Sunday focus: Will Fort Rosalie be ready for 2016

Published 12:05 am Sunday, May 3, 2015

NATCHEZ — As a child, Don Estes had no idea he was emulating French colonists when he scaled the bluff’s edge and used sticks as imaginary swords.

From 1945 to 1957, Estes lived on Natchez’s arguably most historic property — the site of Fort Rosalie.

It was his playground.

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“My friends and I had a ball playing army, and just climbing the bluff,” said Estes, who lived in one of the 15 or so houses then on site.

The French settled on the property, formerly inhabited by the Natchez Indian tribe, in 1716.

From there, the area became a hub for European trade and boasted an unmatched view of the Mississippi River.

Throughout the centuries, Fort Rosalie transformed from a colonized fort to the site of Natchez’s first attraction built just to entice tourists in 1939 and then to something resembling a little suburbia — the way Estes best remembers it.

However, today it looks more like an abandoned lot — a memory of what was once Natchez’s most bustling property.

Fort Rosalie Today

Concentrated between Canal Street and the 200-foot bluff overlooking the Mississippi River, Fort Rosalie is among several local sites in need of repair before Natchez’s tricentennial celebration.

The site is 35 acres and goes all the way to the water’s edge. However, The National Park Service only owns seven of those acres, which span south to north from Green Street to D.A. Biglane Street, and east to west from Canal Street to the edge of the bluff.

Natchez National Historic Park Superintendent Kathleen Jenkins said the NPS is working to clear overgrown vegetation and prepare the land for walking trails and historic signage.

And although the final date for the park’s completion is Aug. 3, 2016, Jenkins admitted it’s unlikely that deadline will be met.

“I hope by that time, we will have something that offers a safe, and meaningful experience for tourists and community members,” Jenkins said. “But some parts of the plan — like having museums on the site — will probably be ongoing.”

Since the development of Fort Rosalie depends on federal government funding, Jenkins said a “waiting game” has ensued.

In the meantime, Jenkins said the NPS has made progress with tearing down several abandoned structures that were becoming an eyesore on the historic site.

“Most of those houses, when the park service got them, they hadn’t been lived in for years — some for decades,” Jenkins said.

Some structures though — such as the log cabin that once housed Fat Mama’s Tamales restaurant — will be restored and incorporated into the property’s new layout, Jenkins said.

The cabin, built in 1939, was one of the first buildings in Natchez established solely for tourism efforts.

By 2016, Jenkins said she anticipates the cabin to be fully restored and open for public use.

“I can’t say for sure the extent of all the development, but I’m confident we will have some trails out there and picnic tables set up,” Jenkins said.

And while Jenkins envisions progress at the site in the near future, some local leaders say they feel Fort Rosalie should have been revitalized a long time ago.

“Some projects are slow — and this is definitely one of them,” said Natchez Mayor Butch Brown. “This has been 25 years in the making.”

Brown commended Jenkins and members of the Natchez National Historic Park service for keeping Fort Rosalie at the top of their to-do list, but said the true problem lies in getting federal funds to move the project along.

“The National Park Service is like any other part of the government — it’s broke,” Brown said. “That’s why making any kind of progress at Fort Rosalie has taken so long.”

With the Natchez’s tricentennial looming in 2016, Brown said it is pivotal progress be made at the site.

“This will be a keystone for the tricentennial,” said Brown, adding that Fort Rosalie also gives a nice nod to international influences in Natchez.

Other local leaders, such as Alderman Dan Dillard, say they are baffled by the site’s slow-moving progress.

“To me, the Fort Rosalie site is a huge disappointment,” Dillard said. “The National Park Service argues that they don’t have any money, and I don’t believe that. They’re out there at Melrose with toothbrushes trying to discover the true paint color, but meanwhile, they can’t even mow the grass (at Fort Rosalie). If they’re holding out for something, I don’t know what it is.”

Dillard compared Fort Rosalie to battle sites in Vicksburg, and said if Natchez could capture a fraction of those tourists, the city would benefit immensely.

“It has local history, state history, national history and international history,” Dillard said. “I think we need to get help from some of our senators and let them know they are behind the curve on this.”

Mississippi’s U.S. senators Roger Wicker and Thad Cochran have been the main players in the government waiting game when it comes to Fort Rosalie’s future.

In terms of securing funds for the site, Cochran said it might take longer than expected.

“We are still relatively early in the budget and appropriations process, which could be challenging considering the constraints on the budget,” Cochran said. “I’ve visited with city officials about plans for the Natchez tricentennial commemoration, and I will do what I can to assist with the city’s plans to have Fort Rosalie be part of that celebration.”

Wicker echoed Cochran and said he’s aware of Natchez’s need for the site — and its significance to the tricentennial.

“I have met with local officials and am engaged in the planning process,” Wicker said. “We are entrusted with preserving the legacy of Natchez, and this significant occasion is a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to honor the city’s past.”

Fort Rosalie isn’t the only historic site on the minds of local leaders.

Before the city celebrates its milestone birthday, Alderwoman Joyce Arceneaux-Mathis said it is imperative that the city makes as much progress as possible on its historic sites, such as Fort Rosalie.

“I think they better have most of the site finished before the first of the year,” Mathis said. “You want all of your major sites to be open and running and in the best shape possible.”

Alderman Tony Fields said he hasn’t been involved with plans for Fort Rosalie, but like Mathis, said the site holds an important key in unlocking Natchez’s vibrant history.

“It’s all part of the all-inclusive history of Natchez,” Fields said.

Fort Rosalie’s Future

Until more funds are secured, Jenkins said Fort Rosalie is at a momentary standstill.

“We have authorization, but little funding,” she said.

This summer, Jenkins said the NPS is tentatively slated to begin renovation to the log cabin. Then, in the fall, Jenkins said most overgrown vegetation should be removed.

“This site is nationally significant, so we are going to keep pushing as much as we can for improvement,” Jenkins said. “There is a rich tapestry woven in the Natchez area — sometimes it involved extreme conflict, but other times it blended together to create something beautiful. This fort grew into the town. Everything, it all started at Fort Rosalie. Natchez would not be here without the bluff and the river.”

As for Estes, he is still waiting for the day he can walk through his former playground and look at — in his opinion — the best view of the Mississippi River.

“I look forward to the day when I can take my wife for a stroll through the Fort, and tell her all about the magnificent things we did and saw there,” Estes said.