bloom.

At each end the trail drops down to a lower path at the base of the bluff so you can walk a loop.

The afternoon was breathlessly hot, so we nixed the loop idea. We walked north to the end, then returned south to Silver Street, which leads to Natchez Under-the-Hill. We crossed the street to a park on the bluff with benches, picnic tables and live oak trees.

We picked a bench in the shade and sat soaking in the river view and breeze. To the south stretched the bridge. Across the river lay the green lowlands of Louisiana.

Before I was born, my father worked as a radio operator on Mississippi River dredges Sprague, Burgess and Potter. When I was a kid he took me to the Potter, at the time located on the river somewhere up in Illinois. We spent the night in a motel and the day touring the vessel where he had worked.

Robert followed in Dad’s footsteps, working as a deckhand for six summers.

Dredges come out of anchorage in summer and fall when the river level drops. They suction silt from the bottom and pipe it either elsewhere in the river or to the shore to keep the channel open for towboats and barges.

I grew up hearing Mississippi River stories from both Dad and Rob, some too salty to tell here.

Dad recalled a captain who took such a dislike to him that he threatened to cut his guts out and throw them in his face while he slept. At the first opportunity, Dad went to shore and reported the man.

Another time Dad was serving as a paymaster, and a deckhand felt shorted so he challenged Dad to go over to the bank and fight.

Dad was a former boxer who was afraid of nothing, but he refused to fight, explaining that they could suffer permanent disfigurement — broken nose, lost tooth or worse — and it wasn’t worth it. Later the man calmed down and apologized.

That was one of my early lessons in the meaning of maturity.

Rob told me about colorful old river men, like one who drank straight from the river, claiming it purified itself every three feet.

Robert worked mainly aboard the Diesel, a contract dredge, as well as one summer on the government dredge Ockerson. He also did a hitch on a towboat to St. Louis in the fall.

Dad eventually went to work in an office, while Robert became a family therapist in San Marcos. But the river left an impact on us all.

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