Imagine a town so charming that a president of the United States owned property there and planned to make it his retirement home. Imagine a town that was home to one of the great technological innovators of his day. Imagine a town that was well known for its sophistication and culture, a place regularly visited by important people, a place well known for its expositions, where public concerts were common. A place of faith that was home to beautiful churches and was a strong supporter of a nearby college, that still operates to this day. A place that almost became the capital of one of the wealthiest states of the United States, it fell short by three votes. Now imagine that this town no longer exists!
I have just described for you the old town of Rodney. Rodney lay about 40 miles “as the crow flies” south of Vicksburg. The area was named Petit Gulf –little gulf—by the French who were the first European settlers of this region. The area was first settled when General Phineas Lyman led and expedition from New England about 1774. Lyman, a colonial officer had fought with distinction in the recently concluded French and Indian War and was rewarded with a sizable land grant in the new British West Florida colony. Captain Matthew Phelps, a member of that expedition describes the area a firm rock on the east bank extending about a mile inland. The wooded bluffs are high and very broken but the soil is rich and several plantations have been established there. Firm rock along the lower Mississippi is somewhat rare and this made the area very attractive as a settlement. During the American Revolution, the area is annexed by Spain, the land comes into possession of a man named Thomas Calvit via a Spanish land grant, there he establishes the Town of Rodney in 1828. Although apparently, there was a sizable unincorporated settlement there before this, that went by the name Petit Gulf, for when the French naturalist Charles Lesueur sketched the area in 1828 he described a village with 20 buildings of both one and two stories.
The town was named for Thomas Rodney -- a territorial judge that had been involved in legal actions involving the ill-fated Arron Burr expedition. By the 1850’s there were many stores, a bank, a newspaper, and the area was noted for its county fairs, which exhibited some of the finest livestock in the lower Mississippi Valley, and the trophies awarded were made of silver. The congregation of the Presbyterian church donated 1000 silver dollars, to be made into a bell for the church tower. Exact population figures are hard to find, but from the number of stores and the size of the remaining structures, there may have been 1000-1200 people living and doing business in or around the small town.
The town was a strong supporter of Oakland College in fact the minister of the Rodney Presbyterian Church became the college’s first president. Today that school lives on in the form of Alcorn State University. Such notables as Henry Clay and Andrew Jackson visited the town. Zachary Taylor who was one of the most famous men of his day was so impressed with the town that he bought a large plantation named Cypress Grove nearby, selling properties in both Mississippi and Louisiana to do so. Taylor was living at Cypress Grove when he was elected President. Another nearby plantation, Laurel Hill, was owned by Dr. Rush Nutt. I know you have never heard of Dr. Nutt today but think of him as the Steve Jobs of his day, an innovator in agriculture just as Jobs innovated in technology. He encouraged soil conservation, made improvements to the cotton gin and developed a strain of cotton that put Mississippi on the map at a time when cotton was 60% of the economy of the whole country. His son Haller was the builder of Longwood, the famous unfinished mansion of Natchez.
So, what happened, the same thing that happened to small towns across America when the interstates came through, it was bypassed! Shortly after the Civil War the current of the Mississippi began to shift as it was wont to do in those days, and a sandbar began to form in front of Rodney and continued to grow as the current shifted west, today the town site is almost two miles from the Mississippi. Still the town might have limped on in a diminished state if not for a mighty one two hammer blow in the form of a terrible fire in 1869. The officers of the steamer Richmond described the scene:
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
Another blow came from Yellow Fever in the late 19th century, and when the Rail Road chose to go through the town of Fayette 12 miles to the South East it effectively nailed the coffin lid shut on a once thriving town. Even the Presbyterian church shut its door in 1923 when the congregation dwindled to sixteen. In 1930 the governor of Mississippi signed the death certificate of Rodney when he officially pulled the town charter.
The Presbyterian and the Baptist church still stand, though bereft of any congregation. The Baptist will not last much longer, flood waters damaged it in in 2011, the remnants of an old wooden store stand nearby. A few houses and trailers dot the landscape some of them also abandoned by the looks of it. The sole structure that has any long-term prospects is the Catholic Church for it was disassembled and moved to Grand Gulf State Park a number of years ago, but it too is just a ghost another spirit of a time long ago, another inhabitant of Mississippi’s Ghost towns and Graveyards.