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Story Archives: Col. Jim discarded once Congress backed Parkway
|Col. Jim discarded once Congress backed Parkway|
(Fourth in a Series)
By Jack D. Elliott, Jr.
In May 2005 the last sections of the Natchez Trace Parkway were completed and opened to the public with much pomp and ceremony. Construction had begun in 1938 so it had taken 67 years to complete the project.
Although the names of many people were mentioned and applauded, one name was conspicuously absent, that of a person without whom the Parkway would have never existed, the controversial Colonel Jim Walton of Eupora MS.
In Washington, on January 24, 1934, Congressman Jeff Busby of Houston, MS, announced the introduction of a $50,000 appropriation bill in Congress for a survey of a road "to be known as the Natchez Trace Parkway." This survey bill would be followed by a $25,000,000 bill for constructing the parkway.
Although the parkway concept was almost certainly broached at the convention by the National Park Service representatives, Busby's announcement was probably the first time that most had even heard the term "parkway," accustomed as they were to the "military highway." Few, no doubt, paid much attention to the change in terminology. Most of the supporters were still thinking of the Natchez Trace project in terms that Colonel Jim had laid out: a highway with symbolic linkages to the Natchez Trace that would provide a major civilian and military transportation corridor extending across much of North America if not South America too. Oblivious to the fact that the Park Service was talking about its being a parkway which would preclude its use for economic development, the Natchez Democrat almost immediately launched into euphoric and nebulous speculation about the national attention the road was likely to command "for the reason that the continuation of the Old Natchez Trace from Natchez carries it across the Mississippi river to Vidalia, La., and thence to Laredo, Texas, and on to Mexico City and already a well-defined movement has been launched for an international highway which would run from Laredo south through Mexico to South America." For these reasons, the newspaper crowed, the Trace would bring "undreamed of possibilities for Natchez."
Meanwhile in early February 1934, Colonel Walton, field director for the Natchez Trace Military Highway Association, was on a whirlwind tour promoting the Natchez Trace's role as a key link in the fanciful intercontinental highway connecting Canada to Latin America via Natchez.
However, trouble was brewing. In a letter in the February 15 issue of Eupora's Webster Progress, Colonel Jim railed:
"Coming to me is authentic information that Mrs. J.S. Mayfield, president Natchez Trace Military Highway Association, whom I made state president over the protest of representatives of three powerful women's organizations, is in league with Dr. Dunbar Rowland [Director, State Archives] to destroy me and prevent the Natchez Trace from being paved --.
"The people of Mississippi and beyond know who put the Natchez Trace movement where it is, for the thing was not done in a corner, but in the full glare of publicity --. In spite of hell and high water, the devil and Dr. Dunbar Rowland, the Natchez Trace will be built. I've seen to that, and the honor will be mine."
Although the cause of this outburst is unknown, it is not altogether surprising. Walton's unconventional and flamboyant character must have irritated many. So when a delegation of Natchez Trace supporters traveled to Washington to testify in Congressional hearings, Walton was not among them. Whether he was intentionally excluded or simply could not produce the needed travel funds is not known. Regardless, his former supporters would see fit to "throw the Colonel under the bus," because his flamboyant behavior, which had been an asset, was now a political liability. They would carry on promoting the project, while Colonel Jim would be forgotten.
The Natchez Trace Parkway survey bill was eventually signed into law on May 21, 1934, while the bill authorizing $25 million for construction was defeated. The survey bill would nevertheless provide the basis for the research and fieldwork that began the long process of creating the Parkway. It established once and for all that the road would be a scenic parkway with all that that would entail; it would not be, as most envisioned, a highway formed from numerous county roads (including sections of the old Trace) spliced together and paved all for the purpose of economic development. Furthermore, requirements for developing scenic parkways prevented the Natchez Trace Parkway from closely following the route of the Natchez Trace so the route selected was more often than not miles from the original route.
This however violated the assumption that a historic park is actually on historic land, the discrepancy was justified by defining the Parkway as "memorializing" the Trace which at first glance was little more than an acknowledgment of the DAR's goal to memorialize the old road. Consequently, the parkway's alignment would only approximate the historic route while incorporating sufficient historical associations to keep the Trace theme in mind if not present in space.
Bits of original Trace, historic sites, and natural sites would be incorporated as roadside pull-offs, where feasible, to provide attractions for travelers. Because many of the associated historical sites were too distant to be incorporated, vicarious sites were created with interpretive signage detailing the history of the respective site and its direction and distance. Perhaps the most interesting features were the Indian mounds located on the Parkway which, although located miles from the old Trace, nevertheless became linked by association to the historic road. Predating the Trace by centuries, their presence provided tacit (if spurious) support for Colonel Walton's claim that it was the oldest road in the world. In the end the National Park Service had to create a parkway plan that brought the fantasies and bluster that dominated the Natchez Trace movement into conflict with the realities of legislation and the landscape.
(Jack Elliott is historical archaeologist for the Mississippi Department of Archives and History. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.)
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