April 29 – May 9
Today we’d be heading up to Jackson, Mississippi for a couple of nights and I would ride a section of the Natchez Trace on my bike while Joanna followed in the car. The Trace is a historic forest trail which extends roughly 440 miles from Nashville, Tennessee, to Natchez, Mississippi, linking the Cumberland, Tennessee, and Mississippi rivers.
The trail was created and used by Native Americans for centuries and was later used by early European and American explorers, traders, and emigrants in the late 18th and early 19th centuries. European Americans founded inns, also known as “stands”, along the Trace to serve food and lodging to travelers. Prior to the use of steamboats, it was a common practice for rivermen (often referred to as “Kaintucks,” who were rough Kentucky frontiersmen) to operate flatboats down the river. They delivered goods to Natchez in exchange for cash, and then sought gambling contests in Natchez Under-the-Hill. They then walked or rode horseback the 450 miles back up the Trace to Nashville. In 1810 an estimated 10,000 “Kaintucks” used the Trace annually to return to the north for the start of another river journey.
As travel shifted to steamboats on the Mississippi and other rivers, most of these stands closed. Today, the path is commemorated by Natchez Trace Parkway, which follows the approximate path of the Trace, as well as the related Natchez Trace Trail. Parts of the original trail are still accessible, and some segments are listed on the National Register of Historic Places.
Similar to the Blue Ridge Parkway, the Trace Parkway has, by design, no food, gas, or lodging services “on” the Parkway. Those will be found in the many towns adjacent to the road. The speed limit along its length is 55-miles per hour and its low volume of traffic make it a delight to ride a bike on. The one downside is like many rails to trails paths we’ve ridden on, there is little change in the scenery (it is beautiful, but it gets boring) and is fairly flat, so one must pedal all of the time.
That first day I made a number of stops along the way to check out some of the historical places and buildings still standing, although as I would work my way up the trace these would dwindle so that all that remained of them was a sign denoting their former location. The first would be the ruins of the Elizabeth Female Academy. From 1818-1845, it stood on the southern end of the Old Trace and was the first female institution of higher learning charted by the state of Mississippi. It was one of the first institutions to offer college degrees to women in Mississippi and one of the first female colleges in the country.
Another stop along the way was Mt. Locust House, built in 1784 and one of the oldest structures still standing in the area. William and Paulina Ferguson owned and operated the farm until William’s death in 1801. A short time later Paulina married James Chamberlain, an overseer at Mount Locust, and they continued to build the growing plantation.
Between 1785 and 1820, the growing number of travelers compelled the Fergusons/Chamberlain’s to turn their home into a “stand,” which was nothing more than a crude inn. The family offered the boatmen a meal of corn mush and milk with meager sleeping arrangements on the porches and grounds. The boatmen paid just 25 cents for the much-needed food and accommodations the stand provided.
As cotton became a popular cash crop the property now thrived as a cotton plantation through the early to mid-1800’s. Archeologists believe 12 to 16 slave cabins once stood on the property, with four to five people occupying each dwelling. On the west side of Mount Locust, a cemetery holds the remains of 43 enslaved people. The end of the plantation system after the Civil War led to a slow decline at Mount Locust. Eventually the National Park Service took over the property in 1938, with the last of the Chamberlain leaving in 1944. Overall, Mount Locust was a home to the Ferguson-Chamberlain family for five generations.
And so, I continued on, ending up with 43-miles and more fatigued than I would have thought, for a couple of reasons. Because we had planned to do the Katy Trail before Joanna broke her arm, we had switched tires on both our bikes to gravel versions, which produce more drag when pedaling. The other is a phenomenon I’ve encountered when cycling, where if you think it will be an easy day, it likely won’t and vice versa. Thus was the case here.
Joanna picked me up and we drove on to Jackson and our two nights stay at the Best Western Richland Inn & Suites, a few miles outside of downtown. This would not rank high in my list of favorite properties mainly due to the lack of any positive customer service from the only staff member we encountered. What irked me the most was that I never got a receipt, which I wanted so I could examine why they charged me a few dollars more than the quoted rate. Normally, the chain emails me a copy, or at least asks. Not so here.
For dinner that night we headed into Jackson to check out a beer garden called Midtown Depot, located in what appeared to be a very sketchy part of town. We parked in a dirt lot outside the entrance gate and walked into a large outdoor area to discover that we were the only customers. Not too encouraging as it was a Friday evening, but we took it in stride and ordered a couple of beers from their decent tap list and three “munchies” for fifteen dollars, the Bourbon Peach Baby Back Ribs, the Jerk Pulled Pork Sliders, and the Jambalaya Egg Roll with Chipotle Ranch Sauce.
It was a pleasant evening to be outside (the bartender, when asked about the lack of customers simply said business ebbs and flows) so we enjoyed our beer until it was time to walk up to the trailer that served as a kitchen to fetch our food. And I’d like to say that regardless of the sketchy neighborhood, the lack of crowds, and the rustic nature of the place, this was a dynamite plate of food. The ribs were meaty and tender, the egg rolls a unique taste sensation, and the pork sliders simply delicious.
And so, we closed out our first day on the Natchez Trace and looked forward to what we thought would be a busy round of sightseeing starting the next morning. We’ll get to that in the next post.
Natchez Trace: https://www.nps.gov/natr/index.htm
Blue Ridge Parkway: https://www.blueridgeparkway.org/
Best Western Richland Inn & Suites: https://www.bestwestern.com/en_US/book/hotels-in-richland/best-western-richland-inn-suites/propertyCode.25090.html
Midtown Depot: https://www.facebook.com/MidtownDepotJXN/