By Natasha Mills
Mississippi is filled with thriving towns, each with its own colorful and interesting history. We often look at places we know when searching for information about the state we call home. Equally interesting and often overlooked are abandoned places. Places where circumstances changed and lives were interrupted. Sometimes these places disappear completely and are forgotten to history. Sometimes a bit remains and the story continues. Rodney is one of those places.
Located in Jefferson County, just northeast of Natchez Mississippi, lie Rodney’s broken remnants. Long before it became a town, it was a popular place for Native Americans crossing the Mississippi River. It was also a crossing spot for travelers along El Camino Real (Spanish “Royal Road”). The area was originally controlled by Great Britain during the French and Indian War, but settled by the French in the 1760’s. They called it Petit Gulf, which means “Little Chasm”.
When Mississippi was admitted as a state in 1817, it almost became the state’s first capital, missing out by only 3 votes. The town was noted for its high level of culture, literacy, and business activity. The town had 2 banks and 2 newspapers, as well as 35 stores. It also had a riverboat landing and riverboat taverns. All in all, Rodney was a booming and prominent river town. Even General Zachary Taylor was taken by the town. He bought a nearby cotton plantation, called Buena Vista. After returning as a hero from the Mexican-American War, he retired there, but left again when he became the 12th President of the United States. He never returned to the plantation, dying while in office. The plantation was later sold and was destroyed in the Great Flood of 1927.
In 1843, Rodney suffered a severe yellow fever epidemic. The fever was so devastating that it was reported in national newspapers. All of the town’s physicians were affected by the illness, with at least one of the physicians dying. One newspaper reported that even the town’s Apothecary was closed. The village was depopulated and all businesses closed. Four years later, Rodney was again plagued by yellow fever, but this time it was far less destructive or lengthy.
By the 1850s Rodney was the busiest port on the Mississippi River between New Orleans, Louisiana, and St. Louis, Missouri. By then, the town had grown to 1000 residents and even had a large hotel complete with a ballroom. By 1860, the population reached 4000 residents. There were banks, wagon makers, tinsmiths, barbers, doctors, dentists, and pastry shops just to name a few.
During the Civil War, the Confederacy was cut in half and Union boats patrolled the Mississippi River to stop Confederate traffic. The Union Ship, USS Rattler was stationed in Rodney. The soldiers were told not to leave the ship. However, some soldiers were invited to hear a northern sympathizer, Reverend Baker, preach at the Rodney Presbyterian Church. They attended against orders and were unarmed except for Second Assistant Engineer A.M. Smith, who carried a hidden revolver. While attending the service, a Confederate Calvary commander, Lieutenant Allen, walked into the sanctuary. He announced that the church was surrounded by rebels and that the visiting Union soldiers were under arrest. The Assistant Engineer pulled out his hidden pistol and shot through the Rebel Lieutenant’s hat. The shot caused the congregation to dive beneath their church pews and all of the rebels outside fired through the church windows. The Lieutenant called for a ceasefire. He then took 17 Federal troops into custody.
The gunboat bombarded the town and the church when word arrived on the Union Ship. The church was only 300 yards from the river. Four homes were hit as well. A cannonball became embedded in the church front lawn and one also hit the church facade. The Confederate Lieutenant demanded a ceasefire or all captive Union soldiers would be hanged. The USS Rattler crew became the laughingstock of the nation. It was the first time in history that a small cavalry squad captured the crew of an ironclad gunboat. In the days after the incident, Rodney formed Company D. 22nd Mississippi Infantry to fight against the Union Army. Months later, the prisoners were exchanged for captured Rebel soldiers. The gunboat’s crew was reassigned. The USS Rattler was hit by a heavy gale near Grand Gulf, Mississippi that same year. She was driven to shore, hit a snag, and sank. The new crew survived, but the gunboat was a total loss to the Union and abandoned. Confederates burned her remains.
In 1869, Rodney was almost entirely consumed by fire, but an even greater event also occurred. A sandbar formed in the nearby Mississippi River. In 1870, that sand bar caused the river to change its course, taking it 2 miles away from the town. The town no longer had a port and many people chose to leave. Later, Rodney’s population declined even further when it was bypassed by the Natchez, Jackson & Columbus Railroad.
In 1923 the last full-time pastor of the Presbyterian Church at Rodney resigned. In 1966 the church was transferred to the United Daughters of the Confederacy. In 1973 it was added to the National Register of Historic Places and still stands in Rodney today. A replica cannonball was placed on the church façade where the original landed.
The town is periodically plagued by floods. Most of the buildings and homes left in the town were virtually destroyed by floods in 2011. A few homes remain and have been maintained or restored, but no businesses remain. There is one small grocery store that continues to stand, but it is just an old shell.
Today there is only one serviceable road leading in and out of town. From Alcorn, Highway M-558 dead ends near the once thriving river port town. The final 3 miles of the road are dirt and gravel. The cemetery still remains and contains the bodies of local residents, river travelers, and folks from Saint Joseph, Louisiana across the river from Rodney.
Although only a few building shells remain, making Rodney a ghost of a town, you can still walk the streets and feel the history. You can imagine what it was like in its prime and see evidence of the Civil War in the church there. One can’t help but wonder, with all of the town’s disasters and bad luck, if there are ghosts lingering around from days gone by. Regardless, Rodney Mississippi should be on your list of must-visit locations. Get out and see some living history, take some pictures and if you visit, let us know what you find!
Images by Ashleigh Coleman