You Are Here: Windsor Ruins

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Windsor’s columns are much larger than they seem in photos.

Twenty-three Corinthian-style columns and a few sections of wrought-iron linking them are all that remain of what was once the largest mansion in Mississippi.

The columns have lost much of the plaster that made them look like they were carved from stone, revealing the common brick underneath. Ferns sprout from the tops of many of the columns, arcing in curls that echo the ornate column capitals to which they are attached.

2006.10.09-MS.PortGibson-WindsorRuins-07And yet it’s easy to look at the “Windsor Ruins” and imagine from just these few bare bones how beautiful the face of this plantation home must have been.

Windsor was built in 1861 on a 2,600-acre plantation near Bruinsburg, a port town on the Mississippi River halfway between Natchez and Vicksburg. It was also near the old Natchez Trace, a trade route that ran from the Mississippi River at Natchez, MS to the Tennessee River at Nashville, TN.

The house was luxurious, even by todays’ standards.  Typical for antebellum plantations homes, it was a massive block built in a Greek Revival style.  Twenty-five rooms (each with its own marble fireplace) were stacked four floors high, and wrapped by galleries (long covered balconies). A rooftop observatory permitted a view of the Mississippi River some distance away.

2006.10.09-MS.PortGibson-WindsorRuins-04AInside, the house featured a wrought iron grand staircase, bathrooms with running water supplied by an attic cistern,  and expensive hand-milled furniture brought down from St. Louis.

The house’s ground-level floor was the “basement”, where a school room, doctor’s office, kitchen, and dairy were located.  (“Dairy” being a room for the storage and processing of milk products, not for housing cows.)

Construction costs came to $175,000, a fantastic sum in that era, equivalent to over $5 million today. Considering the dramatic increase of labor costs over the years (and that much of the work was done by unpaid slave laborers), today’s true cost would be much higher. And that doesn’t count the furnishings and décor.

2006.10.09-MS.PortGibson-WindsorRuins-02In true southern gothic manner, the house was to have a colorful and ultimately tragic life.

The owner, Smith Daniell II, died at age 34, within a few weeks of moving into the house, leaving his wife Catherine to manage the plantation in his absence.

During the Civil War, the house was used first by Confederates and later by the Union; both prized the rooftop observatory’s view of the river and the Union Army used it as a hospital for a time.

2006.10.09-MS.PortGibson-WindsorRuins-01ARemarkably, the house survived the war with most of its furnishings, but the Daniell family was forced to begin selling off parcels of land to pay their bills.

And then on February 17, 1890, the house burnt to the ground, less than 30 years after it was constructed.

Lore has it the fire was started by a cigarette left to burn by a guest. Regardless, all that remained afterward were 23 of the 29 columns and a wrought-iron staircase. The furniture and all possessions were lost in the fire.

Today, after more than a century of rains, wind, ice storms and the oppressive heat of Mississippi summers, the columns still stand.

And they still inspire curious visitors to imagine what the house must have looked like and to wonder what it would have been like to visit the grandest home in Mississippi.

Plan your trip:

From I-20 (west of Jackson) or I-55 (north of Jackson), take the Natchez Trace Parkway south to the exit for County Highway 552. Follow Highway 552 past the turnoff for Alcorn State University; follow the signs to the site entrance.

The site has no official website, but the Natchez Trace Compact’s site has information about all scenic and historic sites along the trace: scenictrace.com

Visitors to Vicksburg National Military Park can pick up information about Windsor at the park’s visitor center.

You Are Here: Cheehahaw

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Geodetic Survey marker for “Cheehahaw, Alabama”.

At the top of Alabama’s highest point is a brass marker placed in 1941 by the U.S. Coast and Geodetic Survey. It notes the location as “Cheehahaw”.

If you look on any modern map of the state, you won’t find any mountain peak named “Cheehahaw”, but you will find Cheaha Mountain.

Cheaha Mountain (pronounced “chee-ah”) is located about 60 miles east of Birmingham, at the southernmost end of the Blue Ridge Mountains, part of the ranges collectively called the Appalachians.

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Bunker Tower atop Cheaha Mountain in Cheaha State Park, Alabama

It rises 2,407 feet above sea level, but the view from Bunker Tower (a fortress-like stone building built in 1933 by the Civilian Conservation Corp) at the mountain’s peak seems much higher. The surrounding farmland and distant forested ridges are fairly low-lying. (And despite a relatively low “highest point”, Alabama’s Mt. Cheaha comes in higher than the highest point in 15 other states.)

The name Cheeha is (according to the Cheeha State Park website) derives from the Creek Indian word “chaha”, meaning “high place”.

So how did we get from “cha-ha” to “chee-ha-ha” to “chee-ah”?

European explorers and their American descendants struggled with standardized spelling in general.  Spelling for Native American words (which were generally spoken but had no written forms) varied considerably from writer to writer.

For example, the same Creek work is spelled “Chehaw” when referring to the state park near Albany, Georgia. Albany is barely above sea level, so it’s hardly a “high place”, but the Creek Indians who lived there were called “Chehaw” or “Chiha” people.

According to the Alabama State Department of Archives and History, the Alabama Indians (who lived in the center of the state that eventually bore their name) were called “Alba Amo” by the Choctaw, meaning “the thicket clearers”. The Alabamans practiced agricultural farming…without the benefit of plows or livestock to pull them. Early variations on spelling “Alabama” included almost anything that ended up sounding right.

Still, why the marker uses “Cheehahaw” to mark a place in Cheaha State Park (which was founded before the marker was placed) is still a mystery to me. If I find any more information, I’ll update this post.

Admission to Cheaha State Park is $3 (current as of 2014), and includes access to Bunker Tower. There are also hiking trails and a restaurant to visit, and cabins for rent.

Plan your trip!

Cheaha State Park at the Alabama State Parks website : alapark.com/cheaha-state-park