Port Gibson. No, I’m not going to say that it was the city so beautiful that even that rascal Gen. Grant wouldn’t burn it down. But it is a beauty–an old town up the river from Natchez and down the river from Vicksburg with all sorts of antebellum houses, even commercial buildings (very rare in the state), a beautiful Moorish synogogue, a Presbyterian church with a golden hand pointing from its steeple to heaven, old trees.
How do I summarize the last decade or two in a few easy paragraphs? Ok, here goes. Highway 61, a federal highway that MDOT has been widening to a limited access, pretty-much-an-interstate, runs all the way from north to south through Mississippi. In Port Gibson, Hwy 61 becomes Church Street, and all those lumber trucks and heavy equipment, and you and me in our little cars, end up having to stop and start, stop and start, all the way through town, past all those beautiful historic houses, rumbling and bumbling along. “Well,” MDOT says, “we need to improve this road.” Which is true, and let me tell you right now, it’s a big concession for me to say that anything out of MDOT is true. The problem is how to improve the road–leave Hwy 61 as Church St and plow an even deeper furough through town, or bypass Port Gibson, as Hwy 61 does in many other towns, and leave the people of Church St in peace for a change. You can’t bypass to the west because that’s where the important events of the Port Gibson Battlefield took place–the Shaifer House with its bullet holes, deep old Shaifer Road, etc. So, go to the east, you say, easy! Not so fast, buckaroo! Environmental issues to the east.
So, what’s MDOT to do? Well, here’s another problem (they just pile up on this one): a few years ago, the mayor and city council told MDOT they didn’t want to be bypassed–”plow on down Church Street, MDOT,” they said. Not coincidentally, the mayor and council got canned not too long after that, and the current leadership says, “no way you’re coming down Church Street, build a by-pass!” But MDOT is still going merrily along with the previous mayor’s plan. When the federal government, said, “um, did you notice that your project is in the middle of one of the most significant National Register historic districts in the state of Mississippi, and we won’t pay your bills if you do that?,” MDOT said, “Oh, didn’t you know that you were only paying for the rest of Hwy 61, not this little few-mile section??” Yes, seriously, that’s what they said.
So, we’re at an impasse. If MDOT does try any trickery, I fully expect the garden club ladies of Port Gibson to lay down in Church Street in front of any and all heavy machinery. Mississippi men should know better than to tick off the garden club ladies–why put yourselves through that?
Take a look at the Port Gibson Heritage Trust website for more of the inside scoop on this doozy of a preservation controversy.
Update: Sept. 2009–Church Street was listed on the Mississippi Heritage Trust’s list of Mississippi’s 10 Most Endangered Places. As usual, a silent auction of artwork related to the newly listed properties was held, and the Church Street entry by Briar Jones of Starkville included this piece that pointedly highlighted the town’s dispute with MDOT: