September 14, 2013 8:28:10 PM
Rufus Ward - [email protected]
Lately there has been much conversation about the future of the Tombigbee cut-off across from Columbus, commonly referred to as the Island. The Island has a long and historic past. Prior to the construction of the Tennessee-Tombigbee Waterway in the late 1970s through early 1980s what is now called the Island was a big bend in the Tombigbee River.
The area was once a mixture of mostly canebrakes and cypress swamps, but in the 1830s it became the now-extinct town of West Port. After a devastating flood in 1847 followed by a fire and another flood in 1851, the town rapidly declined until it disappeared and was replaced by a few residences, light industry and beer joints.
Two hundred years ago what is now the Island was a favorite hunting ground of Choctaw Indians who called it "Shonk Colohenocoby" or "Crooked Cypress." Its long association with Native American hunting was shown by the finding of a 2,000-year-old small spear point embedded in a buried cypress knee during the construction of the waterway cut-off around 1980. Archaeological excavations also turned up 1,500-year-old pottery fragments from Indians who predated the Choctaw.
Around 1820, John Pitchlynn and Gideon Lincecum opened a store on the Island for the Choctaw Indian trade. That followed the opening of Andrew Jackson's Military Road from Nashville to New Orleans. (The Old Macon Road remnant on the Island constitutes the remains of the Military Road.) At the storehouse they sold not only merchandise but also libations. For the next 171 years until the closing of Bob's Place when the new bridge was constructed the area was a popular watering hole with numerous establishments serving food and drink.
Lincecum called the area "White Slue" and the Choctaws designated it his private hunting ground as he wrote that it was "the string of ponds and lakes outside my dwelling." In describing the area he said; "In the canebrakesand all around the cypress swamp could be found more turkeys and deer, and some bear, coons, foxes, panthers and catamounts than at any place I ever lived."
The prairie west of the Tombigbee was opened for Euro-American settlement after the Choctaw Treaty of Dancing Rabbit Creek in 1830 and the subsequent survey in 1832. To avoid paying a toll to cross the ferry on the Tombigbee, businesses and warehouses were constructed two miles west of Columbus on the Robinson Road. That road had been constructed from Columbus to Jackson in 1824. The road fork on the Island where the road to the port branches off from Old Highway 82 was where the Military Road and the Robinson Road split.
The town that grew up on the Robinson Road (old Highway 82 on the Island) was named West Port. The town was surveyed and a plat drawn in 1834 showing the plans for a town encompassing a square mile running south from a bend in the Tombigbee. In 1836, M.M. Carrington built the first store/tavern and warehouse there. West Port became a major cotton shipping point on the Tombigbee. Then, in 1847, much of the town was destroyed by a flood and a couple of years later it was devastated by a fire. West Port never recovered and in 1901 W. L. Lipscomb described it as a "desert of white sand."
Sam Kaye had an interesting theory related to West Port and the development of Columbus. Sam noted that there was "the absence of a waterfront development in Columbus such as is found in Selma, Alabama and other river towns. A clue to that lies in the fact that Selma is located on the west bank of the Alabama River which is the same side as the Black Belt cotton lands; Columbus is located on the east bank of the Tombigbee River opposite the black Prairie cotton lands." To ship cotton from Columbus, prairie planters would have to pay a toll to cross the ferry or, later, the bridge at Columbus. There was no such toll to deliver cotton for shipment at West Port, so a port and large warehouses were built at West Port.
The cutting of old Highway 82 and the making of the White Slough area an island with the construction of the Tenn-Tom waterway changed much of the complexion of the area. Some residential areas remained but retail/commercial business were replaced by industrial development.
So that brings on the question of should the Island now be named? Historically the names associated with the Island include; Crooked Cypress, White Slough, Pitchlynn, and West Port. Then again it could just remain The Island.
Rufus Ward is a Columbus native a local historian. E-mail your questions about local history to Rufus at [email protected]