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Road Trip: Searching for the Civil War Ghost Towns of Dixie

Greg Keraghosian

Road Trip: Searching for the Civil War Ghost Towns of Dixie

(Graphic: Laura Dreyer)

(All photos by Greg Keraghosian unless otherwise noted)

Have you ever visited a place that doesn’t exist? Better yet, a city that once thrived only to decline to the point that it was reclaimed by nature? 

After more than a couple of wrong turns, I can now say that I have, and I even met one of the four people who still live there.

Welcome to the lost town of Rodney, on the southwest fringes of the Mississippi backwoods. Some have tried to find Rodney and failed—it’s not on any map and GPS doesn’t work there—but I’m going to tell you how I found it through a mix of arrogance, Google Maps, unheeded directions and dumb luck. It was among the most thrilling day trips of my life, and for anyone with even a touch of history dork in them, I highly recommend it.

The legend of Rodney is almost too good to be true.

It was the owners of The Winery at Williams Landing in Greenwood, Miss., who first told me about Rodney.  

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In the mid-1800s, the city was three votes away from being the capital of Mississippi and had around 500 residents. It was a bustling port town by the river with a high literacy rate, an integrated church, two newspapers and an opera house.

Then things went south for Rodney. First, the Civil War happened. Then came two nasty fires. Around 1870, the Mississippi River literally turned on Rodney, changing its course—a natural phenomenon that happens every thousand years—away from the town and dealing it an economic death blow. By 1930, the town was taken off the state register by the state governor, leaving behind a handful of residents and a bunch of decaying buildings that are still sagging from the weight of time.

I’ve heard of broken hearts, but when you have the chance to visit a town dumped by the greatest river in the land, you have to do it. I’ve visited all kinds of ruins, from Rome to Syria, but this hit me much closer to home—it’s a reminder of our mortality, how forces outside our control can burn us at any time.

Neither the wine bar owners nor my host, a writer who knows all about Mississippi, could tell me exactly how to find Rodney. Their best advice was to drive south to Alcorn State University, then ask for help from there. 

Rather than listen to these knowledgeable locals, I decided to come up with my own, completely unconfirmed route. Before I found Rodney (when, not if), I wanted to stop by another quirky ghost from the past: the Windsor Ruins, west of Port Gibson. So I followed this route from Greenwood on Google Maps:

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I found that while Rodney is not on the map, Rodney Cemetery still is (the town is dead, but its dead live on). And that if I followed the same road southwest from the Ruins, I would avoid Alcorn State and run smack into it. At least, that’s how it looked here:

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First, here are some things you’ll need for the road trip, other than patience:

  • An SUV, unless you want blown shocks from the gravelly roads. My white SUV was caked in dirt by day’s end.

  • Bug spray. There may not be people left in Rodney, but many mosquitos and stinging insects still reside here.

  • Pants and sneakers: You’ll be stepping through thigh-high weeds if you want to approach some of the buildings, and there are ticks present.

Driving down the Blues Highway, I turned west onto Rodney Road toward the Windsor Ruins, which made for a scenic picnic spot after I picked up some tasty fried buffalo fish at a roadside hole in the wall.

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The 23 columns are all that’s really left of a grand plantation mansion that survived the Civil War but burned down in 1890 when a party guest left his cigar burning (talk about a party foul!). 

For a while through the secluded woods, my tactic was working. But either Google Maps screwed up or I did, and I found myself going east on the 552 with Alcorn State to the right and the freeway to the left.

As a man I don’t believe in asking for directions, but I surrendered and pulled a U-turn into Alcorn State. The young woman at the gate, who is apparently used to this odd request, gave me some sensible directions. But as usual with directions involving landmarks, they went over my head like a supersonic jet. After 15 minutes, I somehow found myself leaving the same campus gate I had entered, and my fear of failure was rising.

Back on the 552 and unsure what to do (a Delta blues song if ever I heard one), I took a chance and turned at the first right out of the campus onto an unmarked street that had a few houses nearby. For the record, here’s the turn: 

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My phone GPS was faint, but after leaving it on for a few minutes it did suggest that I was on Firetower Road, which would presumably lead to Rodney Road and thus to Rodney.

Then my GPS totally gave out, and for 30 minutes I kept driving blind down the paved road until, suddenly, there was no pavement and only dirt remained. I felt a rush right there, like I was a kid again and I’d unlocked a hidden stage in Super Mario Bros.

The last mile to Rodney is a rocky one, and you’ll know you’re very close when you see this sign for a hunting club (which unnerved me a bit):

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Then, at last, the dirt briefly turned back into paved road for the final few yards, and I had arrived. There is no mistaking Rodney once you’ve found it. The ruins of a forgotten town are everywhere. Everything appears still and washed out, as if you’re stepped into an old sepia photograph. 

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The first thing I approached was an abandoned house that was being swallowed by vegetation—its door was open and ironically, it still had a fresh-looking mailbox. It was pitch black inside and I wasn’t about to go in and risk a raccoon attack. image

Even more obscured was this nearby brick building, which I could barely make out behind the vines. I could tell it must have been a proud structure in its day.

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There are two churches of note: One is the Baptist Church (above), which is rotting badly. I held my breath and walked like a ballerina inside, where it felt due for collapse at any time. 

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The Presbyterian Church, dedicated in 1832, has aged better and has some cool history to it. It was shelled during the Civil War after local Confederates detained Union soldiers who decided to attend a service there. You’ll find a cannonball lodged in the front (above the middle window) of the building, though it’s debatable whether that’s the original.

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Outside the church there are several informational plaques, presumably from when the town was placed on the U.S. Register of Historic Places in 1980. But the weeds have almost surpassed them. There’s a “no trespassing” sign out front, with a whited-out phone number for tours. I figured a town with no police didn’t pose much threat, so I ventured in.

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Inside, I found a grand piano and traces of preservation: a framed list of donors, relatively clean benches and two dusty-yet-green plants by the altar. I wondered who could be responsible in such a forsaken place. The proud surviving locals? Later, I learned that the town has a Facebook group dedicated to it, with some status updates announcing cleanups. image

Aside from that church, there’s a whole lot of desolation here. In different spots I found a rusting pickup truck covered in foliage, a random railroad car forever stopped in place and an abandoned hunting club. There was also a house that may or may not have been abandoned with racks of antlers hanging outside, which gave me some serious “True Detective” chills.

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Ironically, I never did find the cemetery, as I was running out of time. It turns out that was a short hike behind the Presbyterian Church. But it looks like this:

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(Photo: Michael McCarthy / Flickr)

There are also faint signs of life. A couple of homes are still in good shape, and I was both hopeful and nervous to meet someone here. What would they look like? Would they resent this blue-state outsider for gawking at their home? Was the hunting club not so abandoned after all?

I was on my way out when I finally saw someone and approached her: she was the prototypical friendly white-haired Southern woman. We talked for several minutes. Her name was Connie and she told me she was just one of four people left in Rodney, where she’d lived her entire life. So it wasn’t quite a ghost town, I remarked.

“My mother once told me, ‘Do I look like a ghost to you?’” Connie quipped.

Considering how long ago Connie’s mother must have been alive, I retreated into the woods realizing how long ago Rodney was given up for dead. Ghost or not, its spirit will stick with me.

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