WILSON: Wanderlust 2020 tour part eight: Natchez, above and below

Published 7:33 am Saturday, August 15, 2020

Late afternoon had arrived — and so had I. The 444-mile long Natchez Trace was behind me and I was standing in the parking lot of the Natchez Grand Hotel. It had been a long drive and I was ready to check in, wash the road away with a nice hot shower and begin my explorations. I did not need to flip my quarter to know I was ready for a little luxury. The hotel sat on a high bluff, with a commanding view overlooking a bend in the Mighty Mississippi River.

Although it is a relatively new structure, the Grand was specifically built to resemble the four-story king-cotton warehouse, that previously stood on the same site for nearly 200 years. My room was comfortable, my shower was relaxing and my top floor, riverfront view was amazing. However, it was definitely well above the $60 per night level of my previous accommodations (but…hey…I’m worth it. Right?).

Founded in 1716 by the French, Natchez is considered to be the first European settlement on the Mississippi River — preceding New Orleans by two years. The original settlement of about 20 buildings was built along a boat landing below a towering 200-foot bluff. Because of its strategic location, in 1730 the French built Fort Rosalie atop the bluff and Natchez expanded to become Natchez-Proper (above-the-hill) and Natchez-Improper (below-the-hill) — these are the words of the local gentry (not mine).

By the early 1800s, Natchez Below-the-Hill was a pretty rough stretch of riverfront. Kaintuck boatmen would dock their keelboats, sell their goods (and their boats), and immediately do their best to leave all of their hard-earned money in the brothels, saloons and gambling halls that were clustered tightly together along Silver Street. By the 1970s, all that remained of Natchez Under-the-Hill was a handful of dilapidated buildings, squatters, and chickens (yes, chickens).

In 1974, a local investor restored the remaining buildings to the authentic “grandeur” of the rough-and-tumble 1800s, and two riverboats began providing service between Natchez and New Orleans, breathing new life into the decrepit riverfront. Under-the-Hill saw a rebirth as a historical/tourist/entertainment district. Unfortunately, the riverboats did not last, but Under-the Hill is still thriving with restaurants, boutique shopping, and a saloon that harkens back to a time when Natchez was “the most licentious spot on the Mississippi River.”

As Natchez grew in population and refinement, a grand city emerged atop the bluff. Originally, the upper town was platted 9 blocks along the bluff’s edge and 7 blocks deep. The wealth from cotton and the slave trade brought an unmatched opulence to the small city. Prior to the Civil War, Natchez had more millionaires than any other city in the country — including Washington, D.C. Antebellum mansions dotted the 63 square blocks of town, but that prosperity was threatened by the “war of northern aggression” (again, the words of the local gentry — not mine).

After the Union Army had taken Vicksburg, they traveled on down the Mississippi and set their sites on Natchez. The way the story was told to me, the good folks of Natchez had no desire to get pummeled by cannon fire like their neighbors upriver in Vicksburg. Therefore, they decided the mayor needed to do something about all the hub-bub — and do it quick! Dutifully, he put on his white, silk mayor’s sash, went down to the landing, and waved his white handkerchief on the end of a broom handle for three hours. Natchez and all the pretty little mansions were saved.

After the Civil War, prosperity resumed with investment from carpetbagger entrepreneurs from New York. Upon arrival, many of them damn Yankees figured living in opulent grandeur in the South beat the rat-race of New York City, and decided to unpack their carpet bags and stay. Even more mansions were built, like jewels in a hilltop crown. At one point, downtown Natchez consisted of a plethora of mansions filled with wealth, upscale retail establishments flourishing off that wealth, and lawyers.

These days, most of those beautiful estates have been preserved as B&Bs, allowing the rest of us to visit Natchez and enjoy its southern hospitality — with a sweet iced tea on the veranda, while watching the river flow on by. I am sure I’ll be back, someday — I like iced tea (and carousing along the riverfront).

Larry Wilson is a mostly lifelong resident of Niles. His essays stem from experiences, compilations and recollections from friends and family. He can be reached at wflw@hotmail.com.