There were two towns in the south that we wanted to visit on our way north…Fairhope, Alabama and Vicksburg, Mississippi. Both are historic towns that would allow us to get a history fix. There are a lot of similarities between Vicksburg and Fairhope namely they sit perfectly perched high on a bluff above the water, have quaint streets lined with moss draped live oaks, and there is no shortage of Antebellum homes.
Fairhope is cute. The town sits comfortably above the eastern shore of Mobile Bay. Across the bay on a clear day, the skyline of downtown Mobile comes into view and lights the night sky. And while the shipbuilders and cruise ships bustle about Mobile, Fairhope remains quiet and steady. The downtown is walkable with the usual galleries, shops, and restaurants where someone with a sweet southern Alabama accent greets you and welcomes you in. The town got its name from the premise that every man had a “fair hope of success.” The philosophy must have stuck because visitors and those wanting to get away from the nearby bigger cities keep this town vibrant. We stopped at a complex of city parks along the waterfront where we took a stroll along the walking path and admired the massiveness of Mobile Bay and let Spirit take a swim for a quick cool down. As it was getting close to lunch time, we headed up the bluff to the downtown for a look around and to get a bite to eat. The French Quarter section of Fairhope is very popular with restaurants, shops, and a chocolate shop. It is also home to a very territorial cat that deliberately got off its well-claimed bench and decided to chase Spirit out of its domain. The angry cat made us all walk a little faster as its paws were not slowing down. I’m happy to report that no dog was harmed in the strolling of the French Quarter….but it was getting a little dicey. I love me a little town with some charm and this one definitely delivered with some southern flair.
Vicksburg, Mississippi may not be on a lot of peoples’ radar list but we thought it was well worth a visit with plenty of things to do. I had visited the town before when I worked with the National Park Service and Betsy and I stopped for a quick overnight in the RV seven years ago and thought it was time to revisit. We stayed at the Ameristar Casino RV Park which is conveniently situated close to I-20 and just a short drive to the city’s attractions.
Here is a town rich in military and river history. The place to start is the historically significant Vicksburg National Military Park which interprets the Civil War battles that took place in Vicksburg where a decisive campaign for the Union Army was won. The Battle of Vicksburg, also called the Siege of Vicksburg, was the culmination of a long land and naval campaign by Union forces to capture a key strategic position during the Civil War. President Abraham Lincoln recognized the significance of the town situated on a 200-foot bluff above the Mississippi River. He proclaimed, "Vicksburg is the key, the war can never be brought to a close until that key is in our pocket." The siege lasted 47 days before General Grant finally received the white flag from General Pemberton of the Confederate Army.
The visitor center has a few exhibits and a 20-minute film that explains the battle which makes the 16-mile tour road more meaningful. As you travel along, numbered stops explain the campaign and scattered about are numerous monuments to the forces that fought. If you want more detailed information you can purchase a CD for your drive and there are stations where you can use your phone tag app.
On the western side of the park is the U.S.S. Cairo Museum and the National Cemetery. The cemetery is the final resting place for nearly 17,000 Union soldiers making it the second largest National Cemetery in the country. About 40% of the soldiers buried here were members of the U.S. Colored Troops – a fighting force made up of free black men.
The U.S.S. Cairo was a steam-driven ironclad Naval vessel that was designed to operate in shallow waters. The Cairo was one of seven Union Army ironclads (called so because of the iron sheets and railroad tracks that attempted to protect the ship from cannon and gunfire) sailing down the Yazoo River when it was struck by an electrically detonated torpedo. The ship sunk in 36 feet of water and not one of the 176 men on board were lost. Especially remarkable considering how much gunfire was assaulted on the Cairo at the time. The ship sat idle on the river bottom from 1862 until 1956 when it was discovered and plans began to bring it to the surface. The initial attempt to extract the boat from the river bottom was halted when the three-inch cables placed around the hull cut deeply through it. The decision was made to cut the boat into three pieces for ease of extraction yet complicating the restoration. Once on land, it was like putting together a complex jigsaw puzzle. Fortunately, the original drawings of the Cairo existed but some 20 to 30 modifications were made. The boat was cloaked with nearly one hundred years of sand and silt deposited by the river making the raising more difficult while acting as a preservative protecting thousands of artifacts. A museum houses exhibits displaying artifacts recovered from the boat as well as information about the restoration process. Outside, a catwalk allows you to walk through and around the ship.
Keeping with the river theme, we headed downtown to the Jesse Brent Lower Mississippi River Museum (which is free). Interactive and static displays pertain to the natural resources, importance of the Lower Mississippi River and its’ watershed, and historical flooding events. The highlight of the museum is the M/V Mississippi IV – a retired diesel-powered ship that served as both workboat and river ambassador hosting meetings of the Lower Mississippi River Commission. The ship continues in its role as public ambassador as museum visitors are free to browse its’ four levels and see what life on the ship was like.
Like other river towns, Vicksburg has seen its share of flooding. From the historic flood of 1927 to the most recent event in 2011. The city is protected from the raging waters by a concrete flood wall which also serves as a canvas capturing the city’s past. The eye-catching murals are reminders of the past, present and future roles in American history, commerce, culture, religion, and technology.
But don’t think you are done with Vicksburg yet. There is still the Old Depot Museum, Old Courthouse Museum, The Biedenharn Coca-Cola Museum, the Toy and Doll Museum, dozens of Antebellum homes, and a few casinos.
Vicksburg kept us busy for a couple of days with all there was to do and see. Since we’ve been here twice already we’ll leave this blog post for you all to follow up on! Of course, we leave you with a picture of Spirit.