29 January, 2014

Arrival in the Big Easy...

Wikipedia aerial view of New Orleans showing the CCC Bridge. The French Quarter is to the right of the CBD buildings.

Our arrival in New Orleans was a little unusual in that we crossed the Mississippi River by the ferry between the suburbs of Algiers and Chalmette, rather than the more obvious route via US-90's CCC (Crescent City Connection) two gigantic twin steel cantilever construction bridges. This routing cost us a whole $1 extra in tolls (since the toll on the bridges was removed about a year ago) but allowed us to visit Chalmette on the way in.

The Chalmette-Algiers ferry is doughnut shaped, and vehicles can drive right around its deck, so unloading and loading can take place simultaneously.

Here, we visited the battlefield and memorial for the Battle of New Orleans (1815) between the British and the Americans, well after the War of Independence. The War of 1812 (et al) was declared by the Americans to counter persistent British meddling to hinder US westward expansion after the Louisiana Purchase. We're of the age to remember that 1959 hit song The Battle of New Orleans and now we have seen the field where it took place. We've seen some of "the briars and the brambles" that the British had to retreat through! The statistics of the battle are amazing (only 20 American casualties compared to 2000 for the British), but looking at the battlefield and how well the US was dug in and defended, it's possible to understand how it happened. As is usual, the preservation of the battlefield and the establishment of the visitors centre by the US National Park Service, is just fantastic!

Painting of the Battle of New Orleans, from a plaque at Chalmette.

The American defences at the Battle of New Orleans.

The Chalmette memorial includes a plot dedicated as war cemetery. It contains mostly Civil War soldiers, very few War of 1814 soldiers, and none of the 2000 British casualties.

When we were finished exploring Charmette and a nearby Bayou, our Garmin navigator led us to our downtown New Orleans hotel through some of the areas which suffered most during Hurricane Katrina. They still look pretty bad - poor, damaged and distressed. We have no idea what is being done, if anything, to assist people with affected property in these poor areas. It's amazing to contemplate that much of New Orleans is actually below sea level due to progressive subsidence of the delta flatlands, "soft sand, silt and clay", so that when the levee system failed, 80% of the city flooded. The average altitude of the city is half a metre below sea level! Unurprisingly, there is debate over whether human intervention in the form of engineered levees (to supplement natural levees) is accelerating subsidence. Whatever, New Orleans appears doomed to more disasters as subsidence progresses and global warming increases. Half of the city's population moved out after Katrina, but it appears that many are moving back.

Our final approach to downtown was right through the French Quarter, and we could see what a delightful area it is. We looked forward to exploring it. Parts of many roads are closed for various maintenance, restoration and improvement projects, so our poor old Garmin got confused, but we got to see a lot of the French Quarter in finding our way. We checked into our hotel, the Hilton Garden Inn, and then it was time to return our RAV4 to Hertz, its owner, and become full-time pedestrians again.

27 January, 2014

Voyage to the end of the River...

Everyone thinks of New Orleans as the end of the Mississippi River, but the truth is, the mighty river doesn't run into the Gulf of Mexico for another 110 miles, all of it part of a huge delta consisting of settled silt after from millenia of flow. We decided to drive 75 miles along the river past New Orleans to the very end of the road (LA-23) at Venice. This drive wasn't in our Plan A, mainly because we didn't know it was possible to get that far. We found that most Louisianans are not aware either, not even the people at the state visitors centre at Vidalia, where we got our maps. Even Venice falls short of the very end by a long way, and we figure that ongoing flow keeps extending the river further, slowly.

It's over 100miles down the Mississippi past New Orleans to where the river actually drains into the Gulf of Mexico. The red dot marks Venice, the end of the road.

At the end of the road!

We don't know how Venice got its name, but it's fair to assume that it is something to do with the abundance of water, in canals, bayous etc. which defines the entire delta area. Venice has suffered two recent catastrophes, devastation Hurricane Katrina in 2005, and oil washup from the BP Deepwater Horizon explosion in 2010. There has been a lot of remediation effort, but it must be a perpetual challenge to keep anywhere based on such shifting sands in good shape. The bottom half of the road has an untidy almost seedy feel about it, but that is typical of seaside towns everywhere where people "muck about in boats" - this one just happens to be very long!

Commercial fishing vessel "Wonder Woman" in one of the several marinas on the road to Venice.

Above ground burial is traditional in New Orleans, but the traditional reason, that being below sea-level, bodies will float out, is not borne out by fact. The tradition is probably an economic one. It's practical to add more family members to above gound tombs. This small cemetery is on the road to Venice.

Like almost everywhere else on the Mississippi, huge levees guard against flood. As usual, it can be hard to get a good view of the river. It's frustrating, from the road you can frequently see the upper decks of huge ships sailing up or down, but often you just can't get a better look at them! On a few occasions, when we saw a ship going by, we scrambled up on the levee to get a better view. This river is a major attraction for ocean going vessel-spotting, but you've got to have a good spot to do it.

This is how you build so you can see ships passing on the Mississippi River, seen at Venice LA.

The Mississippi River is one of the world's busiest shipping lanes. It must be frustrating to have to navigate 100miles up it to the ports of New Orleans, having arrived at the river's end.

Sea bird disturbed by our interest near Venice LA.

Beyond Venice, by boat is the only transport option to get to the end of the river. We didn't contemplate this, but the sheer number of vessels of every description stretching down the delta road, and the presence of maritime industry, big and small, shows that a lot of activity takes place at the end of the river. Sporting fishing is clearly a major attraction during the season - a lot of cheap accommodation and camping areas are in evidence, but it was pretty quiet during our visit. Summer?

Remnant of the drawbridge mechanism on Fort Jackson near Venice. The fort was the scene of Civil War action, and was later used at a Union prison.

Our Plan B was to stay near Venice overnight, then return to New Orleans. It was an interesting exercise finding accommodation options for Venice LA, because online searches kept wanting us to stay in Venice Los Angeles, or even in Italy. In the end, we found one luxurious guest house (Saltbush Lodge) that seemed worth the splurge. It claimed a spectacular view of the passing parade of boats whilst sipping mint juleps on their upper floor balcony, but they didn't respond to our email or 'phone call. No doubt closed for winter. The house, which we located, was spectacular! Plan C, which we eventually executed, became to stay in an busy New Orleans suburb.

Luxurious looking "Saltbush Lodge" would have been a nice base for ship-spotting, but could not be contacted.

26 January, 2014

Down into Louisiana...

From Natchez, we crossed into Louisiana and followed the River Road on the western side, LA-15, then LA-1. Dub, from Nathchez's Steampunk Cafe, had told us to go this way. For long distances, the roads runs along the top of the levee. Farming along this stretch seemed to be rice, pecans and sugar. The land is flat and the farms are big, and we saw several acreages getting sprayed by yellow painted crop dusting aeroplanes. When dusting, they are really close to the ground, maybe only 20-30m up, or less.

Going south, we passed the point (the first on the whole river, we think) where it's the same state on both banks of the Mississippi. From here on, the Mississippi delta seems to be everywhere, and there are extensive engineering efforts apparent to control the river, for irrigation and flood mitigation, no doubt.

John James Audobon Bridge. Image from Wikimedia Commons

We crossed the river on a huge and new John James Audobon Bridge and called into the pretty town of St. Francisville. Before 2011, the only crossing here was a ferry. This blog has mentioned that bridges over the Mississippi are infrequent, because they have to be so big. This new bridge is the only crossing between Natchez and Baton Rouge, and is the largest of its type (cable-stayed) in the USA. It was certainly impressive to drive across! We were anxious to get to the plantations around Vacherie LA, so we didn't hang around in St. Francisville, but took the I-10 to get through/around Baton Ridge quickly.

Cast iron kettle used for sugar refining at Oak Alley. Facsimile slave houses in background.

Old photo of slave houses, from display at Oak Alley.

During the tour at Oak Alley Plantation(which was quite crowded), it occurred to us that there were almost no African-Americans in attendance (and none on our earlier tours either). This surprised us, because as unpleasant as it is, plantation life and slavery is significant part of the history of black Americans forcibly removed from Africa. Southern America is not in denial about the slavery in its past. There are frequent memorials to slavery, and the plantation tours are forthright about it.

The "big house" between the last two 300 year old trees in the Oak Alley. The view from the house 1st floor is stunning, but nowadays, sight of the river itself is obstructed by the flood levy.

Grand columns characteristic of Greek Revival architecture, at Oak Alley big house.

Oak Alley was a sugar plantation (common below Baton Rouge where cotton doesn't survive) - the house and grounds are immaculately preserved, but the orginal slave quarters are gone, and replaced by facsimiles. The most stunning thing about this plantation is the alley of oaks creating a driveway from the house to the river. These are 300 years old, and no-one knows who planted them. The "big house" dates from the early 1800's and was built by slaves for Creole sugar baron Jacques Roman for his bride Celina in the Greek Revival style (read Greek columns!) that we have discovered is very common in the lower Mississippi valley for grand houses and major civic buildings.

Bedroom and nursery of the Oak Alley big house. The furnishings are of the era of the original owners, but are not originals.

Our guide at Oak Alley, beside a map showing the plantations between New Orleans and Natchez.

We enjoyed the house tour: it is guided by men and women resplendent in early 1800 costume. Our guide sounded just like Scarlett O'Hara! Mint juleps were provided, to add a sense of reality. It was interesting to learn that the original house incorporated a spiral staircase in a private location - Creole sensibilities denied all but very close family and friends access to the private quarters upstairs. Later American owners (1920's) installed a regular staircase in the entrance lobby.

The plantation bell at Oak Alley signalled phases of the workday in a slave's life.

25 January, 2014

Natchez: friendly and beautiful...

Natchez MS is a most blessed place, the most appealing of southern towns. It is located on a high bluff on the eastern side of the Mississippi River, several hours upstream of the urban centres of Baton Rouge and New Orleans LA. It enjoys spectacular views upstream (especially) and downstream. The bluffs protect it from flooding, but these are supplemented by ramparts in case of extreme high water. If Natchez's protections are ever threatened, it makes you wonder what would happen to the much lower town, Vidalia, on the Louisiana side of the river!

Long steel bridges joining Mississippi and Louisiana. Our hotel is visible on the ridge in this shot, but our room faced the other way!

The name Natchez stems from the Native Americans who used to live there prior to being scattered by the French colonialists who established a settlement in the 1710's. Thereafter, its owners passed to the British, the Spanish, the Americans, the Confederates and the Americans again after the Civil War.

Remnant of Fort Rosalie in Natchez.

Fortunately for Natchez, it capitulated to the Union Army during the Civil War, and was saved burning. Thus, the present city enjoys some glorious homesteads which predate the war. Confederate spirit survive in Natchez (as elsewhere) - confederate flags abound, and our private conversations with some locals would suggest that the Civil War hasn't yet ended.

This is a Swiss inspired house design right on the bluff in Natchez. It reminds us of a Queenslander contruction.

We have seen many decorated houses on this trip down the Mississippi, but this one in Natchez is possibly the most extreme.

Rocking chairs on front porches are the iconic image of the American deep south.

In fact, it was really easy to meet people in Natchez, because they were so friendly and happy to talk to us, even before they realised we were total foreigners. Like many American cities, being a pedestrian seems to be a rare thing, but we did encounter quite a few people walking the Natchez riverside walk on top of the bluff. As we walked the streets there, and around the town, admiring the splendid buidlings, the few people we bumped into would invariably say "how y'all".

This is an unassuming house, but the sign dates it to 1796 attesting to effective maintenance and renovation with preservation of heritage. Numerous pre-civil war houses can be found in Natchez, just by walking around.

Gas light fittings such as this are very common on houses and buildings south of, say, Memphis. We assume their forebears were lanterns, and newer versions are electric with flickering bulbs.

An internet search led us to a newspaper article about the Steampunk Cafe where we enjoyed cappucinos just like home. (It helps to learn the local lingo though.) The owner, Dub, told us a lot about how he studied coffee culture in Australia, New Zealand and Cyprus before coming up with the formula for his business. It seems to work, and is popular with the locals who filled the place up even on a Sunday morning. He also explained to us that the cafe was in a house built for newly emancipated slaves. Everyone in the cafe, hearing our accents, wanted to talk. Amazingly, their visitors' book showed they had another Sydney couple in only the previous day! Dub also told us of his plans to establish a bar nearby, in a disused and very rusty ex-speak-easy nearby where, he admittted, he had his first illicit drink as a teenager.

Dub, the founder and owner of Steampunk, working his antique espresso machine to make our cappucinos.

Old speak-easy, destined to be Dub's new bar and restaurant, as he expands his Natchez business.

Natchez boasts one of the Mississippi's splendid bridges. There are actually relatively few of these, no doubt because the river is so wide, and the bridges have to be so substantial.

Frequent barges transporting loads up and down the river at Natchez.

The city also boasts two casinos at river level, and also a large number of old pre-civil war mansions which can be visited. We did a tour at Longwood, on a hill on the outskirts of the current town, surrounded by extensive grounds more or less in their natural state. Longwood is the largest octagonal house in the country. The owner, Haller Nutt, had several cotton plantations nearby. Construction started just before the Civil War, and thanks to the war, the inside was never finished, because the craftsmen, all slaves, fled north to join the Union army. It is now preserved in its unfinished state. Only the basement is complete - this is where the family lived and died - and much of their furniture remains in place.

Longwood (1860) is the largest octagonal house in the USA. The structure is compete but only the basement was finished inside. The original huge central finial has fallen off and its remains are inside the house. The one atop this house is a plastic imitation.

Our tour group is shown the basement bedroom of Julia Nutt at Longwood. We never saw any African-Americans on these tours, even though their history is bound up in the Plantations of the deep south.

The unfinished first floor of Longwood, showing the central rotunda.

Looking for an "interesting" bar, we were directed to the Blues and Biscuits in Main Street. The fresh biscuits were exquisite, as was their apricot butter, and the cocktails were good too, but the blues turned out to be piped heavy metal! The next night, Sunday, we couldn't find much else open, so we had dinner there as well.

We couldn't resist an afternoon libation at Fat Mama's Tamales in Natchez. Fat Mama herself instructed us in the consumption of the tamales.

A rustic building in Natchez.

Finally, we discovered that Natchez was the site of one the south's largest slave markets (early mid-1800's). The Forks of the Road was out of town to protect citizens from disease, and it is now just a little, empty, park surrounded by houses and auto repair shops. But the sordid past is there for all to see, with numerous display panels describing the past history of the site. One quotes a contemporary industialist: "Buy More Negros to Make More Cotton to Buy More Negros". It's probably just as well that there is nothing now to see in this park, other than these interpretative panels.
The Natchez slave market, depicted here in this engraving at the Forks of the Road, was one of the biggest in the country.

21 January, 2014

Many States make light work of the journey to Natchez...

Our next major stopping place was to be Natchez MS, and to get there we decided (again) to partly follow the River Road, and partly the Natchez Trace Parkway, with an overnight break in Vicksburg MS. The route we chose had us leaving Tennessee, and going through Mississippi, Arkansas and Louisiana.

Memphis is right on the Mississippi border, so it didn't take us long to leave Tennessee. For about 25 miles after crossing into Mississippi and following the river south, there was a constant stream of casinos. Clinging to the border like this, we figure that gambling must be illegal in Tennessee or Arkansas or both, and this plethora of gaming palaces must be placed to service an unmet demand! Whatever, these enterprises were serviced by an excellent 4 lane highway, and so we covered the distance quickly.
Larger farms have complicated grain-handling facilities.

After Lula, we were able to trace the road immediately on the eastern side of the river (MS-1), but, disappointingly, we still barely got a glimpse of the river. A high levee follows the river to protect against floods - it's possible to go up on the levee in many places, but even then the river may be well hidden behind trees. At Rosedale, there is a large port (the largest in Mississippi, according to something we read) and so the river is accessible, but it is particularly unphotogenic here.

Large flat farms in the Mississippi River breadbasket are irrigated by huge watering machines.

Jim Henson, the creator of Kermit the Frog hails from Mississippi state.

The Mississippi River near Lake Providence LA is lined with river houses many of which have private decks over the water.

We crossed the border into Arkansas between Greenville MS and Fairview AR. Surprisingly and confusingly, the road follows the river upstream for 5 miles or so before heading south again. Along this stretch the river is close and visible, so maybe flooding is not a problem here? Then, after another 20 miles or so of flat farmland on US-65 south, you suddenly cross into Louisiana, and near the town of Lake Providence, we saw many houses right on the river with rustic wharves, piers and decks over the water. These are quite pretty. Then, back across the river for an overnight stop in Vicksburg MS.

Joseph Biedenham "The First Bottling of Coca Cola" which took place in Vicksburg by an entrepreneurial shop-keeper (c) Paul Lowry

The I-20 cruelly bisects the retail business centre of Vicksburg, leading to some very confusing navigation, but, thanks to Clare's research, we found a very pleasant restaurant, Billy's Italian, for the evening meal. This unpretentious place is apparently a Vicksburg institution, and can't be too highly recommended. Very popular too! And for coffee the next morning, we found Caffe Paradiso. The cappucino was good but the business was suffering - the owner told us it's because he can't do drive-thru sales because of the layout. He called it the "money window". Surprisingly, he was a soccer fanatic, and a Manchester United fan to boot. English soccer was playing on the TV in the cafe. He said he had dreams of moving to Europe one day.

Mostly we stopped the car to take photographs!

The next day, we took the southern part of the Natchez Trace Parkway from near Jackson MS right through to Natchez. Driving these Parkways in winter is just so pleasant! And it's a good way to learn much of Amercican history. First of all, its important to understand what the word "trace" means in this context - effectively, its a path marked out by the passage of travellers, be they human or animal. The original Natchez Trace (which the new, manicured and beautifully well paved Parkway closely follows), was worn by animals and then native Indians, linking various Mississippi tribes along the Nashville - Natchez diagonal. In 1801 President Thomas Jefferson further devloped the trace for strategic purposes, and the trace, and the towns along it, became important in the Civil War (1860's).

Imformal cemetery for the Patterson family on the old Natchez Trace near Port Gibson MS.

In some places the original trace is "sunken", soft earth worn down by traffic or years and years.

There are no cross-roads on Parkways. All intersections are accompanied by bridges over or under the road, often with rustic bridges like this one.

The town of Port Gibson lies just off the Parkway, and the battle centred there in 1863 (which included naval battles with "iron clads" on the Mississippi) turned this part of the Civil War in favour of the Union. We were told that victorious Union General, Ulysses Grant, regarded the town as "too beautiful to burn" so he refrained from razing it to the ground, apparently the fate of most defeated towns, like Vicksburg. Accordingly, the town is now a collection of fine old buildings, but it now looks extremely poor and depressed. The population is predominantly black, and it doesn't look as though there is much work here.

~1840 Greek Revival building escaped burning by the Union Army after the Confederate Loss in the Battle of Fort Gibson.

The Church of the Golden Hand has a unique spire in Port Gibson.

How Port Gibson is a port is mysterious to us. It's miles up a tributary to the Mississippi called Bayou Pierre, but at the moment, that creek resembles the NSW Darling River in drought. Maybe it was more fluid in earlier days?

Port Gibson also has an interesting role in Civil Rights history - in 1966, a prolonged black boycott of white owned businesses ultimately led to a Supreme Court decision rejecting compensation claims by the whites. This victory is permanently and prominently recorded in a giant mural in the Port Gibson town square.

The boycott of white merchants in Port Gibson was vidicated by the US Supreme Court in a significant Civil Rights judgement.

The Parkway passes Indian mounds, the largest of which is called "Emerald", quite close to Natchez. Learning about these teaches us ignorant Aussies much more about American Indian culture than we have learned from the movies. These cermonial mounds were built by Mississippi Period natives 800 years ago (!!!) and were still in use until 1730 when the population was disturbed, diseased and decimated by the Spanish and French. Substantial structures were constructed atop Emerald Mound. It is astounding to contemplate the work necessary to construct these mounds - the Mississippians were also accomplished farmers, succesfully cultivating corn, beans and squash, and were skilled hunters and fishermen. Sadly, thanks to white settlement, as a tribe, Mississippi Indians have been blown to the winds.

Part of Emerald Mound, ceremonial site for Mississippian Indians.

Believed ceremonial structure atop Emerald Mound, from Natchez Visitors Welcome Centre.

The 444 mile long Natchez Trace Parkway, of which we drove maybe 160 miles, has delighted and educated us. It comes to its end in Natchez, and the final drive into town is along tree lined streets and passes beautiful old homes. We look forward to our stay in this town!