by Joe Goodell
The ill fortunes of Rodney, Mississippi played out like a marauding storm. There were the yellow fever epidemics, two ravaging fires, the War, of course, and later, the floods of 1927 and 2011. But the unkindest hit of all was dealt by the capricious River itself which had provided for Rodney a thriving commerce and culture. Rodney had seen the worst of times, and the best of times.
As an important river port this center rivaled nearby Natchez; in 1802 the loss to Washington was by just three votes, in a bid to become the capital of Mississippi Territory.
In the early 1870s, the River tossed up a sandbar which diverted its course two miles to the west, abandoning the city and depriving it of a livelihood. And in mirror image, the railroad selected a route well to the east through Fayette.
Despite the periods of adversity, while the river remained, and before mass desertion, the heydays of Rodney saw spectacular success. By 1860 the residents numbered 4,000. There were quality schools, thespian groups, the state’s first opera house, a large hotel, two banks, two newspapers, and three dozen or so stores and businesses along Commerce and Magnolia Streets.
There had been a settlement on the site as early as 1715 known as Petit Gouffre, setting it apart from Grand Gouffre to the north. Though not actually a gulf, it was a place where Indians, and later the Spanish El Camino Real, had found convenient for a crossing.
In 1814 during the tenure of Judge Thomas Rodney, chief magistrate of the Territory, the name changed in his honor. A year later Dr. Rush Nutt (whose son later built Longwood) established his home, Laurel Hill south of town. His development of resilient seeds and his idea to drive Eli’s gin by steam power, advanced the South’s rise toward cotton kingdom.
In 1842 General Zachary Taylor was so taken with the beauty and fertile land of the area that he purchased Cypress Grove Plantation, renaming it Buena Vista. It was on the colonnaded veranda of this home where his daughter Sarah met, and from which she eloped, with Lt Jefferson Davis.
The War was tough on Rodney, but not so harsh as to preclude some rich folklore. Following the Vicksburg campaign, the Union Navy stationed its gunboat USS Rattler at Rodney. Although Admiral Porter had forbidden the crew to go ashore, in September 1863 most of them accepted an invitation from the Union-sympathizing guest pastor at Bethel Presbyterian Church. During his service, they were stealthily surrounded, and following a brief melee, held hostage by a unit of Confederates—the only time that the crew of a US naval vessel had been captured by the cavalry of an opposing force.
The most prominent remaining building is that same Presbyterian Church, without services, but with faded pulpit and pews, a weary piano, and a set of dusty hymnals all in place. About 1830 the Reverend Dr. Jeremiah Chamberlain, an Elder of the Presbytery of Mississippi, built the church and also established Oakland College, now Alcorn State University, to the northeast. His legacy lived on at Chamberlain-Hunt Academy in Port Gibson.
Across town is Mt Zion Baptist Church, bruised by flood, but distinguished by its arched entrance and polygonal domed belfry. Sacred Heart Catholic Church, built in 1868 and a fine example of Gothic architecture, had been relocated and well preserved at Grand Gulf Military Park.
Rodney is not a place one just stumbles upon during a journey to somewhere else. It is a destination, well off the beaten path, and it requires planning plus determination to get there. The best route is from MS552, through the campus of Alcorn State. The road becomes a narrow track, unpaved and poorly marked, winding southwest through arboreal tunnels of primeval forest. It is a depth of eroded loess resembling the patches of “sunken trace” along our Parkway. The forest becomes thinner, the passage smoother, and the grade steeper down the bluff facing Rodney. It levels along Batchelor Street into “city center” and the Historic District where the visitor feels a twinge of sadness as he gazes over the broken and silent dwellings.
Those parts of both downtown and the neighborhoods which have not disappeared, remain in various stages of decay, overgrown with brush and weeds. Gravity and the grind of time have settled in, dragging Rodney down. Barely recognizable are a few homes, Alston’s Grocery, the crumbling drugstore, and a two-story brick derelict of uncertain function. There is prevailing ruin, the perception of an entirely other world trying, and deserving, to be remembered.
A handful of people still live in or around Rodney, although by decree of Governor Theodore Bilbo in 1930, it has ceased to exist as an official town.
Rodney image from Southern Lagniappe blog
Old Rodney Presbyterian Church image by Heather Ingram http://www.panoramio.com/user/3355572
Road into Rodney Image by photographer Warren Jones http://www.panoramio.com/user/5439722