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|In 1930s, Rep. Busby saw dollars in 'parkway' project|
BY JACK ELLIOTT
(Second in a Series)
Colonel Jim Walton's first known association with the Natchez Trace was in conjunction with the March 10, 1933 dedication of the Natchez Trace monument at Mathiston, MS, only eight miles from his Eupora home and about 20 miles from Starkville.
The monument was erected by the Mississippi State Society -- Daughters of the American Revolution which in 1907 had begun a project to place a marker in every county along the route of the Trace. By 1933 the project came to completion with the last marker dedicated at Thomastown on August 16. Although the monument at Mathiston had been part of the DAR's plan, Walton with typical audacity claimed credit for it. This was probably the reason he didn't receive an invitation to the dedication. However, this didn't prevent his attending.
A newspaper article appeared soon after that described the elaborate ceremony. Besides DAR leaders also present were two college presidents, the Speaker of the State House of Representatives, a platoon of college cadets, a college orchestra, and "several hundred patriotic Webster citizens." Although there was no byline, the story was almost certainly by Colonel Jim. It included an extravagant account of the Trace's history with references to Andrew Jackson and sundry robbers, such as Frank and Jesse James who had actually never set foot on the old road. The article also claimed that the Trace was "probably the oldest highway in the world. Envoys of the Mayan civilization traveled the Trace long before Caesar began the Appian Way --. Ambassadors of the Inca and Montezuma traveled the Trace before Columbus discovered America." Such outlandish claims would later be used by Walton in marketing his "Pave the Trace" effort and even justifying its international aspirations.
Soon after the marker dedication, the Good Roads Association invited him to attend its annual meeting in Beaumont, Texas in October. Apparently inspired by the prospect of meeting with highway promoters and possibly recalling the Natchez Trace marker dedications at Mathiston and Thomastown, Walton put out a call for historical information, because, as he noted, there was "a movement [underway] to reopen the old Natchez Trace as a military highway from Nashville to Natchez." (For Walton, "a movement" was often a euphemistic reference to himself.) He noted that the "Natchez Trace question will probably come up [at the meeting], and I may need the data to champion the rebuilding of the old Trace."
His decision that the road would be a "military highway" was not capricious but combined political savvy with historical fantasy. He claimed that the Federal government owned a 100 foot right-of-way that had been designated as "a post or military road" by certain unnamed acts of Congress in 1818 and 1819 and that it would be "unconstitutional" for Congress to authorize building anything but a post or military road. This was all nonsense; there were no such acts, and there was no Federally-owned right-of-way. However, there was a shrewdness to his plan. By the 1930s highways were being constructed using Federal Aid money matched by state funds. However with a military highway the Federal government would have to pay totally for construction and maintenance, while all traffic -- military and civilian -- could use the road.
Historical fact and fiction were drafted for promotional purposes. In this case, Walton assured his readers that the Trace was not just another old road but in fact was "the oldest highway known in the world." To justify this questionable claim he made the equally questionable claim that "Scientists from the Smithsonian Institute have found Indian picture writing records carved on stone that tend to reveal the history of the Trace as an intercontinental and intertribal highway in use 4,000 years ago." These flamboyant assertions inspired the imaginations of progress-minded newspaper editors who began to promote the project as a link in a highway that would connect Canada with Latin America.
In October Walton attended the Good Roads Association meeting in Beaumont. With the support of Congressman Wilburn Cartwright of Oklahoma, Chairman of the Roads Committee, the subject of the Natchez Trace was addressed and plans were devised for creating a lobbying organization and finding political support. Afterward, with a plan and the backing of the Association, Colonel Jim returned to Mississippi to set the plan into motion.
His visit with Congressman Jeff Busby in Houston, Mississippi produced quick results. Busby claimed to have already given considerable thought to the matter and immediately agreed to introduce legislation in Congress for the construction of a road running "from Nashville to the Louisiana-Mississippi line south of Natchez."
Upon returning to Washington, Busby began investigating the Trace's history and consulted with the Department of the Interior and other government agencies. Furthermore, he changed the project into something that his constituents neither anticipated nor really wanted, namely a parkway. Like Walton, Busby wanted a project that would bring as many Federal dollars as possible into the state. However he apparently discovered that Colonel Jim's promoting the Trace as a military highway was nonsense. However, he was aware that the National Park Service was building a new type of road known as a "parkway," such as the Blue Ridge Parkway, Skyline Drive, and the George Washington Memorial Parkway. Consequently, he determined to have the Park Service build a parkway, a term which had specific connotations, some of which he did not fully grasp.
With this change Busby placed the Natchez Trace project on a trajectory that would have two long-term consequences. First, a parkway was not what the supporters wanted; they wanted a modern highway with international ambitions; few had even heard of a parkway. In a state lacking good roads, what was needed was simply a modern highway to expedite transportation and stimulate commerce. A parkway would not do this, primarily because agricultural and commercial traffic would be prohibited. Second, by requiring undeveloped scenic land along its route, the parkway would not be able to follow the historic Trace, the route of which passed through populated and urban areas.
(Jack Elliott is historical archaeologist for the Mississippi Department of Archives and History. He can be reached at email@example.com.)
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