This Mississippi River hotspot is known for history, haunts and a 20th Century phenomenon.
By Doug Segrest
» Spotlighting special towns across Mississippi, Good Towns, presented by Regions Bank, is about the character, the history, the people and the unique things that make a town a special place.
High above downtown Vicksburg, overlooking the Yazoo River as it snakes its way to join the mighty Mississippi, Ginger Donohue surveys the landscape as the sun sets over neighboring Louisiana. She takes a deep breath and sighs contentedly.
She’s visiting with friends, giving them a both a visual and verbal lay of the land from atop the roof of the 10 South Rooftop Bar and Grill.
“I was born and raised here, and I love my city,” Donohue said. “When you go anywhere around here, people recognize you. And no matter where you go, you’ve got a friend.”
A Regions banker, Donohue works in nearby Beechwood. Beyond her banking role, she’s an unofficial tour guide, with dozens of stories and even more suggested must-visit stops. Just make sure you have plenty of time to spare. There’s a lot to see – especially for history buffs. The town on the banks of the Big Muddy first boomed as a 19th Century trade center, played a pivotal role in the American Civil War and helped launch a commercial icon.
And, as with so many Southern towns with a past, it has ghost stories aplenty.
Coca-Cola is a product of Atlanta, but the soft drink was first bottled in Vicksburg, thanks to the ingenuity of local businessman Joe Biedenharn. Along with candy, Biedenharn served fountain drinks that became available when the soda pop company shared its syrup with small stores across the South. But his customers wanted more – namely the opportunity to take Coca-Cola home.
So Biedenharn asked the Coca-Cola Company for permission to bottle the concoction in his store. Surprisingly, the request was granted without hesitation. Wearing a heavy coat, wooden shoes and a mask to protect himself from the occasional exploding glass bottle, Biedenharn went to work creating a cultural phenomenon.
Since 1979, the Biedenharn Coca-Cola Museum has provided a moment frozen in time – 1894, when Biedenharn first filled the blob-top bottle embossed with his name and location. Thanks to a joint effort by the Biedenharn family and the Vicksburg Foundation for Historic Preservation, a visit to the candy store lures tourists wanting to learn about the evolution of the soda bottle and Coke’s rise to business prominence. And, the bonus? Try the original Coca-Cola ice cream float at the counter, as Joe intended.
There’s even a mural commemorating Biedenharn’s breakthrough a few blocks away. At the time of the bottle invention, Vicksburg was the state’s largest city. Much of its history is captured on the Vicksburg Riverfront Murals, from the city’s origins as a key port on the Mississippi, with tributes to the town’s contribution to the Civil Rights Movement, politics and its longtime role as host of the Miss Mississippi Pageant.
Located on a contemporary cul-de-sac, the tour of the McRaven Mansion begins by opening a simple metal gate that leads to a garden path meandering through a canopy of trees. At the end of the walkway stands the “Most Haunted House” in Mississippi.
It was initially erected in 1797 as a two-room frontier home for highwaymen Andrew Glass, who earned his keep by robbing people along the Natchez Trace before returning to McRaven to hide out. In 1836, Sheriff Stephen Howard became the new owner and added a dining room, a second bedroom and a two-story, covered porch to create the perfect home for his young bride, Mary Elizabeth. But, alas, she lost her life following complications from childbirth, and the grieving lawman eventually moved.
In 1849, Pennsylvania-born businessman John H. Bobb added a third wing in a Greek Revival style that created the house visitors see today. Adorned with 19th Century art and museum-quality antiques, including a two-person “courting couch” that allowed would-be lovers to get to know each other without getting too close, this is the version that tourists have clamored to see since it was opened to the public in 1961.
The home was used as a field hospital during the Battle of Vicksburg and took more than 500 direct mortar hits during the accompanying siege. Even today, with the scars of the past still visible, the home is awe inspiring.
And, says McRaven docent John Tinsley, it really is haunted.
Five people died in the house, including the 15-year-old Mary Elizabeth. The property’s managers say she’s responsible for the bedside lamp in her room, that inexplicably turns on and off, and the ghostly apparition seen at night on the house’s flying-wing staircase. A 20th Century owner of the McRaven house claimed to see former resident William Murray on the staircase – years after Murray died in the house. According to legend, the frightened man ran to the master bedroom, locked himself inside and called his Episcopal priest to come and bless the house.
Weeknight haunted tours are available for booking, with a minimum of a paranormal party of four, as well as private ghost investigations that come at a not-so-scary good price.
Pass the Vittles
After even a daytime tour of McRaven and your introduction to Mary Elizabeth, the Walnut Hills Restaurant is the ideal place to recharge. In a quaint Olde Town Vicksburg home, the Southern cuisine features everything from fried chicken to steaks and seafood.
And it’s all served in the dining room on a big table, seating up to a dozen guests who spin a Lazy Susan to access the plethora of options. Several mouth-watering main entrees are offered, along with a hearty sampling of home-cooked vegetables that will please any palette.
As good as the food is, the atmosphere is uniquely Vicksburg. If only Mary Elizabeth were here …
Let the food settle or work it off. Much of Vicksburg is walkable, from the riverfront murals and casinos to the commerce district to Olde Town. The Lower Mississippi River Museum provides interactive exhibits dedicated to the waters that have shaped this town in more ways than one. An outdoors flood model illustrates the many factors that can change a river. The museum also shows how people have leveraged the river as a valuable natural resource for generations. And the M/V Mississippi IV, a U.S. Army Corps of Engineers workboat, can be toured from stem to stern.
Nearby, the Duff Green Mansion is a stately bed-and-breakfast featuring a ballroom that welcomed Union Gen. Ulysses S. Grant and former Confederate President Jefferson Davis to formal dances. And, of course, it has its own ghost story, too.
Also close by, the Cedar Grove Mansion Inn and Restaurant offers romantic getaways and is one of the region’s most popular wedding destinations.
And if you love military history, Navy Circle, overlooking the river (and just off the interstate), was the site of the Union siege position that helped turn the Civil War and preserve the Union.
Where War Turned
Vicksburg was incorporated in 1825 and named after Methodist missionary Newitt Vick. Long before, it was occupied by Natchez Native Americans. The first Europeans settled here by establishing Fort Saint-Pierre on the bluffs above the water.
In 1863, Vicksburg became a turning point of the American Civil War. According to President Abraham Lincoln, Vicksburg was the key, “and the war can never be bought to a close until that key is in our pocket.”
The Campaign for Vicksburg, intended to split the South in half, began in 1862 under the direction of Gen. Grant. The siege, with Vicksburg surrounded and the Mississippi River secured, lasted 47 days until the city’s surrender on July 4, 1863. It coincided with the Union’s victory over the Confederacy in Gettysburg, Pennsylvania, turning the tide of the war.
Now a National Military Park, the enormous history here is best absorbed in the early morning as dew covers the battleground and a light fog shrouds the trees. There are many ways to tour the park, including a walking, hiking and a biking trail, and there are licensed battlefield guides for hire, as well as living history reenactments.
The park is vast, so plan on spending a full day there. And while this living monument was forged in tragedy, there is abundant natural beauty in this rolling terrain. Terrain that, like almost everything else in town, was shaped by – and points people back to – that mighty river.
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