The historic town of Natchez sits on a bluff high above the Mississippi River. Cars roar along the streets and people meander the wide sidewalks past local eateries and shops. A self-guided walking tour whisks visitors throughout the history of the town past historic buildings and homes. But that’s not where I was sitting. I was at the bottom of Silver Street in a district called Natchez-Under-the-Hill and it was the most peaceful place to spend an evening in town.
Mark Twain spent some time here. The locals told me he spent that time drinking in the company of women under salary at a local saloon. It was during the heyday of river traffic in the 1840s and 1850s that Natchez really boomed; a town developed along the riverfront complete with boat docks, warehouses, restaurants and saloons, hotels, and even a racetrack at one point. Riverboat captains would navigate the Mississippi from northern points to Natchez, and sometimes on to New Orleans, where they would leave their boats behind and walk the Natchez Trace back home.
But all that changed in the 1940s when the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers decided to straighten the Mississippi River. Gregory, a part-time shop keeper with a fondness for strumming a guitar at the locally owned Silver Street Gallery & Gifts, pointed upriver to a place about a mile away and explained that was where the Corps of Engineers made a cut near Natchez. The result was a shorter, straighter river that was faster and easier to navigate, but a side effect was faster current on the river. Slowly but surely the erosion from those currents took away the racetrack, streets, and buildings of Natchez-Under-the-Hill until only a few remained.
It was two hours until sunset and I had just pulled into what had already become my regular parking space. I had a great view of the river and the twin bridges crossing over to Louisiana from there. Blooming flowers along the sidewalk, planted each year by Gregory, added a vivid splash of color to the landscape. The one-way Silver Street was the only street that remained in Natchez-Under-the-Hill, along with about a half dozen buildings and a boat ramp.
One of those buildings is the home to Magnolia Grill, a locally eatery that’s been there since 1990. Built to look like the old saloon that once stood on that site the hole-in-the-wall restaurant was always crowded with cheerful locals and tourists. Even on the busiest of nights the waitresses somehow squeezed between the wooden chairs bringing cold drinks and hot food. A poster on the wall explained the infamous Sandbar Fight of 1827 involving Jim Bowie, a duel, and a massive brawl.
At the other end of the short street is The Camp Restaurant. A small outdoor bar gave diners a place to enjoy their meal and views of the river, or they could hop inside for air conditioning in an old, rustic setting. The burgers were piled high and the craft beer was cold, making it the perfect place to spend an evening under the hill.
Right in the middle is the Under-the-Hill Saloon. Stepping inside the saloon I admired the brick walls, well-worn wood bar, and solid wood seating, noting how it made the building feel like it had been here since forever. A small stage in the corner was set up for live music on most weekends and a hidden atrium in the back was the perfect spot to lounge with friends and a cold beer.
A throng of visitors had gathered along the bank of the Mississippi River to watch the sunset. The glaring sun reflecting off the water threatened to bake anyone alive if they stood out there for long, but the moment the sun hit the horizon the temps dropped ten degrees or more. The only sounds to pierce the air was the low mutter of nearby conversations and the hum of a tugboat pushing several barges downriver. A little bit of color danced across the clouds in the sky and a few minutes later the sunset was gone.
The bystanders wondered off in search of food, drinks, and entertainment. As I crossed the narrow street I realized all that could be had right here in Natchez-Under-the-Hill. I threw my bag into the van and considered my options between the restaurants and saloon. One thing was fore sure: I wasn’t going leaving. Why would I want to go anywhere else?