By Joe Rutherford/NEMS Daily Journal
TUPELO – Saturday’s 75th anniversary celebration in Tupelo of the Natchez Trace Parkway’s authorization by congressional act marks almost a century of discussion about a paved road first proposed early in the 20th century but only completed in 2005 – 444 miles and 67 years from Natchez to Nashville.
The 10 a.m. to 2 p.m. festivities will be at the parkway’s headquarters, milepost 266 on the Trace slightly north of Tupelo.
The speakers will include the two U.S. senators from Mississippi, Thad Cochran and Roger Wicker, and U.S. Rep. Alan Nunnelee of the 1st Congressional District.
Their place on the program mirrors the involvement of generations of congressmen and senators from Mississippi, Alabama and Tennessee, slowly achieving funding for the parkway, segment by segment, for 67 years.
No single-year’s funding exceeded 15 miles, and a few years were skipped.
Interim Natchez Trace Parkway Superintendent Dale Wilkerson said he believes the segmented construction of the Trace spread geographic and political interest, in effect preventing a situation in which someone might have said, “All right, we’ve built it this far, now we need to stop.”
The state chapters of the Daughters of the American Revolution committed to commemorating the Trace, but by 1916 some historians say the cause of history had taken a back seat to the cause of paved highways.
Jack Elliott Jr. wrote in a scholarly article for the Journal of Mississippi History, “On January 19–20, 1916, about 300 people from twelve counties and parishes along the route of the proposed highway met in Kosciusko under the auspices of the DAR and formed the Natchez Trace Highway Association. … The president, Lewis Martin, reported that the first goal was to organize local associations to promote the construction of the highway in each of the counties and parishes; directors were appointed for each of these associations.”
The motto became “Pave the Natchez Trace” – the kind of slogan that would pop regularly into Mississippi highway politics for the next 70-plus years.
Elliott reported a newspaper editor in 1917 predicted, “When the Trace becomes a great national highway the people of the county and even the state will look with pride upon this monument to former days and happenings.”
Houston’s Jeff Busby, a lawyer, almost certainly heard and saw early events related to the Trace’s promotion. He was elected to the U.S. House in the early 1920s. Busby became the chief House champion of the Trace highway, and introduced the first legislation leading to funding. He was aided by others, but particularly U.S. Sen. Hubert Stephens, a New Albany resident.
Four years after Busby’s first legislation, the Trace was authorized as part of the national park system.
By the time the parkway was completed in 2005, Elliott estimated “between $400 million and $2 billion (and these estimates should be multiplied by a factor of at least ten to place them in current dollar values)” had been spent on the 444-mile highway.
The road didn’t replace anything; it added new pavement where no continuous roads existed. The impact was broad.
Gene Clark, 70, a Houston resident, worked for the construction companies that built Trace bridges over Mississippi Highways 8 and 32 in the late 1950s or 1960.
“I was 18,” Clark said. “I needed work. A lot of the construction workers lived in a trailer park behind Miss Eunice Chapman’s store at Van Vleet, and we were authorized to drive on the right of way only because we were workers.”
Clark said the bridges required more than a year of work.
“There was a right of way company that went bankrupt during that time,” he recalled, “But sometime during one night the company came in and took all their equipment out before it could be seized for the assets. I also remember the construction companies grading off a place where we could have a ballfield behind Miss Eunice’s store, you know for us to use after work.”
Clark said he moved out of state soon after that job and remained away working for Amoco until 1994, when he retired and returned. He did not drive sustained mileage on the Trace until after he moved back.
Too early trip
Lifelong Tupelo resident Jim High, 72, said in the late 1950s and early 1960s when the Trace was under construction around and near Tupelo, he explored.
“One day I got on the graded dirt bed of the Trace off West Main, and I headed south. I drove and drove and crossed creeks on makeshift wooden bridges while concrete bridges were under construction, and kept driving seeing things I had never seen. I, of course, was the only car because it wasn’t open. I got to Highway 15 near Houston and turned off. I was circling around to head back north when a highway patrolman saw me, and stopped me,” High recalled.
“He yelled at me, “What are you doing!’, and I told him I was going back to Tupelo. He said, ‘You mean you drove all the way from Tupelo on this road. It’s not even open.’”
Then, High said, the officer looked at him and said, “All right, go on back the way you came, but don’t ever do it again.’ That was my first trip on the Trace.”
Wilkerson, who has led the planning effort for Saturday’s event, said he expects a multi-state turnout.
Wilkerson said the celebration offers something for all ages, and except for 10 cent hot-dogs and 5 cent soft drinks, it’s all free.
If you go
The Natchez Trace Parkway will celebrate 75 years as a national park on May 18. The free, family-oriented event will feature live music, dozens of exhibitors and historical personas, dignitaries, children’s activities, classic cars and 1938-priced concessions.
Who: Natchez Trace Parkway, in partnership with Eastern National and the Natchez Trace Parkway Association
What: 75th Anniversary Celebration
Where: Parkway Visitors Center, located just north of Tupelo on the Natchez Trace Parkway at milepost 266.
When: Saturday, May 18, 2013, from 10 a.m. and 2 p.m.
Why: On May 18, 1938, Congress passed a bill creating the Natchez Trace Parkway as part of the National Park Service. Since then, the Parkway has commemorated the history, beauty and culture of the “Old Trace,” and provided a range of recreational opportunities for visitors to enjoy.
For more information, call (800) 305-7417, or visit http://www.nps.gov/natr/parknews/parkway-celebrates-75-years.htm.