City reclaiming Water Street from river

Published 12:00 am Sunday, July 16, 2000

David Gardner claims to be the first man to drive along the newly reclaimed Water Street at Natchez Under-the-Hill.

&uot;It was either me or Willie Huff,&uot; Gardner said with a laugh. &uot;He says he’s the first and I say I was.&uot;

And what went through the Natchez city engineer’s mind when he first turned his car down the steep slope of Roth’s Hill Road toward the Mississippi River below?

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&uot;I was wondering what, 100 years ago, they would think of me driving a Crowne Vic(toria) with air conditioning down here,&uot; he said.

More than 100 years ago, Water Street was a busy, albeit rough and tumble street near the river’s edge in the notorious under the hill district.

Along with Fulton Street, Levee Street, Cypress Street and Earhart Alley, Water Street was lost over time to the

Mississippi River.

&uot;We have maps that show how much land was lost,&uot; Gardner said. &uot;It’s amazing.&uot;

In 1933, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers created Giles Cut, a nearly 1-mile long channel designed to straighten the navigable course of the Mississippi River by eliminating nearly 14 miles of curves and turns.

But the cut, which is just north of Natchez, also changed the flow of the river, directing the water more forcefully to Natchez Under-the-Hill.

&uot;It started eating away at the bank right here,&uot; Gardner said while standing on the rocky edge. &uot;It wiped us out.&uot;

Now, Gardner is helping lead the city’s effort to reclaim the land.

In 1999, the city began working with the Corps of Engineers to literally reclaim Water Street by building a rock levee that ranges from 30 to 50 feet wide.

Behind it and on top of it is the dirt – some 80,000 cubic yards – that creates the new water street.

Stretching more than 3,000 feet along the water’s edge, Water Street is less a marvel of modern technology than a model of the power of persistence.

&uot;There’s not a lot of technology involved with rocks,&uot; Gardner said, adding the Corps did have to invest considerable engineering energy in calculating how much rock the river shelf would hold and how wide the rock levee could be.

Also, a modern geotextile fabric helps contain and steady the dirt.

&uot;It’s more persistence … (and the philosophy of) don’t take no for an answer,&uot; Gardner said. &uot;It’s hard work, dedication, telling (the Corps) and showing them what we’ve got, why we need it.&uot;

Gardner credited much of that persistence to former Natchez Mayor Larry L. &uot;Butch&uot; Brown, who pushed ahead on a subject first broached more than 20 years ago by then-mayor Tony Byrne.

&uot;Once (the Corps) understood (what we had and what we’d lost) … the rocks started coming,&uot; Gardner said.

Now, as he drives along the dirt road in his air-conditioned Crowne Victoria some 180 feet below the bluff, Gardner thinks more abou the future than the past.

&uot;When we’re finished with the bluff stabilization, we’ll get grass planted down here … and we’ll have a great park and recreation area,&uot; he said.

The possibilities to Gardner are limitless: a marina, a waterfront park (preferably pedestrian) to give Natchez residents and tourists a place to picnic and walk along the river, even stores and shopping like the Under-the-Hill area and Silver Street.

&uot;We know something is going to be developed down here,&uot; Gardner said. &uot;It’s too beautiful a place not to (be developed).&uot;