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Road Trip For America's Future with Tim Murphy

The View From My Windshield: I've Known Rivers

| Fri Jul. 30, 2010 7:50 PM EDT

The Mighty Mississip': (Photo: Alex Gontar).The Mighty Mississip': In Natchez, the Mississippi River is now more of ornament  than lifeblood (Photo: Alex Gontar).Natchez, Mississippi—Old river towns don't age, they just fade away. Back in the glory days of the old river, when men were men and "steamboat captain" was an acceptable career choice for a 12-year-old boy, Natchez-Under-the-Hill was one of the best places in the country to get stabbed, beaten, shot, or all of the above.

Things have quieted down since then; the "riffraff of the river," as Twain called the drunken (and violent) river rats and women of the night who populated lower Natchez, left town ages ago, along with the steamboats and the Mississippi's grip on the American economy. In their absence, the city has morphed into a vacation hotspot for seventysomethings, marketing its antebellum mansions, B&Bs, and a floating riverboat casino called "The Isle of Capri." Walk just a few blocks, though, and you'll find crumbling wooden houses and businesses so thoroughly shuttered no one's even bothered to board them up.