On Sunday, we left Gulf Islands National Seashore at about 8:40 for Natchez, Mississippi (we congratulated ourselves for what was an early start compared to other days). It was our longest mileage day yet. Our route took us north through Pensacola to pick Interstate 10 west to Mobile, Alabama, where we took I-65 for only a few miles northward until we picked up US 98, which took us all the way to Natchez. We were only in Alabama for about 50 miles before entering Mississippi. US 98 is a nice road to travel on. It goes through a few towns and has some stop lights, but most of the way it is a four-lane divided highway with nice scenery and little traffic. As we parked at the campsite, the odometer read 2787, so we covered about 324 miles.
We stopped on the way for our second fill up. Our fuel mileage was down to 6.6 on this leg of the trip, I think because we had quite a bit of stop and go traffic both getting away from Florida Caverns and to and from Gulf Islands, and because we had some stiff headwinds going west across Florida towards Gulf Islands. The rig is anything but aerodynamic, it’s more like pushing a big brick through the wind. I’m not sure whether our bug kill per square foot of frontage would have been different had we been driving a car, but we whacked an incredible number of bugs on the way to Natchez. The frontal area of the Dutch Star is about 100 square feet, and I think it had 1000 dead bugs on it – maybe more considering that many of the bugs were the “love bugs” that always seem to get smashed in pairs.
Fortunately, the Dutch Star has a hose bib piped to the hot water right behind the front grill, which I used to good advantage cleaning them off. We had enough room in the “basement” storage to bring a ladder, which was definitely required to get to the huge windshield. It took 45 minutes to clean it up. At previous stops I had attempted to clean the windshield with a scrubber and a squeegee on a five foot pole, and that sort of works, but now it’s really clean and will stay that way for all of about 10 miles.
On the way, Therese used her cell phone to plan more of the trip and to get reservations for a few of our future stops.
Natchez State Park is very nice. We have a pleasant site with a large flat concrete pad that we backed into. There’s water and electric service, but once again no sewer, so we remain in water conservation (really holding tank capacity conservation) mode. Cell service is also minimal – once again Verizon seems to trounce AT&T for signal strength.
We (mostly Therese) met a few people from California, doing the trip in the opposite direction. One lady was travelling by herself in a camper van. She had just left her job and had no particular route planned, nor any particular schedule for getting back. Everyone has been friendly at the campgrounds we’ve been at, and it has also been surprisingly quiet at night. I think the Dutch Star’s sound insulation is pretty good, which also helps.
Monday morning, after a leisurely start, we headed to downtown Natchez at about 9:30. Our first stop was the Natchez Visitor Center, where they have a nice display with the history of Natchez. The town was important and well known in the late 1700’s through the Civil War (Therese says that should be capitalized), serving as the capital of the Mississippi territory and as a magnet for wealthy southerners. Its heyday came between Eli Whitney’s invention of the cotton gin (in the late 18th, early 19th century) and the Civil War. Before the cotton gin, even with slave labor, cotton farming was not profitable, it was simply too labor intensive to separate the fibers from the seed. Technology changed the economics, and huge fortunes were made by plantation owners in the south. Despite the fact that less labor was needed per pound of cotton, production grew such that from 1800 to 1830, the number of slaves quadrupled.
The rich plantation owners apparently needed a place to congregate and show off their wealth and Natchez was it. Large antebellum mansions were built in the 1820’s through 1860, many of which are still standing (and provide the backbone of the tourism industry which, together with agriculture and gambling, is the major economic factor in the area).
The story of Natchez heavily involves the economics and politics of slavery and emancipation. During the civil war, Natchez wasn’t heavily guarded by the Confederacy, and was easily taken by the Union side. They headquartered in some of the antebellum mansions and started running things. Many slaves joined the Union side during the war. When the south lost, the Confederate currency was worthless, and two years of drought finished off the plantations. The Union retained control for about 25 years after the war, and that seems to have been a time of comparative prosperity and freedom for the freed slaves. But around 1900, Mississippi was turned back over to local governance, and the white majority found ways through literacy testing, poll taxes, and other “Jim Crow” laws to oppress the black population again. Many left in the “Great Exodus” to northern cities. The Civil Rights movements of the 1950’s and 1960’s brought much turmoil to Natchez (and the south as a whole), and it seems like they are still working on sorting it all out 50 years later. I was somewhat surprised at the tone of the Natchez Visitor Center history exhibit, it seemed to me that a Natchez native (at least a Natchez native Caucasian) would have tried to play down the controversy and put a more positive spin on it. The exhibit was authored by the National Park Service, maybe they nixed any sugar coating.
Freshly steeped in Natchez history, we drove down to the waterfront (the Mississippi river) which runs right alongside the town. 90% of Natchez (and all of the nice part) is situated on a 30 foot high bluff along the river, with only a small part down below that bluff. The Mississippi isn’t particularly scenic – it looks to be about a mile wide and is brown as mud. There is a twin bridge (one span built in 1940, the other identical span built in 1990) that goes from Natchez to Vidalia, Louisiana. There are riverfront casinos on both sides of the river. We took the “Bluff Walk” along the river for a half mile, and then turned inland to the historic district on the “South Walk”. Downtown is maybe ¾ of a mile square, so it’s easy to walk. There weren’t that many tourists around, and after walking around for a while, we found a nice place for lunch (Pearl Pasta, on Pearl Street) at about 12:15. After lunch, we went on the “North Walk”, and then toured Stanton Hall, one of the largest of the Antebellum mansions. It was built by one of the rich plantation owners, Irish immigrant Frederick Stanton. It took 8 years to build, and was finally finished in 1857. Frederick then died 9 months later from complications from Yellow Fever, but his wife lived in it for another 34 years. It wasn’t one of the homes that was occupied by the Union, but the family fell on hard times and it bounced around until finally being purchased out of foreclosure by a local group of southern ladies (the start of the Natchez Pilgrimage Society, or something like that). They operated it as a bed and breakfast from 1941 through 1985, but now it is used as a wedding (and other social occasion) venue and for tours. It was remarkably ornate inside, and they have managed to get some of the original furniture back from descendants of Frederick Stanton. According to Wikipedia, Disney’s Haunted Mansion was based on its design, but the tour guide didn’t mention that. Parts of Natchez weren’t quite as nice as Stanton Hall.
It was worth doing, but by the time we got out of there it was 3:00 so we headed out of town. Our plan was to go to a local plantation exhibit (Mount Locust), but luckily Therese called to get the hours and we found that they were closed on Mondays.
Instead, we drove a ways up the Natchez Trace Parkway. Natchez Trace dates back to Indian times as a major trade route from the Mississippi River to Memphis Tennessee. Before the advent of railroads and steamships, traders would build boats in the norther parts of the river, fill them with salable cargo, and sail them to Natchez. There they would sell the cargo, but since the Mississippi was too fast moving to navigate upriver, they would also sell the boat for lumber, and then walk back on the Natchez trail. Today it is a picturesque two lane road that still goes all the way to Memphis. It’s in great condition and there was hardly any traffic.
We stopped at the “Emerald Mound”, one of the mounds that native Indians apparently built for rituals or whatever.
Then, about 4:30, we headed back to the campground to engage in “camping” (and writing this long boring post).