By Tom Charlier, Memphis Commercial Appeal
July 25, 2010

ANDOLPH, Tenn. — “Look out for bats,” warns James Alsbrook, guiding a visitor into a subterranean powder magazine dating back to the Civil War.

Dusk is at hand, and at the bottom of this tall bluff that’s steeped in history the Mississippi River rolls by — silent and majestic and bathed in the day’s last fuchsia light.

But here in the Randolph community, where there used to be a town, forts and a river port rivaling the one in Memphis, there’s an effort afoot to preserve the history, ecology and sweeping vistas offered by the Chickasaw Bluffs lining the Mississippi in West Tennessee.

Using a private grant, the Tennessee Parks and Greenways Foundation recently purchased a 19-acre tract not far from Alsbrook’s. And with the help of state land-acquisition funds recently restored by the legislature, the group is pursuing a goal of acquiring up to 1,000 acres of bluff property.

It’s all part of a broader project to develop a Mississippi River greenway, a series of trails and parks highlighting the river and joined to a network of amenities in all 10 states along the river.

“We just have a beautiful wild river corridor, and there’s so few areas where you can go to see it,” said Kathleen Williams, president and executive director of the nonprofit foundation.

Numbered one through four by the French, the Chickasaw Bluffs stretch from near Fort Pillow in Lauderdale County to Memphis, rising in some areas more than 150 feet above the river and floodplain.

Although largely inaccessible to the public, they offer some of the best river views to be found in the state.

“Tennessee has not done a great job of conserving them,” Williams adds.

Chickasaw Bluff No. 2, the site of Randolph, is in western Tipton County, about 35 miles upstream from Downtown Memphis.

The site of a fort built by the French explorer La Salle, the bluff had been important to Native Americans and later was home to the bustling town of Randolph. The town’s location near the mouth of the Hatchie River made it a natural delivery point for cotton and grain grown in several counties, and at one time it was bigger than Memphis.

By the mid-19th century, however, Randolph had declined as Memphis became a major rail and river hub.

When the Civil War broke out, Randolph accommodated a Confederate boot camp and induction center. Built largely by slaves, Fort Wright guarded the boot camp and protected the river from Union invasion.

The fort’s guns and soldiers later were moved north to Fort Pillow and Island 10 in Kentucky, and Randolph was burned by Union forces. But the fort’s powder magazine and some breastworks remain intact.

The Parks and Greenways Foundation received a $560,000 grant from the McKnight Foundation to hire a land-conservation director and begin purchasing acreage along the bluffs. The group plans to leverage the gifts it receives with federal and state grants.

Recent action by the Tennessee General Assembly should help. Although the state for decades has maintained conservation-related land-acquisition programs funded through real-estate transfer fees, legislators for several years in a row diverted the money to other uses to help deal with budget problems.

But with strong backing from two Memphis-area state senators — Democrat Jim Kyle and Republican Mark Norris — some $16.5 million was included in the current year’s budget.

The foundation’s land at Randolph includes an A-frame structure and 1,300 feet of river frontage.

The group picked the Randolph area to make its initial purchase for a simple reason. “It was just so important, historically,” Williams said.

Diana Threadgill, executive director of the group Mississippi River Corridor-Tennessee, said the view from the Randolph site makes it special too.

“The vistas (of the river) are few and far between once you leave Memphis,” Threadgill said.

The foundation is talking with potential partners who might manage the property it acquires, she said.

In the meantime, it is hoping to use state funds and private gifts to buy more bluff acreage.

Alsbrook, who says he didn’t know that the powder magazine was part of his property when he bought it in 1974, said he would be willing to transfer it to the foundation.

“I don’t want to sell it. I’d just as soon give it to ’em,” he said.

But neighbors are concerned about the potential nuisance that could come if the site is opened to the public. “I’m between a rock and a hard place,” Alsbrook adds.

Tipton County Executive Jeff Huffman said the greenway effort could help give area residents more of an appreciation of the Mississippi.

“It’s a great asset to have,” said Huffman, a board member with Threadgill’s corridor group. “But what we’ve seen is that a lot of people in Shelby and Tipton counties, and up and down the river, just haven’t taken advantage of it.”

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