Rocky Springs: Walking the Trace in the footsteps of ghosts
Published: March 27,2014
There is something intriguing about ghost towns, and Rocky Springs in Claiborne County is no exception. The town site off the Natchez Trace Parkway exit at mile marker 54.8 on the southern end of the Parkway is very popular with visitors.
The ghost town is the center of a rural area that covered about 25 square miles. It was a cotton town that started in the late 1790s. Population increased dramatically with the cotton boom, peaking about 1907. The town’s fortunes and population dropped precipitously as a result of the devastation caused to cotton by the boll weevil.
“That basically wiped out the town,” said Kristen Maxfield, interpretive park ranger, Natchez Trace Parkway, National Park Service. “The last store closed in the 1930s. That area also had other issues. The soil is very highly erodible. If you walk through that area you can still see the scars from the way they farmed, which was not the best to prevent erosion. The town also had problems with diseases like yellow fever. But it was really the boll weevil that killed the town.”
Eight miles of the old Natchez Trace went through the Rocky Springs area, so there were places in Rocky Springs that provided food and shelter for travelers. The Natchez Trace probably began as a wildlife trail, and was used by the American Indians for thousands of years.
“It was a popular travel route for settlers from 1780 to the late 1820s,” Maxfield said. “What caused the decline of travel on the Trace was other roads were built and with the advent of streamboat travel in 1820s, it became easier to take a steamboat than walk.”
Currently there are only a few remnants left of the earlier thriving community. A couple of safes that may have come from banks or a post office, and a few cisterns, which were used to capture and store water. Just off the park property overlooking the townsite is a United Methodist Church built in 1837 that has a cemetery attached. Services were still held at the United Methodist Church until about five years ago.
In addition to the campground at the Rocky Springs pulloff, there is also a self-guided trail through the town site at Rocky Springs and a segment of the Natchez Trace Scenic trail that goes through the Rocky Springs site that is about seven miles long.
“A lot of people enjoy that,” Maxfield said. “The entire Natchez Trace Parkway is designated a National Scenic Trail, and Rocky Springs is one of five hiking trail segments along the parkway. There is also a short segment of the historic old Natchez Trace that you can walk at Rocky Springs. It runs from the campground to near the town site.”
Rocky Springs once had a famous tavern owned by Isaac Powers, who was also the postmaster. During these early days, travel on the Trace was by no means safe and it is interesting to note that it was near Rocky Springs that the infamous outlaw John Mason once lived, according to Joyce Shannon Bridges and Ellen Pack writing for MSGenWeb, an online source for Mississippi genealogical resources.
“The settlement grew and the 1829 election precinct received 90 votes,” Bridges and Pack said. “As early as 1837 there were a number of residents, several stores including ones owned by Garrett Keirn and a Mr. Drexler, and a church. The first private school, the Rocky Springs Academy, opened on the 1st of January, 1838, under the direction of Mr. Holmes.”
The area reached a maximum population of about 2,600, plus slaves. In 1860 the population was 2,216, plus about 2,000 slaves, all living within a 25-square-mile area.
“The decline of Rocky Springs began during the Civil War,” Bridges and Pack said. “Then, in 1878, the town was struck by yellow fever. In the early 1900’s, the boll weevil destroyed most of the cotton crop. Additionally, burdensome taxes, the town’s inaccessibility, and almost 100 years of poor farm management causing erosion of the soft soil, created the demise of Rocky Springs. One by one, the citizens began to move away. Finally, in the 1930’s, the last store closed. Even the natural springs, for which the town was named, began to dry up.”
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