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A Road 67 Years in the Making!     

By Ron Zeitz

The historic Natchez Trace Parkway is finished, after 67 years of construction.

Why in the world would it take 67 years to build this Parkway?

Well, the Natchez Trace Parkway isn’t just any old road. This beautiful 444 mile-long Scenic Byway is the seventh most visited site in the National Park System. Almost twice as many people in 2003 saw it as those who visited either the Grand Canyon, Yellowstone or Yosemite National Parks. So it was only appropriate that the completion of this Tri-State Parkway be celebrated by a day-long gala, with events and speakers recounting the importance of the road’s opening and the hard work it took to finish the project.

All this happened on May 21, in Natchez, Mississippi, the southern terminus of the Parkway. Even though the temperature was close to 90 degrees, more than 1,000 people turned out to enjoy the festivities. They were joined by FHWA Administrator Mary Peters, National Park Service Director Fran Mainella, United States Senators Thad Cochran and Trent Lott, and District 3 Congressman Chip Pickering, as well as other federal, state and local officials.

The day actually started about 80 miles north of Natchez, in Clinton, Mississippi, just outside the capital city of Jackson. There, dignitaries dedicated the new Clinton Visitor’s Center, now accessible directly from the Parkway by a new side road.

After the ceremony, about 100 cars lined up to drive to the end of the Parkway in Natchez. Some of the cars were restored antiques, including a 1939 Mercury convertible and a 1948 Chrysler sedan. About two hours later the caravan reached the end of the Parkway.

At the dedication ceremony, Administrator Peters received a large round of applause when she remarked that, with the completion of the Parkway, “. . . the five million tourists that now visit the Parkway will likely double in the next few years.”

But the remark that brought down the house (and another loud round of applause) was when the Administrator, turning to Senators Lott and Cochran, said “. . . and if these two Senators can see their way clear to send us some more money, I promise that next time I visit I’ll ride my Harley through the downtown streets of Natchez.”

After the ceremonies, folks were invited to a reception at Melrose, a restored plantation complex in downtown Natchez, where they could see some of the restored antique cars up close and view a video of some of the earlier construction techniques used on the Parkway.

And why did it take so long to complete the Parkway? Construction on the Parkway started in 1938. Three years later, World War II erupted, halting any further construction. After the war ended, it picked up again, only to be interrupted again by the onset of the Cold War and budgetary restrictions. The on-again, off-again availability of construction funds further delayed its completion until a program instituted in 1956 produced a further surge in available funds. But it was through the combined efforts of the FHWA, Parkway Superintendent Wendell Simpson and the two Mississippi Senators, Cochran and Lott, that the final $71.5 million was made available to complete the last 25 miles.

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