Tag Archives: River Road

Port Gibson, Mississippi – Windsor Ruins

29 Oct

Twenty-Three Columns Are All That Remain of the Grand Plantation Home Windsor

The first time that I visited Windsor I turned off of Highway 61 near Lorman, Mississippi, and drove straight to the place.  On another visit I decided to go the back way from Port Gibson.  I thought I would never find the place and perhaps end up hopelessly lost.  After driving through the thick woods and all the ravines filled with kudzu it became more of a maze than a trip. If I had driven off of the narrow road and into one of those kudzu covered ravines chances are I would still be there.  If lucky, the cold weather might have knocked the leave off of the kudzu enough for someone to spot a vehicle wrapped in those tenacious vines.  In my estimation there is a chance that Jimmy Hoffa is there – someplace on the back roads, toward the Mississippi River, in a kudzu covered ravine west and south of Port Gibson.

One thing about Windsor is that it makes a person wonder why in the world it was built in the middle of nowhere.  There are places located in the middle of nowhere all over the place but not many as wondrous as Windsor.  Those large palatial columns are just standing there.  It is sort of like a story book setting.  When it was built, back in the late 1850s, it was located near the Mississippi River and near a narrow road known as the Rodney Road.   The soil in the area is loess.  That means in was brought to the location by wind.  The loess layer is very thick and the loess formation that Windsor was built on extends from Memphis down to Baton Rouge on the east side of the Mississippi River. How it got there is somewhat of a mystery.  Perhaps during the an ice age most of the fresh surface water was tied up in glaciers and westerly winds just pushed the soil westward as if it was a great dune.  In any case it does erode very fast when exposed to the rain and so the giant ravines have formed and reformed over the ages making it very difficult to traverse.  After the ice age the waters began to flow and perhaps a large stream worked its way around the loess and eventually became the Mississippi River.  The ridge tops of the loess formations are flat and fairly fertile and they make good places for winding roads and the soil is also fairly fertile so it would be possible to grow cotton in the area, however, the other side of the river is much more fertile as it was continuously replenished by yearly floods.

Well that is it for the geology of the area but to me it is a part of the story of Windsor, or at least a part of the story that I am interested in.  Those  interested in architecture will love the ruins of Windsor and those that like plantation homes can only imagine how great the home was that once stood between the columns.  Those that are interested in history will perhaps relate the land and columns back to the historical events that took place here about 150 years ago.  That is what I wish to discuss after the obligatory brief history of the home.

These Fluted Corinthian Columns Appear Almost in the Middle of Nowhere, Mississippi

Windsor was built as a plantation home for Mr. and Mrs. Smith Coffee Daniel, II.  The plantation consisted of about 2,600 acres and was completed in 1861 just in time for the War Between the States.  Twenty-nine columns were constructed of bricks, made at the site, that supported the magnificent structure.  Each Fluted Corinthian Column was 45 feet in height and was covered in mortar and plaster. The fluted columns had iron Corinthian capitals and were joined at the galleries by an ornamental iron balustrade. The completed structure was a marvel in that it contained its own school, commissary, Dr.’s office, dairy and kitchen under one roof. On top of the house was an observatory. Each of the 25 rooms had its own fireplace and the home contained indoor bathrooms with running water that was supplied by a water tank in the attic.  This was the state of the structure on the eve of the most important event in American history.

Capturing the Mississippi River strategically was the top priority of the Union, so it wasn’t long before the war came to Mississippi.  As the war continued Vicksburg became the key to victory but the Union Army was on the western side of the river.  Grant had to cross the river.  On the night of April 30, 1863,  troop ships were loaded with soldiers and a journey down the river commenced.  The first planned stop for a possible landing was Grand Gulf but the Union gunships could not silence the guns at the confederate stronghold so General Grant proceeded south to Bruinsburg. There was a road (Rodney Road) near there that could be used by troops headed east.  Thus began the largest amphibious landing of American troops in military history prior to D-Day. On April 30 and May 1, 1863, over 17,000 troops landed at Bruinsburg and headed east on the narrow and winding road.

There was still a considerable “unknown” that General Grant had to deal with and that was the location of the Confederate Army.  As the troops were landing in Bruinsburg General Sherman feigned an attack on Vicksburg and the confederate forces stayed at home.  The Union troops at Bruinsburg immediately began a hasty advance along the road that passed in front of Windsor.  Grant had to get his troops into strategic positions and capture strategic locations such as bridges quickly.  If the large confederate force at Vicksburg moved against him all could be lost.

When walking around the large columns at Windsor one hardly thinks that Union Soldiers were resting and crunching on their hardtack on the grounds.  Union forces took control of the house and when the ensuing battles with confederate troops took place the plantation was used as a hospital and the observatory became a place to observe troop movements.  Prior to this the confederates had used the observatory to monitor Union ship movements on the river and to signal confederate forces on the other side of the river.

The Original Corinthian Metal Caps Sit Atop Columns Made of Bricks That Where Manufactured On Site

Each time I visit Windsor I think about the advancing Union forces and their dash inland and the ensuing fights at Port Gibson and other locations.  General Grant went on to destroy Jackson in order to protect the rear of his army when he advanced on Vicksburg.  That turned out to be one of the most important decisions of the Civil War.  If Grant had decided to go directly to Vicksburg he would have certainly been destroyed by a waiting confederate army. Instead he protected his army by taking Jackson and then set in for a siege at Vicksburg.  Lots of history in the middle of Nowhere, Mississippi.
But try as I may to remember all of the history that is close by I have to admit that the ruins of Windsor captures my mind in a mysterious way and makes it impossible to think of troop movements and the like.  Windsor is a place unto itself –  a place to experience awe and mystery.

Windsor did not come to ruins because of the Civil War. The house survived until 1890 and hosted a number of people and events over the years.  One visitor was Mark Twain and he even used the observatory on top of the home to observe the Mississippi River.  On the 17th of February 1890 some work was being done on the house by carpenters.  There were some visitors that day and apparently one of them left behind a lighted cigar or cigarette and it fell into some wood shavings on the third floor.  The family was returning home from a trip to get the mail when they saw the flames. Windsor burned from top to bottom.

The haunting columns are all we have of the structure today.  Twenty-three of them remain.  Those columns have not only witnessed history but they have become part of history.  It is a mysterious place and is hard to comprehend.  I have taken picture after picture and can’t capture the essence of the place.  There is just too much here for the senses to take in and process at one time.  There are so many questions that can’t be answered.  If fact they can’t even be verbalized so one is left with their feelings.  You can feel the history, the architecture and the grandeur but you cannot explain it to others – it is just one of those places that impresses you and stays with you but you can’t really say why!

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Reserve, Louisiana – San Francisco Plantation Home

28 Aug

San Francisco Plantaion Home, Built in the 1850s, is One of the Most Unique Plantation Homes on Historic River Road

If you can find your way to LaPlace or to Reserve, or to Garyville, Louisiana, then you can find your way to The San Francisco Plantation Home.  If one goes by way of Reserve and LaPlace you go to the highway that turns into River Road – just turn right and it will not be too long before you arrive and you will not pass it up! You will have to slow down and curve around the house as you pass.  The town of Garyville also claims San Francisco Plantation but if you go that way you will have to make a left on to River Road.

The first time I saw San Francisco it surprised me how close it was to the road.  The flood of 1927 prompted the building of the Mississippi River levees. The river levee took the land between San Francisco and the river. The home is a beautiful structure.  I was determined to get a picture from the front – even with the road.  The house is separated from the road by a chain link fence.  I thought this was not particularly in good taste but after realizing that one could not see the grand home from the road with a “solid fence” it did not look as bad as I first thought. As it was I was able to climb up the levee a ways and to take pictures of the front.  Even with the fence I find the place intriguing.  Also, since the levee is a result of the 1927 flood it too takes on historical importance in the story of Louisiana.  The levee was to have destroyed San Francisco but somehow the locals got organized and stopped the planned destruction – thus the curved road so close to the plantation home.

Unique among all plantation houses in its foundation structure, plan, and silhouette, San Francisco is unquestionably a landmark as that term is popularly understood. It has been pictured in American, British, and Swedish periodicals as one of the major sights of the New Orleans area. The exterior combines a variety of architectural motifs in a design dominated by an immense and ornate roof construction. The interior is notable for the paintings which ornament the ceilings and door panels of the parlors.  The attic area is Victorian in design and because of it many refer to the structure as a “Steamboat Gothic.”  I am not familiar enough with Steamboats to make a determination but I can tell you that it is very unique and a pleasure to see and to photograph.  The unique color scheme is “icing on the cake” as far as I am concerned.

One must not forget that the reason for the home in the first place is sugar.  Although the home is grand in scale, and appearance, the families that owned the plantation could never make a good go of a sugar plantation.  It seems that at critical times in its history that war, depressions, death and bad luck inflicted a toll on those that would seek to make a go of growing and manufacturing sugar. Still the home fits into a cultural landscape that was shaped by the cultivation of sugarcane and the production of sugar.

In the 1970s Marathon Oil purchased  the property and the house. The San Francisco Plantation Foundation was created and the home underwent a massive restoration. As scientific analysis of materials and structure were done, along with archival research, it was decided to that the home would be restored to the golden years just before the War Between the States. The house then became listed on the National Register of Historic Places.

Today the San Francisco Plantation remains a major attraction in Louisiana being visited annually by over 100,000 people. Although the house is antebellum in a chronological sense, it is certainly not typical of the period. Its style and coloration are totally distinctive, and its memories are now locked in time just prior to the War Between the States, when the house was at the height of its splendor.

Convent, Louisiana – Old Jefferson College and the President’s Home – Manresa Retreat and Ignatius House

22 Aug

Manresa Retreat (Old Jefferson College) Commands the View From Historic River Road

When I first took a job in Convent, Louisiana, I did not know how much history and surprises that I would be exposed to just by going to work.  My first trip down the River Road from the Sunshine Bridge to the Courthouse in Convent was unbelievable.

Things were different then. There were small stores and homes all along the way of the Mississippi River and though many of them were old they had a “charm” about them that is unique to St. James Parish.  This “charm” is not apparent on the first visit.  After living or working there a while one begins to understand – it is not something written in books but in the heart and mind.  It is developed over time.

Things have now changed over the years and on a recent visit I found it hard to recognize what I thought would be familiar sights.  Some of the old had been replaced and the new was foreign. Hymel’s was still there.  Every Wednesday a group of us from the courthouse would travel here to eat lunch.  It was usually a large hamburger steak and most of us would get the large gold fish bowl looking mug of cold beer.

Life was different here.  It was a hard choice to go to Hymel’s.  That meant we had to miss the lunch time Bourée game.  Every day at lunch we ate our sandwiches in a few bites and then placed the tables together for our daily game of Bourée.  What great fun and relaxation.  The rules were rigged at a nickel a pot and a quarter if you booed.  You couldn’t get rich or go broke with that – only have fun.  The third floor lounge was filled with friends and laughter every day. Back during that time there were several large Live Oak Trees that graced the courthouse.  Beautiful is all that comes to mind.  The courthouse also had an amazing neighbor.  A wonderful building with Doric columns that commanded the view from the River Road that passed in front.  This was the Manresa Retreat.

When I first drove to Convent I was certainly enjoying the many Creole influenced homes and barns and whatever kind of structures along the way.  Then all of sudden  and unexpectedly, a tremendous three story building with the front lined in white columns grabbed all my attention.  What is this, I thought?  It was so majestic and beautiful that I just gazed at it without thinking.  Many of the things in St. James were like that.  You knew that just about everything was historical but that rarely entered your mind.  The beauty of things occupied the mind. These special places were very much appreciated.  They were part of the here and now and were a part of everyday life as far back as one could remember.

Ignatius House (President's Home Jefferson College) Dates to 1836

However, this large majestic building was a complete surprise. I soon learned that Manresa was a Catholic Retreat and that men could come there to mediate and be rejuvenated spiritually. I had never heard of such a thing.  Later I learned that Manresa was not constructed as a retreat but once was a college. Jefferson College was its name.  It would be years after I had left Convent before I really understood the history and significance of Manresa or Jefferson College.

Manresa was chartered in 1831 as the College of Jefferson.  The present main building was constructed in 1842. On the front end of the property (nearest River Road) is the former Presidents home.  It was built in 1836.  Today it is known as Ignatius House.  It is a reduced scale version of a Great River Road plantation home of the period.  There is a difference in dates of the two structures because a fire destroyed the original Jefferson College building in 1841.

The main building is a three story English bond brick structure with a colossal Roman Doric order form gallery of twenty-one bays.Of course the main building was occupied from 1862 to 1864 by the Union forces during the War Between the States.  In 1864 Valcour Aime, the owner of the property, transferred Jefferson College to Marist Fathers and the U.S. Government withdrew its troops.  In 1864  Marist Fathers reestablished the college as “St. Mary’s Jefferson College.”  St. Mary’s Jefferson College operated until 1927 at which time it was closed.  In 1931 the Jesuit Fathers of New Orleans purchase Jefferson College and it was renamed “Manresa House of Retreats.” February 25 – March 2, 1931, the first retreat was held at Manresa under the direction of the Fathers of the Society of Jesus.

I guess we need to know some of the history of the place to gain a full appreciation of the buildings and property.  However, when riding down River Road one need not know a thing about the place to be awed by the sight of this beautiful place along a section of what I would call a “Sleepy Section” of River Road.