Rodney – From Prominence to Ghost Town

General Zachary Taylor, by John Sartain, 1848. Click for prints & products.

In the late 1830’s, General Zachary Taylor, on a visit to Rodney, was so taken by the small town, its rich land, and the opportunity to profit from a cotton plantation, that he decided to purchase land in the area. In late 1841, he sold his Louisiana and other Mississippi properties, and in early 1842, purchased the 1,923 acre Cypress Grove Plantation just a few miles south of Rodney, which he renamed the Buena Vista Plantation  The plantation, along with its 81 slaves, cost Taylor $60,000 in cash, the bulk of which represented the proceeds from the sale of his cotton crops, and $35,000 in notes. Though the land lay in one of the richest cotton producing regions in the South, it would take a number of years to become profitable due to the mortgage debt. One visitor described the plantation house as an unpretentious wooden building with a large library and a colonnaded veranda. It was during this time, that Taylor’s daughter, Sarah, eloped with Lieutenant Jefferson Davis, much to her father’s dismay.

Due to his military duties, he was seldom in residence at the plantation, which was run by an overseer. In 1846 he was off to fight in the Mexican-American War and returned a hero. He then retired to Buena Vista, but, was soon nominated for President. After winning the election, he left for the last time in January, 1849, never to return. While in office, he became ill and died on July 9, 1850. Afterwards the Buena Vista Plantation, which was appraised at $20,000 and its 131 slaves at $56,650, was sold.  The plantation house and out buildings were destroyed in the Great Flood of 1927.

In 1843, Rodney was to suffer through a severe epidemic of yellow fever. It was so devastating that the outbreak was reported in national newspapers. The Philadelphia Inquirer and National Gazette, reported on October 26, 1843:

The Fever at Rodney – The last New Orleans papers say that at Rodney, Miss., the yellow fever continued to rage in its most fatal form. All the physicians, without exception, have been taken down with the disease. The death of Dr. J. H. Savage is reported, and Dr. Hulser, Dr. Pickett, Dr. Williams, Dr. Todd, and Dr. Andrews were all down sick.”

More locally, the The Mississippi Free Trader and Natchez Gazette reported on October 7, 1843:

Rodney, Miss – This village, about 40 miles above Natchez, has been visited by the yellow fever. A number of deaths, and a still greater number of well marked cases have occurred – in consequence of which, we are informed by a Natchez physician and another Natchez gentleman who visited Rodney two days ago, the village is almost depopulated. Even the only Apothecary’s shop in the place is closed, as are all the stores. Of course, there will be no need of quarantining against a village having no business and no inhabitants.”

Four years later, in 1847, the town was again visited by the yellow fever, but, this time the duration was much briefer and far less destructive.

The old Masonic Lodge still stand in the ghost town of Rodney, Mississippi. Photo by Dave Alexander. Click for prints & products.

By the 1850’s, Rodney had become the busiest port on the Mississippi River between New Orleans, Louisiana and St. Louis, Missouri. Many of the major steamboats of the era made Rodney one of their chief ports of call. By this time, it had grown to nearly 1,000 area residents and boasted 35 stores, two banks, two newspapers, a large hotel, complete with a ballroom; and several churches and schools. The next decade it grew even faster, quadrupling its size to 4,000 residents by 1860. Its main business streets, Commerce and Magnolia, were lined with businesses including banks, wagon makers, tinsmiths, barbers, doctors, dentists, general mercantile stores, hotels, saloons, and pastry shops. Mississippi Lodge #56 of the Free and Accepted Masons was located in Rodney from the 1850s until the 1920s.

The second church built in Rodney was the Mt. Zion No. 1 Baptist Church in 1850. Also known as the First Baptist church, it is a one-and-a-half-story gable-front frame structure built in a transitional Greek-Gothic Revival architectural style. It features a pointed-arch entrance door with archivolt trim and is topped by a polygonal belfry with domed cap. Prior to 2011, it had been restored and was in very good condition, with its interior paneling, pews, and preacher’s podium intact, and even a basket for visitor contributions. However, the April and May flooding of the Mississippi River took its toll on the building, as well as many others in little Rodney. Its front doors stand open today, displaying fallen paneling, scattered pews, and debris scattered throughout this once important building in the community.

Like so many other southern towns, especially those along the Mississippi River, Rodney got its taste of Civil War action. In June, 1863, 40 Union cavalry troops were disembarked in Rodney to launch a surprise raid to the east on the Confederate controlled Mobile and Ohio Railroad. The Confederates won the engagement, capturing the Union troops which sought to take the Mobile and Ohio Railroad.

USS Rattler

USS Rattler

After the fall of Vicksburg on July 4, 1863, the Confederacy was cut in two. For the next two years Union warships patrolled the Mississippi River to shut down all Confederate river traffic. The “tinclad” gunboat USS Rattler was stationed at Rodney. Though the Navy Admiral, David Porter, had left strict orders that no one was to leave the ship, the crew was restless. When the Reverend Baker, a northern sympathizer, who was to preach at at the Presbyterian Church, invited Captain Walter Fentress and his men to attend services on September 13, 1863, his invitation was accepted. That Sunday morning, the captain, a lieutenant, and some 18 soldiers arrived at the church, dressed in their best uniforms, and quietly seated themselves in the congregation. None were armed except Second Assistant Engineer A. M. Smith, who carried a hidden revolver. The sailors’ need for release from the boredom on the ship, would prove unwise. Just as the second hymn began, a Confederate Calvary commander — Lieutenant Allen walked up to the Reverend Baker, apologized for the interruption, and announced to the congregation that that the church was surrounded by rebels and demanded the surrender of the Union sailors. When Engineer A.M. Smith, drew his pistol and fired a shot through Lieutenant Allen’s hat, all hell broke out, as the congregation dove beneath the pews. At the sound of the shot, the Confederate Cavalry surrounding the building fired through the windows, striking the ceiling or opposite wall. Confederate Lieutenant Allen then shot his revolver once into the ceiling, shouting for all to cease fire. In the end, 17 Federal troops were captured by the Confederates, including the lieutenant and captain.

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