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Natchez Trace Parkway: Blazing trails, attracting dollars

Essential Business

ALONG THE NATCHEZ TRACE — Its origins go back perhaps 8,000 years or more. Over time, it evolved into a vital cog in the economic machine of a new nation.

And then in a flash, it almost vanished entirely.

The Natchez Trace has witnessed fickled, cyclic time. Once an important artery for trade, viewed as a potential money-maker by innkeepers and store owners, today the “Trace” is a national parkway, with miles and miles of tranquil roadway unsullied by modern “sprawl” such as fast food and billboards.

Now, its seems interest in the parkway has swung back the other way. Some are seeing funds and improvements being funneled into the roadway as a positive for Mississippi’s economy. Development has begun along the Trace, especially in the metro Jackson area, to take advantage of more visitors and more wallets.

The Natchez Trace’s origin is not known. It is believed that the Native Americans had a trail that ran northeast from Natchez all the way to the Tennessee River Valley perhaps as early as 6000 B.C.E. A French map from 1733 shows the trail distinctly.

By 1785, farms and businesses in the Ohio River Valley were floating their wares and crops down the Mississippi River to Natchez or New Orleans, where they sold everything, including their boats. They used the Natchez Trace to trek home. By 1810, it had become a vital wilderness road, and pioneering entrepreneurs opened inns (called “stands”) and stores along its route.

But the Trace disappeared off maps even by 1820. Robbers, hostile Indians, disease-carrying insects and swamps and floods meant the demise of the Trace as a preferred route.

In the end, however, the beauty of the trail survived. Today, the Trace is one of only four national parkways in the National Park System. The park encompasses 51,000-plus acres from Nashville to Natchez — 450 miles, with over half of those in Mississippi and park headquarters located at Tupelo. In Mississippi, numerous side offerings such as pioneer life exhibitions at French Camp and the Battle of Raymond site have drawn thousands of visitors annually, and is also a favorite bicycle tour.

One liability Mississippi has suffered from is the only significant gap in its route, a 15-mile break from Interstate 55 to Interstate 20 at Jackson. Visitors have been forced to take a wide detour, causing traveler confusion and denying communities in the metro Jackson the chance to cultivate tourism from the parkway.

That is finally being remedied. Work to close the gap is underway, a $45-million project that is expected to be complete in 2005.

The City of Clinton has already begun work on a $1.5-million welcome center near a planned Clinton exit near the Pinehaven Road area. Mayor Rosemary Aultman said proposed designs are being scrutinized now, and while completion time is contingent on the parkway construction, she estimated the facility opening sometime in 2004. Aultman said further development may follow.

“We are definitely looking for an increase in visitors and tourists,” Aultman said. “We are expecting more people to visit our historic buildings, visit Mississippi College and generally look over our city. We’re excited about it. And, yes, we plan to take advantage of the extra visitors.”

Another person excited about the construction is Martha Garrott. Garrott is director of the Mississippi Crafts Center, a stop on the Trace less than a mile from the north end of the gap, offering arts and crafts by local artisans and workshops. Garrott said a 25-year average for annual traffic through the center’s door is 30,000 people, with 70% of those from out-of-state.

Garrott said she welcomes the gap closure, not only because she hopes for more visitors, but happier ones, too.

“As the last stop before the gap going south, and the first one after you get back on going north, we get a lot of people in here that are upset because they just detoured at Clinton and nobody could tell them how to get here, or they’re miffed because they’re about to have to get off the Trace and travel the busy interstate to pick the Trace back up at Clinton,” Garrott said, laughing.

Garrott said plans are already underway to build a new crafts center. She said funding has been secured and land was being searched out, adding it would be “very close” to the current site. She said the new facility would be larger, with more offerings, but she had no estimate for its completion.

Yet another shot in the arm for the Trace could be a new push to better document U.S. Grant’s Civil War route to Vicksburg, part of which parallels and includes the Trace.

However, there obviously has to be a balance between development and maintaining the Trace’s beauty, the reason tourists traverse the parkway in the first place. Some are concerned that the Trace could be over-exploited.

Contact MBJ staff writer Wally Northway at northway@msbusiness.com.

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