Under-the-Hill sees constant change
By Carolyn Vance Smith
When the Delta Queen and the Mississippi Queen dock at Natchez Under-the-Hill Tuesday in their race from New Orleans to St. Louis, the area will resemble in some ways how it looked in 1870, when the Natchez and the Robert E. Lee puffed into the wharf.
There’ll be thousands of people cheering, lots of excitement and business operating at full tilt.
But Natchez Under-the-Hill is not really the same any more. It has changed in the last century.
In fact, the area has known nothing but change ever since it was established, presumably by French colonists in the early 1700s.
Until the late 1700s, Natchez On-Top-of-the-Hill did not exist. The only town called Natchez in the 18th century was Under-the-Hill, which, according to historian J.F.H. Claiborne, was “quite an extensive and heavy battery.”
The large area contained the main street, Silver Street, as well as Fulton Street, Water Street, Levee Street, Ferry Street, Little Street and others.
In this town during the early years were a quarter-mile racetrack, private dwellings, saloons, hotels, warehouses, fisheries, grocery stores, a coalyard, an icehouse, a water works, a public steamboat landing on an ark-like wharfboat and the Bluff City Railroad.
It was this landing that attracted early flatboatmen from the North, who floated down the Mississippi River, sold their goods and their boats and trekked homeward on the 450-mile footpath called the Natchez Trace.
It was this landing that was the United States’ southwesternmost outlet, when in 1798 Mississippi became a U.S. territory.
And, it was this landing that, after the advent of steamboating in 1811, became one of the worlds, most flourishing cotton markets.
But the area was constantly changing.
One change, a gradual one, was the actual size of Natchez Under-the-Hill. Because of the river’s fierce current and continual flooding, constant erosion and landslides have caused the landing to lose ground year by year even from early days.
As early as 1797 the sloughing was noticed by experts. A U.S. surveyor, Andrew Ellicott, noted that the Mississippi River was gradually moving eastward and that a true map of the landing could never be drawn.
Another gradual change was the port’s reputation.
Because boatmen, gamblers, river pirates, highwaymen and prostitutes populated the port in the early 19th century, its reputation for many years was offensive.
In 1810 one horrified visitor wrote, “For the size of it there is not, perhaps in the world, a more dissipated spot.”
However, later in the century, when the bandit-plagued Trace gave way to a well-established stage routed, and when steamboating increased the volume of river trade so that respectable firms located Under–the-Hill, the area was periodically cleaned up and made safer.
Some changes have not been so gradual.
One occurred suddenly in 1840, when a severe tornado devastated the landing, causing 400 deaths and the destruction of more than 100 flatboats, two steamboats, a ferry and numerous buildings.
Another occurred during the War Between the states on Sept. 2, 1862, when the gunboat USS Essex landed at Natchez Under-the-Hill to procure ice. It was fired on by the home guard.
In retaliation, the Essex shelled the Natchez heights and the landing. The landing suffered great damage from the bombardment and the fires which followed.
After the war and after the passing of the golden age of steamboating, Natchez Under-the-Hill gradually declined. Its death knell was the completion in 1940 of the Natchez-Vidalia, La., Bridge and the ceasing of ferry operations.
But the reputation and appeal of the place lingered, attracting in the late 1960s and early 1970s D.A. Biglane and other Natchez people, who began buying and restoring buildings there.
The re-establishment of flourishing businesses in these buildings has succeeded in attracting continual crowds of people down Silver Street, thus bringing Natchez Under-the-Hill back to life.
By Carolyn Vance Smith
The Natchez Democrat
Sunday, June 24, 1984