Founded as a French settlement in 1763; missed being the capital of Mississippi Territory by three votes; incorporated as a city in 1828; rivaled Natchez and Vicksburg in wealth with a population estimated at 4,000 in the 1850’s; but, today—167 years from its inception, the once thriving river port of Rodney, Mississippi, 32 miles north of Natchez, is no more.
Rodney might be gone– but not its memories. It was a powerful business, cultural, and scientific center on the Mississippi frontier.
In business, Rodney boasted two banks, some 35 mercantile stores, hotels, eateries, doctor’s offices, two newspapers, tinsmiths, wagon makers, and, of course, saloons.
In culture, these businesses were surrounded by schools, lecture halls, a debate society, an art colony, impressive churches, varied thespian groups, and the first opera house in Mississippi..
In science, Dr. Rush Nutt moved to Mississippi in 1805, as a physician and a pioneer planter. He built his Laurel Hill cotton plantation in 1815, just outside Rodney, and began to make important agricultural contributions to the lower Mississippi Delta. Dr. Nutt developed the Petit Gulf strain of cotton that became widely grown in Mississippi by the 1830’s. This strain of cotton was popular because it was easy to pick, immune to rot, and produced high quality fibers. He popularized contour, or horizontal, plowing to prevent hillside erosion. Dr. Nutt even improved Eli Whitney’s cotton gin by adding flumes for filtering out dirt in the ginning process. Dr. Nutt had a huge influence on early Mississippi agriculture—all from his Laurel Hill Plantation in his hometown of bustling Rodney.
Rodney is not without its own unique Civil War memories, as well. When Vicksburg fell in July, 1863, a Union Navy gunboat called the “Rattler” was stationed at Rodney. As weeks passed, the men on board the Rattler liked to watch the beautiful Southern belles parade to church on Sundays. So, on September 12, 1863, the sailors felt compelled to leave their ship and join these beautiful young ladies for services at the local Presbyterian Church. The men came dressed in their best uniforms. Midway through the second hymn, though, a Confederate Cavalryman strolled up to the pulpit, apologized to the Reverend, and announced to the 24 stunned Yankee sailors that his men had surrounded the church and demanded that the Yanks surrender. As you might imagine, all Hell broke loose in God’s House. When the dust settled, no one was killed, but the Rebels had taken 17 prisoners. News of this odd skirmish spread quickly; these Yankee sailors became the laughing stock of the nation. A little mirth in a devastating Civil War.
Why did Rodney decline so precipitously from its heyday? Four reasons:
1. The Mississippi River changed its course during the 1870’s, moving its shores two miles to the west, leaving Rodney “high and dry,” as a port city.
2. All railroads bypassed the town.
3. Two yellow fever epidemics in 1843 and 1898. And, (4) No major roads were built through Rodney.
It has been in decline for 65 years, and yesterday, its demise became official. Rodney has now been stripped of all hope– by reality and by time and by the hand of Governor Bilbo.
Today, there is only one serviceable road in and out of Rodney. That road– 12 miles long– off US 61 is mainly gravel. The streets, in what is left of downtown Rodney, are still dusty roads, just like 200 years ago. Most of the 150 to 200 year old buildings still standing are overgrown with brush, rotting and falling in. Even though the five current residents of the community do not like the term, Rodney does, in fact, look like a “ghost town.”
The Presbyterian Church, where the Yankee sailors were caught by surprise, is still there and, amazingly, looks much as it did that fateful Sunday 147 years ago. Visitors can even see a cannon ball shot from the Rattler that Sunday morning embedded above a front second story window of the church.
Rodney, Mississippi—named after Territorial Judge Thomas Rodney– is a definite trip back in time and into sad Southern Memories.