From the end of the 19th Century to the beginning of the 20th, Mississippi began to industrialize, and one of the main industries that emerged was logging. Particularly south of Jackson, the state was covered with virgin forests that were thought to be hundreds of years old, and as the areas was opened up by railroads, cutting that timber became feasible and extremely profitable for the lumber companies that emerged. Most of these firms built company towns, in keeping with the usual practice in the early 20th Century, but by 1929, when the stock market crashed, most of the best timber had already been cut, and since companies in that day did not worry themselves with renewable resources, they had not planted any trees to replace those cut. As a result, most of the sawmills began to shut down, and few of the company towns survived in any great degree. An exception seems to be the sleepy but well-preserved community of Bogue Chitto, Mississippi in Lincoln County, Mississippi (a smaller community with the same name exists in Kemper and Neshoba Counties in North Mississippi). While a community seems to have existed called Bogue Chitto prior to the coming of the railroad and sawmill, the current town with its grid of streets along the railroad likely dates from 1879, the date on the United Methodist Church’s sign. Although nothing of the original business district remains (it was likely along the railroad), the houses and churches, with beautifully ornate architecture and distinctive tin roofs are worth a detour off of I-55. The reason why Bogue Chitto survived the boom-bust cycle of the lumber industry is unclear, as its southern neighbor of Norfield was not nearly so lucky and hardly a trace of the latter town remains. At least part of it may be that Bogue Chitto, unlike must lumber towns, was an incorporated town from 1892 to 1944 and had a municipal government. At any rate, Bogue Chitto is a remarkably well-maintained example of what a Mississippi logging town looked like in the early 20th Century, and should probably be promoted as such to visitors to the state. Of course, perhaps those who live there prefer it to maintain its solitude and quiet.
During the 1960’s, the new interstate highways began to bypass the old US highways and the towns along them, and gradually these towns began to fade into obscurity. But a trip along the old highways can be extremely rewarding, revealing ghost towns and historic buildings. On last Friday, August 1, I decided to make my trip to Jackson along Highway 51 from Batesville, and found some interesting and intriguing places. The tiny town of Pope, Mississippi in Panola County, aside from residences, was mainly one street along the railroad with a couple of old historic buildings, one of which had been turned into a restaurant called The Place, that looks as if it might warrant further investigation. But I was especially impressed with the town of Enid, from which Enid Lake draws its name although the lake and the town are in different counties. The town, in Tallahatchie County, seems barely above ghost town status these days, but its only remaining downtown building is now a performance space known as the Enid Music Hall, which features live music on weekends, often blues. On the other side of the railroad tracks was a very old wooden church, which certainly appears to be historic, although there is no historic marker. A sign on the building is rusted, but I could still make out that the building had been the Bethany Baptist Church. A nearby building looks as if it had been a one-room school, or perhaps an education building for the church. Down the road just below the city of Oakland, Mississippi, I came upon a large, abandoned school complex along Highway 51. With no signage there, I had no way of knowing what school it was, but I never fail to see these abandoned schools in Mississippi and Louisiana without being depressed. After all, these are poor states with great educational needs, and to see these taxpayer-funded investments rotting away in the Mississippi sun is not a good look at all.
On the Saturday before Memorial Day, I had to play with a jazz group for a wedding in Pontotoc, Mississippi, and once it was over, I headed out for New Orleans for the holiday. As I was heading down Highway 15, I came to a town called Reform, Mississippi, or I should perhaps say a former town. Like most ghost towns in Mississippi, this place was still inhabited, but its community institutions, a church and school were rather spectacular ruins. Unfortunately the building that appeared to have been a church was fenced in and inaccessible for closer investigation, but I was able to get some decent photos of the school. The sheer number of abandoned schools one passes in Mississippi is truly disturbing. In the course of my drive on that afternoon, I passed an abandoned high school in Maben, an abandoned college in Mathiston, this abandoned school in Reform, and another abandoned college campus in Newton that has been turned into an institution for the mentally ill.
When I was young, I remember riding down to Starkville with my parents, and we went a route that took us through a small Clay County town called Montpelier, and I had remembered falling in love with it. It had the look of a very old town, and its buildings seemed to be historic, so I was looking forward to seeing it again for the first time since that day when I was little. Unfortunately, I was in for something of a shock, because Montpelier today has been decimated, and there is really very little trace of the charming village I recall from years ago. The building that I remembered as a store and post office is now abandoned, and the gas station next door to it is also abandoned. One tin-roofed seemingly historic house sits across the road, but it is overgrown with trees and weeds, and is behind a locked gate in the middle of a farm field and cannot be accessed. There are far fewer buildings than I recall from that childhood visit too, which suggests that a lot has just been torn down. Although when I checked in on my phone, the location read Montpelier Historic District, that truly seemed a cruel joke, since there was really nothing historic left. I headed on toward West Point in a rather depressed frame of mind, but the worst was yet to come. A complex of buildings on the road a few miles from the town proved to be an abandoned school. A still-visible sign on the gymnasium building told me that this school had been West Clay High School, but it was now sitting and rotting in the sun. I frequently come across abandoned schools in my travels, particularly in the South, and I never like to see them. Although I know that other provisions have been made for the kids involved, something about school buildings abandoned just seems wrong,as if we failed in our commitment to our young people. One wonders if the school was abandoned because Montpelier had been, or if Montpelier was abandoned because there was no longer a school.
Perhaps because Woodland had been a company town, there were few buildings there that were really photogenic, but a few miles south, the town of Mantee had far more to investigate. The tragedy in Mantee, though, is that the historic buildings that remain are largely vacant, and are being allowed to crumble. Particularly sad is the historic railroad station, which has suffered roof damage and is clearly in danger. Here’s hoping that someone decides to rescue it before it’s too far gone. As for the rest of the town, there is a bank branch, a water office and the town hall.
East St. Louis has been portrayed to the American people as a nightmare for years, but I’ve always found it far more sad and interesting than horrifying. Obviously, anyone taking the time to actually visit it (and few do) cannot help but notice the widespread abandonment and dilapidation of so many buildings and houses, and most people attach the stigma of that to the people who still live there, largely African-American. The scholar Andrew Thiesing produced a remarkably well-written and well-researched book called Made In The USA which thoroughly refutes that common view, outlining in detail the way corrupt government prior to the 1960’s and the machinations of big industry conspired to put the East Side in the shape it is today, but few Americans would probably take the time to read such a work, readable though it is. So mainstream media has largely contributed to a view of East St. Louis as extremely violent and dangerous, which not only keeps away any tourists, but also potential redevelopers and investors, and that despite the fact that large areas of the old city have beautiful views of the Gateway Arch.
Of course, if anyone actually gets off the interstate, what they are likely to notice more than anything is the sense of emptiness. East St. Louis was built for a population of 80,000, and only about 20,000 actually live there, so the city has the eerie atmosphere of a ghost town on most days, as it did on the Tuesday I was there. I headed down to 15th and Broadway, an intersection that had been the center of the city’s Black community in Miles Davis’ day (yes, he was from East St. Louis), but the intersection today, adjacent to the Orr-Weathers projects, doesn’t look like much of the center of anything. What hasn’t been torn down is largely vacant. But what caught my eye was two beautiful murals that I assume were painted by youths from the nearby projects. Amid the drab surroundings, these stood out, and what they told me was that there is a determination in the young people of East St. Louis that cannot be extinguished by poverty or hardship or even racism. To stand for any length of time and look at these works of art is to understand that talent abounds in places like the East Side. If we as a society squander it, the stigma should be attached to us, not these young people. (I took these pictures on Tuesday, May 13. One of the murals was on the wall of the Broadway Market at 15th and Broadway which I understand since has burned to the ground. I’m glad I got these pictures before that happened).
Perhaps the only fate worse than being an abandoned city is being the suburb of an abandoned city, but such is the fate of the community just north of Cairo, Illinois known as Future City. Located outside the protective floodgates and levees, the all-Black community of Future City floods frequently, and has only one real landmark, a two-story night club or juke joint that on closer inspection seems to be an old and rather historic building that was probably intended for a different purpose, perhaps a Masonic lodge or a school. The reason for the name is uncertain, although there are some accounts that attribute the village’s founding to African-Americans who fled Cairo in the wake of the 1909 lynching of Will James. At least one white youth growing up in Cairo admitted many years later that as a boy he had always thought that the sign meant that people were planning to build a city there, and that he was wondering when it would ever be finished!
The decline and near abandonment of Cairo, Illinois has been well-discussed and well-documented, as to some extent has what Ron Powers called its last great civic event, a four-year shooting war between its white and Black communities from 1967 to 1971. Perhaps no place in America suffered as protracted and violent a racial upheaval as Cairo, and the conventional wisdom is that these tragic years of shootings, arsons and boycotts destroyed the town. But as I saw earlier in the afternoon at Hickman, Kentucky, things just aren’t that simple. Hickman experienced none of the fire bombings, snipings, marches or boycotts that wracked Cairo, yet its downtown ended up looking largely the same as Cairo’s, which raises the important question as to whether Cairo experienced the severe racial conflict it did BECAUSE it was dying, rather than dying because it experienced the racial conflict. Perhaps it would be fairer to say that the conflict hastened the processes that were already occurring in Cairo. Either way, what has happened since is in every way a tragedy. Very little of Commercial Avenue remains at all, compared to 1987, when some of the buildings were still occupied and nearly all of them were standing. The city also seems devoid of people these days, compared to my visits back in my college days, when one could find pickup basketball games on side streets off of Washington Avenue. Most night clubs are gone from Commercial Avenue, although several remain, a rap club called Club Elite, a lounge called Mary G’s and something called the Cavalier Club. I didn’t even see many people in either of the city’s projects, the McBride Court (formerly Pyramid Court, which had been the scene of so much shooting in the 1970’s) or Elmwood Court. The boarded up Bennett School (which had been called Booker T. Washington prior to integration) was simply another sad and depressing sign of the town’s decline, as were the abandoned newspaper office, abandoned nursing home and abandoned hospital. What economic decline and racial conflict didn’t do, flooding did, with the most recent flood occurring in 2011. Arguably flooding has discouraged industry from locating in Cairo, and furthered the town’s death. While one views the ruins with a certain degree of shock and horror, and feels that something should be done to preserve what is left, it is likely that nobody will. Frankly nobody cares outside of Cairo, and chances are that few even care within Cairo. Probably there will soon be nothing left at all.
Last summer on the American Queen cruise where I was a musician, we stopped and tied up at Columbus, Kentucky, and took a tour of the Civil War-era state park. That town of Columbus had been a traditional town, with a straight grid of streets, and had been fortified by the Confederacy in the hopes of disrupting shipping on the Mississippi River. Ulysses S. Grant had captured it quickly, moving down from his base in Cairo, Illinois, one of his first great successes of the war. But that Columbus, Kentucky perished forever in the infamous flood of 1927, and the very site of it is now in the middle of the current river. In the wake of the disaster, the American Red Cross decided that the original town could not be salvaged. Instead, they hired an urban planner in Indianapolis to plan a new Columbus, Kentucky, which he did, according to the established planning of the day, with long curved streets and a large central parkway that was named for Herbert Hoover, since he had supervised the relief effort at Columbus. Some houses and buildings were salvaged from the old town and moved to the new site, but despite the new town plan on higher ground, a majority of the residents seem to have left the area altogether, and the new town was much smaller than the one it had replaced. Unless one were to look at a map, it would be easy to visit the new Columbus and never notice that it had been a planned development. Yet on a map, the modernistic design can be easily seen, even though the lack of buildings and residents make it look incomplete.
I had only been to Hickman, Kentucky on one previous occasion, back when I was in college at the University of Tennessee at Martin. It had been the closest Mississippi River town to the campus, and I drove up there one evening to see it, and ended up eating a hamburger at a bar on the main street of the downtown, Clinton Street. I recalled it as a sort of romantic spot, with an old and historic courthouse high up on the bluff above the old downtown, which was starting to be abandoned due to river scouring of the bluff on which the downtown area sat. At least part of Clinton Street had been barricaded off, and the folks in the bar and grill told me that the area had had to be abandoned due to the instability. That would have been in April of 1987, and I was curious to see how Hickman looked nowadays. In some ways, things had changed for the better, or at least one thing had, in that the Corps of Engineers had received funding to stabilize the bluff, which they did. The project also resulted in a beautiful overlook of the swamps and Mississippi River at a distance, and there’s no better place to park the car and shoot some photos, or just enjoy some peace and quiet. At the highest point of the bluff, I also found that the historic and beautiful Fulton County Courthouse was still standing and in good condition. But down the bluff in the old downtown, things had changed only for the worse. There was no trace of the old bar and grill where I had eaten back in 1987, and nearly every storefront which remained on Clinton Street was vacant. Many vacant lots were places that I seemed to have recalled being buildings when I was last there, and at least one wall was crumbling into a pile of bricks. There were two abandoned law offices, one with legal books still scattered all over the room visible through the windows, a City of Hickman redevelopment office which seemed something of a cruel joke (for it seemed to need redeveloping itself), and an intriguing building called the LaClede Building, big enough to be a hotel, and with a bizarre keyhole-shaped front entrance that I had never seen on any other building. At the convenience store on the outskirts of town, I tried to ask the young man at the cash register what had happened to Hickman, particularly the downtown area. His answer was simply, “There’s never been much here. We’re a poor city, you know.” I left feeling that more needed to be investigated. The next town of any size upriver is Cairo, Illinois, and the conventional wisdom about Cairo is that it was decimated by the racial war and the Black boycott of businesses between 1969 and 1972, but the similar condition of Hickman, Kentucky, where there was (as far as we know) no dramatic racial conflict or rioting suggests that the decline of river towns might have been inevitable and unpreventable rather than something caused by extraordinary events like those Cairo experienced. At any rate, Hickman is rapidly crumbling, and deserves a better fate. With Clinton Street properly restored, Hickman could become a popular stop on the riverboat vacations, and also a tourist destination, but it will require both vision and money, and Hickman seems to be short on both.