Saturday, October 05, 2013

EDITORIAL >> Shutdown cancels plans

Sometimes life becomes so frenzied that you have to get away. Due to circumstances beyond my control, I’ve felt that way for months. Unfortunately, those same circumstances kept me from leaving.

But this was going to be my weekend. The 18-foot, 32-year-old gooseneck camper my husband and son had been restoring for almost two months was finally near completion and most of the restoration debris had been picked up. So we were getting away, just the two of us, to Willow Beach, a U.S. Corps of Engineers park near Scott. The last time we were there, so was a large flock of gray pelicans. They bobbed for hours on the foot-deep backwater off the Arkansas River that is the lake the park is built around.

I hoped to see them again.

Who knew Congress would fail to pass a budget and that much of the federal government would shut down?

The Reserve America website, where you can book campsites, isn’t taking reservations and news reports say campers have to leave the federal parks. I tried the phone number for Willow Beach – twice – and no one answered. I suppose the elderly couple who run the place are among the one million federal workers temporarily out of work.

I followed the developments online and knew the shutdown was inevitable.

I felt a little guilty about being concerned with my camping trip when I knew my oldest son, a federal employee, would be sending employees home but working without pay himself until the impasse in Congress is over. But on Monday evening, I called the campground at Jacksonport, where the Black River converges with the White. It’s a state park, and it’s open so I’m going north.

The park at Jacksonport is immaculate and the staff is friendly. The camp sites are large and shaded, but the gem of the park is the old Jackson County courthouse. It’s built on the grounds where 6,000 Confederate soldiers surrendered to Lt. Col. C. W. Davis.

The grounds are recognized as a historic site because of that surrender, but so is the courthouse that was built after the war. It ran down after the port moved to Newport and eventually set empty until a local woman decided it was too important to decay and started a historical society to bring it back to life. Now it’s a museum with displays that tell of the rise and fall of Jacksonport, a vital city that ran to ruin because of arrogance and bad decisions.

But of course, I’m paraphrasing. The state website for the park says it this way: “In the 1800s steamboats made Jacksonport a thriving river port. During the Civil War, the town was occupied by both Confederate and Union forces because of its crucial locale.

“Jacksonport became county seat in 1854, and construction of a stately, two-story brick courthouse began in 1869. The town began to decline in the 1880s when bypassed by the railroad. The county seat was moved in 1891 to nearby Newport, and Jacksonport’s stores, wharves and saloons soon vanished.”

Newspaper reports included among the museum displays tell why it happened. Cairo and Fulton Railroad began laying a track through Jackson County after the war as part of a line linking St. Louis to Texas but offered to route the rail through Jacksonport if Jacksonport would give the right of way and pay $25,000 toward the additional cost. But the town leaders and steamboat operators said no. They reasoned that Jacksonport was so important to the economy that the railroad should pay for a spur to the river port. It didn’t, but Newport did.

With the railroad on the way in while steamboats were on the way out, Jacksonport all but died. In 1892, Newport became the county seat because it had grown so much larger that it had the votes to do it.

We drove through Jacksonport last fall when we were camped in the park and it occurred to me that it is a town that code enforcement has forgotten. There are a few middle-class houses, but many are rundown and surrounded by derelict cars and the occasional dilapidated houseboat. And when I say “drove through,” what I mean is that we went down a lot of dead-end streets, turned around and came back out.

I’m from the Delta, where small towns died when farming became more mechanized and the price of cotton dropped. The little town where I went to school is all but gone. What used to be a vigorous downtown is now a pavilion on a square with no stores where locals and former locals get together once a year for a homecoming.

But Jacksonport’s decline started when it decided it was too important to be bypassed. It didn’t die a natural death; it committed suicide.

We’ll drive through a corner of the once-thriving town on our way to the park this weekend and once again it will pain me to see it. I’d rather go to Willow Beach and maybe watch the pelicans again. But the government shutdown has rerouted me to a place that is still paying for a bad decision. Maybe there’s a lesson there somewhere. — Joan McCoy