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Natchez Bluff and Riverfront: One of Most Endangered Places in America

Some of America's most irreplaceable landmarks are threatened. This is why the National Trust for Historic Preservation developed its “Most Endangered Historic Places” list.  Eleven new sites representing the diversity and complexity of America's story, and the variety of threats that endanger it, are listed each year.   “Each one is enormously important to our understanding of who we are as a nation and a people,” says Richard Moe, president of the National Trust for Historic Preservation.

The Natchez Bluff and Riverfront were added to the Eleven Most Endangered Places in America list in 1994. The threat was updated in 2003 and again in 2007.

The strip of green skirting the edge of the Natchez Bluff was laid out by the Spanish in 1790 as a public park and “is certainly among the oldest undeveloped public spaces in America,” according to the National Trust for Historic Preservation. In 1804, in recognition of the importance of the public bluff, the U.S. Congress declared that the Natchez Bluff “shall be preserved forever as a public ground.” (Read more on the U.S. Congress and the Natchez Bluff in full text of Stanley Nelson’s column in The Concordia Sentinel.)

Today, the fear at the national and local level is that shortsighted developers and influence leaders will eventually accomplish what wars, floods, and economic hard times were never able to do: Destroy the bluff, an irreplaceable national treasure and a natural wonder, and further diminish Natchez’ incomparable collection of historic resources.

Natchez: Unique and Critical to the Story America and the Mississippi River

Natchez is “unique to the American landscape and critical
to telling the story of the Mississippi River.”
Richard Moe, President, National Trust for Historic Preservation, October 2005

Click for larger image

The location of Natchez along the banks of the Mississippi and its intact collection of 18th, 19th, and 20th century buildings forms an ensemble that has been met with international acclaim and has proven to be a strong economic engine.  This treasure-trove of great architecture draws a quarter-million tourists annually.

-Richard Moe, President
National Trust for Historic Preservation
October 2005

The Threat:  1994

THEN:  After riverboat gambling was legalized in Natchez in 1990, city leaders wisely adopted a plan to control gaming-related development that might occur. But in the 1990s, disregarding that plan, they gave preliminary approval to construction of a massive 10-story structure, comprising a hotel and 850-car parking garage, that would have loomed over the riverfront Under-the-Hill Historic District and spoiled the view of the Mississippi River bluff atop which the city stands. Residents fear that this will be just the beginning, and that additional inappropriate development will accomplish what wars, floods and economic hard times were never able to do: scar the beautiful face of historic Natchez.

www.nationaltrust.org
See 1994 Update

NOW: Fortunately, the 10-story hotel and massive parking garage were never realized. Instead, a four-story, pre-fabricated hotel on the bluff top opened in 2008. Less than half the size of the earlier hotel plan, the structure is still enormously out of proportion with the surrounding 19th century neighborhood. The new hotel - The Country Inn and Suites - stretches across an entire city block and is now the most prominent structure on the bluff skyline. In negotiations with the Historic Natchez Foundation and the Preservation Commission, the developer agreed to use attractive brick with stone trim for the exterior instead of the Drivet-type stucco commonly used on interstate chain motels.

The Threat: 2003

THEN: Development pressure on the city's water front has intensified. The mayor and city council have hired a consultant to develop a retail plan that is focused on the water front. In addition, the city has developed a second landing site within the city for an additional gambling boat.

www.nationaltrust.org
See January 2003
Update

NOW: In 2007, the city optioned the last remaining public waterfront, Roth's Hill landing, to a private developer who plans a large land-based casino complex, including a multilevel parking garage and retail buildings at the foot of Roth's Hill on the river's edge. The area is 7 feet below flood level.

The Threat: 2007

In addition to the threat of inappropriate development, the ongoing erosion of the vertical loess bluff in the 1980’s and 90’s endangered not only historic treasures, but also the safety of residents and tourists alike.

THEN: In the late 1990s, erosion was perhaps the biggest threat posed to the City of Natchez and to the Natchez bluffs.

Working cooperatively with the Corps of Engineers and the Mississippi Department of Archives and History, the City of Natchez stabilized the bluffs, halting erosion which would certainly have destroyed a view of the Mississippi River some describe as “being second to none.”

In recognition of the heroic effort necessary to stabilize the bluff and to protect threatened historic resources, the National Trust awarded a National Preservation Honor Award to the City of Natchez and project partners in 2004.

See 2007 Update


NOW: 
Today, the geological conditions that warranted the $30 million stabilization project, which features a massive soil nailed wall, are still present. 

Nevertheless, in 2006, the City of Natchez sold a portion of the publicly owned bluff top to develop condominiums on the edge of the newly stabilized bluff.    In addition, city leaders, desperate for incremental tax relief and quick economic fixes, have publicly indicated a willingness to sell other portions of the public bluff park for private development, including the historic railroad depot, a Mississippi Landmark site.

Geologists warn and residents fear that the construction activity on and near the bluff, the mass and weight of the structures and ongoing water activity (rainfall, leaky utilities and swimming pools for instance) will compromise the soil-nailed wall and further destabilize the  bluff.

2003 Federal Highway Administration Warns
Soil Nail Walls Can Fail in Loess Soil

In 2003, after the Corps of Engineers completed the Natchez stabilization project in which soil nails were used in water-soluble loess soil for the first time in  the United States,  the Federal Highway Administration (FHA)  issued a technical report analyzing soil nailed wall techniques.  

In this report, the FHA warns that soil nail walls in loess soil CAN FAIL and that soil nail wall failure is exacerbated by water activity, construction vibration, and removal of previous slide debris at the toe of the cliff. The failures can occur as slumps or collapses marked by mudslides, heaves at the toe of the wall and fractures parallel to, and often about 30-40 feet back from the wall.

Local geologist John Bornman, in a letter to city leaders in 2006 stated the obvious and provided the simple solution:

No study has ever found that the slumping that has taken place throughout recorded history is finished. To the contrary, all studies conclude,  “A continuation of the slides along the bluffs is inevitable”.…

[You] might think of the ramifications should some condominiums slide into the river…. More than likely, every party even remotely responsible will be named.  I do not believe you or future aldermen and other city officials would risk facing this liability. This is especially true when the solution is so apparent. Build in a safe location!”

John P. Bornman, Jr. Geologist
Letter to Mayor Phillip West and Natchez Board of Aldermen
February 2, 2006

 
Sources:
  • America’s Most Endangered Report. National Trust for Historic Preservation.  www.nationaltrust.org.
  • Letter from Richard Moe to Mayor Philip West, October 4, 2005.
  • Geotechnical Engineering Circular No. 7: Soil Nail Walls. Technical Manual 2001-2002. (350 pages). FHWA-IF-03-017. Office of Technology Applications, Office of Engineering Bridge Division, Federal Highway Administration, U.S. Department of Transportation, 400 Seventh Street, S.W., Washington D.C. GeoSyntec Consultants, 10015 Old Columbia Road, Suite A-200; Columbia, MD 21046. http://www.fhwa.dot.gov/engineering/geotech/library_sub.cfm?keyword=020
  • The Natchez Bluff Study. Volume 1, September 1985. (23 pages) US Army Corps of Engineers, Vicksburg District. Prepared for United States Department of the Interior National Park Service.
  • Geology of the Natchez Bluffs. Letter and Report to Mayor Phillip West.  John P. Bornman, Jr. February 2, 2006.
  • U.S. Congressional Report No. 100, Pages 177 to 180, 8th Congress, 1st Session, March 10, 1804. “[I]t shall be preserved forever as a public ground for the health, comfort, and enjoyment of all citizens and strangers indiscriminately; and shall never be built on, or cultivated; but, on the contrary, shall be disposed into public walks and lawns, and planted with trees…and so maintained by it as long as it exists."