Ghosts of the Mississippi: The Forgotten Town of Rodney

Rodney Ghost Town | Jefferson County, ms | founded c. 1700s

Hollow buildings and lifeless roads are all that remains o the people who were. Imagined echoes of their stories catch the wind from the river bluffs as you soak in the heavy air from the Mighty Mississippi. You, intrepid wanderer, have found yourself at the end of a long and winding road and the reward is a glimpse back in time.

As you round the final bend of the old dirt road, you begin to realize that you’ve finally arrived somewhere- but its not like anywhere you’ve ever been before. It is empty, quiet, and seems eerily still for a place that once bustled with life. And while we know that many souls passed down these roads, it’s difficult to imagine that anyone has ever laid their eyes on this isolated place.

But indeed they have. A whole community has come and gone from Rodney, leaving only a scant portion of buildings behind to represent the once-burgeoning town that was here. You might wonder why a whole town would vanish, leaving its buildings behind, but the story is less about an overnight exodus, and more about a laundry list of circumstances out of their control that slowly forced the townspeople out over time.

Rodney Flood of 1935- courtesy of Ivy McNeil; taken by her mother

Rodney Flood of 1935- courtesy of Ivy McNeil; taken by her mother

First settled by the European (British, Spanish, and French) in the 1700s (1722 or 1763), the settlement that would become Rodney sat against the Mississippi River. At that point, the location had long-been popular as a Mississippi River crossing for many Native Americans. It was also an early crossing place for travelers along the El Camino Real, the old Spanish “Royal Road.” The French referred to it as Petit Gulf, to distinguish it from the larger port of Grand Gulf. As settlements along the Mississippi grew, so did the importance of the port of Petit Gulf. In 1814 the name of the town was changed to honor Judge Thomas Rodney, the territorial magistrate.

The town would see its highest points during the 1840s and 1850s during the hey-day of steamboats and cotton as it had a strategic placement along the Mississippi River at that time. A community grew around this river stop and by 1860, the town had grown to 4,000 residents. As the shipping business along the Mississippi grew, so did the importance of this settlement- so much so that when the state capital was being chosen, it was almost voted as the state capital, losing by only 3 votes.



Casting Dreams and Making Plans

The bustling economy of the cotton era made many a rich man and brought many jobs to this area while it lasted. This boom created many jobs along the roads of Rodney in businesses that supported locals and river travelers alike. A cotton gin processed the crops from the expansive fields of the area and prepared these products to move along the river to its next port. building three churches, two banks, 35 stores, a hotel, homes, saloons, and one of Mississippi’s first Opera Houses.

As these people started a new community in previously undeveloped land, I wonder what dreams, and plans, they had for their future in this new place. What their vision was for life there in 10, 20, 50 years?

You don’t build like this if you don’t hope/intend to stay but as the saying goes:

“The best laid plans of mice and men often go awry”



Problems on the Horizon For Rodney

Despite their best intentions to make a long-term home here, the settlers of this era were going to be dealt a series of blows that no one could’ve anticipated; fires, the Civil War, and major shifts to the Mississippi River would change life in this rural town forever.

The Rodney Fires

The town or what's left of Rodney that you currently see is NOT original Old Rodney with the exception of Rodney Presbyterian. The church is only remaining building connected to Old first town structures of Rodney. There were three documented fires in Rodney that destroyed the early buildings.The town of Rodney was consumed by fire on at least three documented occasions in 1837, 1852, and in 1869.

May 12, 1837

Losses according got The Mississippi Free Trader (Natchez, Miss.) May 12, 1837
‘The Fire in Rodney – The (Rodney) Telegraph of May 2nd gives the particulars of the late fire in that place, which is supposed to be the work of an incendiary. The cotton sheds and their contents of Messers. James & Bayly, and Compton, Ricks, & Co. were destroyed, together with the property of others lost more than 13,000 dollars. The following were among the largest sufferers:
George B. Dent 50 bales cotton, $2600
Samuel Bolton 38 bales of cotton, $1600
William ---- 31 bales of cotton, $1400
Jeremiah Torry 26 bales of cotton, $ 1100
Est. W. ----- 13 bales of cotton $
John Durker 14 bales of cotton $
Richard Valentine 17 bales of cotton $
J. B. Coleman 1400 bushels cotton seed, 6 bags salt, 5 beds, 3 barrels mackerel $50”

August 25, 1852

According to The Natchez Courier (Natchez, Miss.)
Fire at Rodney – “We learn that Sunday morning last, about 1 o’clock, a fire broke out in the kitchen of the Hotel at Rodney, and rapidly spread through the town, consuming almost every house and store. The saw-mill of the Messers. Weldon was several times on fire, but was fortunately saved without much damage. We also understand that the store of Messers. Drake & Griffin was saved.”

1869

The following description of the last fire was given by the officers of the Steamer Richmond, as she passed the Town during the fire.

"Wednesday night, shortly after we left Vicksburg, a bright lights was observed in the southern horizon. All manner of speculation was rife on board concerning the cause and as the light grew nearer and nearer the interest grew in proportion. At last after several hours of eager watching we bore in sight of the beautiful Town of Rodney and lo, we beheld it the object of the wrath of the fire king. The whole village was wrapped in a mantle of flames and as at two o'clock in the morning our boat glided swiftly down along the other shore, the scene was grand beyond description, lit up as it was by the lurid lights from burning buildings, mingled with the moon's pale beams."

The Civil War in Rodney

There is no greater before and after event that the American Civil War. Undoubtedly, the country was forever changed and of course Rodney (and the rest of the rural South) would never be the same. By 1863, the Civil War was raging in Mississippi and Rodney felt the impact. Located about 50 miles down river from Vicksburg (the Confederate capital that fell to Union troops in 1863), they saw their share of battle here in this time capsule of a town.

USS Rattler c. 1862

USS Rattler c. 1862

After the fall of Vicksburg on July 4, 1863, the Union Navy was left in charge of the Mississippi River. The gunboat Rattler was stationed in Rodney to monitor activity in this important port town. As the story goes, the Union men liked to line the decks of the boat on Sunday mornings to watch the Southern Belles in their large gowns going to and from church. While they were instructed to not leave the ship, 24 of them decided to break orders and on September 12, 1863, accepted the invitation of the Reverend Baker of Rodney Presbyterian Church Pastor to join them for services. As hymns were being sung, a Confederate calvarymen arose and announced (after apologizing to Reverend Baker) that his men had surrounded the building and for the Yankee sailors to surrender.

Shots ensued inside the church and many congregants hid behind pews for cover. The crew that remained on the Rattler heard the noise and fired a canon on the church. But the Confederates had the advantage that day capturing 17 prisoners (including the Rattlers Lieutenant and Captain). The crew would live in infamy as the only ironclad gunboat ever taken down by calvary.

But of course, this skirmish wasn’t the only part of the war to leave scars on Rodney. The widespread changes to rural economy post-war hit Rodney as hard as anywhere else as this once-important cotton shipping port struggled to survive.

The Decline of cotton trade after the war was just one of many blows that would be dealt to Rodney.

The damage from the canon ball can still be seen above the middle front window

The damage from the canon ball can still be seen above the middle front window

The Rodney Riving Landing c. 1880s

The Rodney Riving Landing c. 1880s

The Mississippi River

As if that wasn’t bad enough, Mother Nature herself would bring what would be the final blow to the hopes of reviving this rural town. The Mississippi River has dictated the fate of this town since it was founded. To be sure, there wouldn’t be a Rodney if not for its location (and eventual port) along the river during the steamboat era. But the town that was created by the river has been destroyed by it as well and in more ways than one.

At one point, Rodney was the busiest river port between New Orleans and St. Louis but around 1864, a sandbar started to form in the Mississippi and by 1870, the river had changed course.

Trains had trouble chugging up some of the area’s steep hills, so the rail lines built to the east. By 1940, Rodney was a full three miles inland from the river. Cut off from the river and hurt by the decline of the cotton trade after the War, the town slowly began to die.

By 1900, Rodney’s population had declined significantly, causing most of the commerce and community to shut down and by 1923, the Presbyterian Church had lost its full-time pastor. In the 1930s, the Mississippi state legislature revoked its status a a township.

Flood Worries

And if those weren’t reason enough to lead this to ghost town status, lets add in catastrophic flooding semi-regularly.

While the Mississippi might’ve moved from Rodney’s direct reach, it would bring frequent reminders in the form of devastating floods that would wreak further havoc into the town, with particularly bad years in 1912, 1927, 1935.

Flood waters are typically high enough to reach the steps of both churches, although in heavier years, the Baptist Church has been filled inside to the windows with standing water.

These concerns have made it difficult to imagine a future for Rodney moving forward.

Residents paddling through town during the Flood of 1927

Residents paddling through town during the Flood of 1927

 
Mt. Zion Baptist Church during the 1935 Flood- Courtesy of Ivy McNeil

Mt. Zion Baptist Church during the 1935 Flood- Courtesy of Ivy McNeil

Men atop train cars during the 1927 flood in Rodney

Men atop train cars during the 1927 flood in Rodney

Rodney during the Flood of 1927

Rodney during the Flood of 1927

Modern-Day Floods

But floods have continued semi-regularly into modern day as well, with a most-devastating flood season in 2011.

This risk has made it difficult to restore the remaining buildings or to see what the future for this ghost town might be.

Here you can see the damage done to the interior of the Baptist Church as a result of sitting in high flood water for an extended period of time during the 2011 floods. This image was taken 4 years later in 2015.

Here you can see the damage done to the interior of the Baptist Church as a result of sitting in high flood water for an extended period of time during the 2011 floods. This image was taken 4 years later in 2015.


What they Built

Much of what was original Rodney is long gone due to fires, except for the Presbyterian Church which still stands today. Mt. Zion, Alston’s store, and the Masonic Lodge which you can still see today were built after the fires.

Below, are old photos to bring us a better vision of what Rodney once looked like when it was alive and full of life.

A Schoolhouse

MS Rodney Orig Red Brick School House 2.jpg

The Red Brick School

During the first thirty years of statehood, there were no public schools in the state of Mississippi: but in 1846, during Governor Brown's administration, a state Public School bill was passed authorizing the district to build a school, the county to pay the teacher's salary.

It was during this or the following year that the Red Brick Schoolhouse was constructed by contributions of the citizens. It is the only schoolhouse ever built in Rodney. At first, it was a two-story building, the lower story, brick and the upper story, frame. There were two classrooms on each floor. At one time, probably in the 1850's, the enrollment numbered one hundred and fifty.

Excerpt from Marie Logan's "Mississippi-Louisiana Border Country" v

ms orig rodney post office angel puckett holland.jpg

The Rodney Post Office

 

A Post Office

A post office opened here in the 1800s and would run until the 1960s.

Corinne Bemiss was the postmaster in the 1950s-60s

Presbyterian, Baptist, and Catholic Churches

MS Rodney Orig NRHP First_Presbyterian_Church_in_Rodney.jpg

Rodney Presbyterian Church

Photo c. 1940s

Photo c. 2016

Photo c. 2016

Rodney Presbyterian Church

Built in 1832, this is the only building from the original town of Rodney that is still standing. This Federal style church is a unique example in the region and still shows damage from battle during the Civil War. This church is currently in desperate need or restoration. You can read more about it HERE.

MS rodney baptist zion 1940s orig .JPG

Mt. Zion Baptist Church

Photo c. 1940s

Photo c. 2016

Photo c. 2016

Mt. Zion Baptist Church

Built in 1851, this church has been used by at least 3 different congregations. Sadly, whenever the Mississippi River floods, this antebellum church becomes partially submerged, causing extensive structural damage.

Rodney Catholic Church

Photo c. 1940s

Photo c. 2016

Photo c. 2016

Rodney Catholic Church aka Sacred Heart Catholic Church

This Carpenter Gotchic style church was built in 1868. It fell into disuse for years until 1983 when it was moved nearby to Grand Gulf Military Park and restored. Read more about it HERE.

Hotels, lodges, banks, and Stores

At its height, Rodney supported xx stores, 2 banks, 3 churches, and 35 stores. Little of that remains today but luckily, we have a collection of images from when these places still stood to help us envision a bustling town where we now only find a ghost town.

1950s.jpg

Rodney Hotel + Pape Store

1950 vs. 2016

ms rodney brick bldg orig mary pallon.jpg

Rodney Hotel

The brick building in this photograph was once a hotel. In 2017, the building was demolished to try and reclaim whatever materials could be salvaged.

The green storefront you see in the photograph with the horse tied up was the John Pape store. It operated until the 1970s but no longer exists.

rodney masonic_2.jpg

Rodney Masonic Lodge

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Rodney Masonic Lodge

Rodney had a variety of social lodges but this is the only remaining building. At one point there was both a white and African-American Masonic Lodge in Rodney

Homes


The People of Rodney

Unknown Family at home in Rodney

Unknown Family at home in Rodney

Most of the people may have left Rodney, but I have been working to dig up as many of their faces and names as I can so we can visualize the people of the past who once called this home.

Whenever possible, I will add more to their stories and as for the images without information, I don’t know all of their backgrounds in full detail, but I feel they deserve to be a part of this story anyway!

c. 1930s

c. 1930s

‘Mr. John Paul’s Boy’

Well-loved around Rodney, Mr. John Paul’s Boy is said to have been a ‘simple-minded’ man who came to be looked after by the town of Rodney who knew him as the “Village Pet.”

The author Eudora Welty shared a memory of meeting him. Mr. John Paul’s boy would take her around town when she visited and every day, he would go to the post office hoping for letters that never came. When Eudora left Rodney, from then on, she made sure he had letters to pick up.

Source: A Daring Life: A Biography of Eudora Welty by Carolyn J. Brown

The Alston Family

rodney store_.jpg
rodney store_4.jpg

The Alston Family Store (built c.1915) still stands today, although it closed for service in 1983.


“I spent a lot of time in this old store back in the 60s. Ms. Arcola Alston had the fattest cat I have ever seen, and on a hot summer day the best coke you could hope for, a life saver.” Remembers Mr. William May

 

The Piazza Family

One of the Piazza Family homes in Rodney

One of the Piazza Family homes in Rodney

The Piazza Store that once stood in Rodney

The Piazza Store that once stood in Rodney

The Piazza Family- immigrants to Rodney who arrived from Italy

The Piazza Family- immigrants to Rodney who arrived from Italy

One of the Piazza Family Homes

One of the Piazza Family Homes

 

The Burkley Family


While there are certainly local stories to be uncovered, I have to mention 2 visitors who helped not only to photograph Rodney, but to bring its people to life through images, stories, and friendships.

Eudora Welty and Marion Post Wolcott were advocates of the history charm of Rodney and Without these two women, I would not be writing this blog today. As such, I would be remiss not to share a part of them with you here.

Eudora Welty in Rodney

"A place that ever was lived in is like a fire that never goes out."

-Some Notes on River Country by Eudora Welty

Eudora Welty (born in Jackson, MS) was an American short story writer, photographer, and novelist who wrote about the American South.

Her novel The Optimist's Daughter won the Pulitzer Prize in 1973. 

Eudora was particularly drawn to the town of Rodney and drew much inspiration here for her writings.

Eudora Welty c. 1962

Eudora Welty c. 1962

MS Orig Rodney july 1940 marion post wolcott people rodney landing.jpg

"But life does not forsake any place. People live still in Rodney's Landing; flood drives them out and they return to it... There is a sense of place there, to keep life from being extinguished, like a cup of the hands to hold a flame."

-Some Notes on River Country by Eudora Welty


Marion Post Wolcott in Rodney

Marion Post Wolcott was a noted American photographer who worked for the Farm Security Administration during the Great Depression documenting poverty and deprivation.

Each of the Rodney photographs below were taken by her in the 1940s.

Marion Post Wolcott c. 1940s

Marion Post Wolcott c. 1940s

Conclusion

I admired Rodney from the comfort of my computer screen for 5 years before I finally made my first pilgrimage to visit. The 1,100+ miles (roundtrip) to get there seemed daunting as I planned but after I arrived, I realized it would’ve been worth driving 3 times that far. This place is wonderfully isolated and has been seemingly un-impacted by the quickly changing world outside it. It’s eerie to look at the remaining buildings and then old photos to see what stood where you’re standing. That so much life was here in a place that is so empty now.

In so many ways, Rodney is a living time capsule that provides us a glimpse into the past that we can’t get anywhere else. I get chills up my spine each time I travel down the road to Rodney- and not the bad kind. The kind that remind you that someone else walked here before you; that you aren’t the first to set eyes upon this land. And as you round the bend and see the first sign of life in 8 miles- you realize that this place was once so much more. Not just a town but a representation of the hopes and dreams of early settlers- a glimpse into the plans they had for their time on this new land.

But in many other ways, a visit to Rodney provides a view into the future as well. A glimpse into what our places look like after we leave. What happens when we’re forced to move on from the places we love and call home. What happens when we close the door and never look back.


Visiting Rodney

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Getting to Rodney is no quick task but the reward is well worth it. I prefer to use Natchez as my base to explore this area which gives me access to all kinds of wonderful history as well as food and stores. As always, be aware of weather conditions before you set out as heavy rains can dramatically impact road conditions.

Cell signal can be spotty here depending on your carrier so plan ahead. Most cars will be able to make it down the road to Rodney, but it does get muddy sometimes and has potholes all the time, so if you have the chance to drive an SUV or truck, we greatly recommend doing so.


THINGS TO KEEP IN MIND

All of Rodney is Private Property and as such, you should not go inside or step foot onto any properties. If you choose to trespass, you are doing so at your own risk and you should be advised that most of these buildings are in poor structural condition. Please enjoy these places from the road.

Rodney is well looked after so although it may seem empty, trust me- there are locals who are keeping a watchful eye.

Rodney is well-known as the home of venemous snakes. During the warm months, it is VERY highly recommended that you not pass through tall/overgrown grass, and especially avoid the cemetery as these river bluffs are known to have copperhead and cottonmouth snake dens. They can become aggressive during warm months! If you have a pet with you (especially small dogs), definitely do not get out of the car.

There are no restrooms or conveniences for quite a distance from Rodney so please plan ahead by bringing water.


BOOKS INVOLVING RODNEY

LEARN MORE ABOUT RODNEY

Rodney in the News


MS Orig Rodney Photo Chess Gaines Alston.jpg


DO YOU HAVE OLD PHOTOS OR STORIES ABOUT RODNEY TO CONTRIBUTE?

Please email me farenoughfarenough@gmail.com


Buy prints to help support the effort to preserve Rodney Presbyterian Church!

50% of Sales will be donated to the Rodney History & Preservation Society + their effort to save this Church!

SUPPORT RODNEY PRESBYTERIAN PRESERVATION!

50% OF ALL RODNEY PRESBYTERIAN CHURCH PRINT SALES WILL BE DONATED TO THE RODNEY HISTORIC PRESERVATION SOCIETY.


Acknowledgements

Thanks sincerely to Mary Duck Pallon and Angel Puckett Holland for their contributions to this blog and for the maintenance of their Facebook pages (THIS ONE and THIS ONE TOO) where I was able to obtain about 80% of the images you see here. I would also like to thank the various contributors who have been great stewards over the years of these important photos and documents that have helped me to piece together the story of Rodney for you here.

And my sincere gratitude to the multitude of photographers have been drawn to this place for so many years. Thanks to them, I was able to tell this story of this place in a more in-depth way than I could’ve without them.

I hope the story of Rodney will impact your memory for many years to come as it has mine.

Donate to help save the Presbysterian Church below!


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