The Southern States: Natchez, the Sodom of the South

The gambling den is phoney and the nightlife is more leisurely than louche. Adrian Mourby craves depravity. Surely there's more to Natchez than this...
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The Independent Travel

This is a tale of two cities, two armies - and two invitations to dinner. The city in question is Natchez, which has its respectable part, up on a bluff above the Mississippi river, and its not-so-respectable part, commonly known as Natchez Under the Hill or "the Sodom of the South".

Under the Hill was once a port, known to Mark Twain for depravity of biblical proportions. I was travelling Interstate 84 when I saw a signpost and nosed off immediately in search of hard-gambling men, painted jezebels and bourbon.

I had always had it in mind to stay in Natchez Under the Hill. Its history appealed to my love of loucheness, but the Underhill Saloon's three rooms were taken because of the annual Balloon Race. So I settled for comfort up on Natchez Bluff which meant sinking into a very soft and yielding bed on the Monmouth Plantation. Plantation owners here chose to live away from their plantations (across the river in Louisiana) in this cosy antebellum garden city 200 feet above the river.

In the 18th and 19th centuries the owners built their fine mansions in plots that had been laid out many years before by the Spanish. After the War of Independence the prosperity of Natchez merchants knew no bounds, which was why they voted against ceding from the Union. It was a move based on sound economic arguments and one that stood them in good stead when General Sherman and his Union troops arrived in 1863. While Sherman's men laid waste to most of the south they spared Natchez after the ladies of the bluff opened their houses to them and threw lavish parties.

Monmouth, it turned out, was the former home of General Quitman, a hero of the Mexican wars, now owned by Lani and Roni Riches from California. My room was in the reproduction of a slave cabin but I don't think slaves ever lived like this. I had my own bathroom with fragrant soaps, a truckle bed, a desk and a fire. Lani and Roni, who have spent the last 30 years restoring Monmouth, invited me to dine with them that evening, but I wasn't sure if the real South would be found on the manicured lawns of Monmouth. First I had to do me some exploring.

As I drove round the town I began to realise this was one big theme park devoted to gracious antebellum living, block after block of green lawns, white porches and Greek Revival facades. Eventually my route brought me to the truncated remains of Clifton Avenue, a narrow pathway with a view of the river below. The rest was munched away by the hungry Mississippi before army engineers secured the bluff at the end of the 20th century. No residences were lost, except Cliff House, and that was during the Union occupation. Its owners forgot to invite to a party the gallant Union captain who commanded this height. The next morning, he presented his compliments and told the owners that they had three hours to pack before his troops demolished their home.

There was just one route down to Natchez Under the Hill. Silver Street dips steeply towards the river, as if in a headlong rush to depravity. The louche dens of Water Street, Earhart's Alley, Cypress, Fulton and Maiden, where gambling and prostitution flourished, and the streets themselves are all gone. The greedy Mississippi swallowed them years ago.

The Sodom of the South is almost sedate now, except for the Underhill Saloon which has been kept deliberately decrepit by its owner, a Californian called Andre Ferrish who bought it in the Sixties. The saloon stands with its huge shutters open to the river and those few fans that do work rotate uneasily. A hurricane lamp creeks over the porch and smoke has darkened the walls. Up on the ceiling, dollar bills hang. "That's party money," says Sabine, who has worked behind the bar for 21 years. "When folks have stuck enough up there we get us a pig and have a party." I ask Sabine what time they close. "When people stop drinking," she says. "Ain't usually no one left much after four."

Sabine was keen that I should come back for pork roast but I wasn't so sure. As I wandered what little remained of the quayside I began to suspect that Sodom had lost not only five of its streets, but also its edge. One row of shops turned out to be the period facade of a modern house recently built by a Natchez millionaire, while the white clapperboard Magnolia Grill, "oldest continuously operating restaurant in Natchez Under The Hill", turned out to be less than 20 years old. Isle of Capri, a paddle steamer gambling den moored on the river, is a fake with slot machines inside.

I dined with Lani and Roni. These cotton-picking mansions may look like something from a film set but they at least are the genuine article. We lovers of the louche should grieve. The Sodom of the South is no more. Worse - it's a replica.

Give me the facts

How to get there

Adrian Mourby flew to New Orleans on Continental Airlines (0845-607 6760; www.continentalairlines.com). Return flights from Gatwick via Houston cost from £420. Natchez is a four-hour drive from New Orleans. One week's fully inclusive car hire starts from £150 with Holiday Autos (0870-400 0010; www.holidayautos.co.uk).

Where to stay

Monmouth Plantation, 36 Melrose Avenue, Natchez (00 1 601 442 58 52; www.monmouthplantation.com). Double rooms from $165 (£90) per night with breakfast and tour.

Further information

Mississippi Tourism (01462 440787; www.visitmississippi.org).

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