NATCHEZ — At first glance, Natchez is a sunlit city with antebellum buildings, modern construction and streets filled with cars and people.
But just under the surface, there is another world of tunnels, drains and bayous that many don’t know exists.
And with a little digging, there is a whole other city to explore.
Perhaps the largest tunnel under town is the canal that runs underneath Canal Street.
Built in the early 1790s, the bottom portion of the canal was originally an open drainage ditch, said Mimi Miller, director of Preservation and Education for the Historic Natchez Foundation.
Sometime later, the ditch was covered with an arch of bricks, completing the tunnel.
Myths about the canal abound but are seldom true, Miller said. Contrary to legend, the canal was not used to flood cotton down to the river — it doesn’t drain directly to the river, and wet cotton often rots. Neither was it used as a forced alternate route for slaves.
Still, the reality of the canal is a fascinating one. It appears on early Spanish maps, Miller said, and was mentioned in a traveler’s account in the 1800s.
Walking through the tunnel, one can see the centuries-old canal has stood the test of time.
It’s still used for drainage, and on dry days, a thin stream of water runs along the bottom. On rainy days, it rushes.
For most of its 250 feet, the arch is high enough for an average man to walk upright and wide enough for three people to walk comfortably side-by-side.
Frequently, one can see where the brick arch has crumbled away, revealing dirt and sometimes plant roots shooting down from the surface.
Every so often, a smaller tunnel shoots off from the main canal and disappears into blackness.
“It has several fingers of tunnels off that main canal, like the trunk of a tree with branches,” City Engineer David Gardner said. “What they’re doing is collecting drainage.”
The main canal starts at the north end of Canal Street and drains down to the railroad tracks near Rosalie Mansion, finally ending in a bayou.
Now capped with a box culvert, the tunnel used to be open enough for children to get in and out of it.
For younger Natchez residents who were told not to cross the street, the tunnels were an alternate way to get around town.
“Kids used to walk in one end and out the other,” Miller said. “There were always kids playing in bayous and under the streets.”
One of those kids was Will Devening, who grew up in Natchez and still lives in town.
“We would go play in the woods, in the bayous and in the tunnels,” Devening said. “One time, I got lost and came up behind Dunleith.”
For Devening and his friends, the city’s underground network of tunnels and drains was a way to get where they wanted to go.
“You can walk those ditches all over town,” he said.
He and his friends would sometimes use the tunnels to get to a convenience store to buy root beer or snacks.
Devening’s group stuck to the smaller tunnels and ditches, he said. The canal was too long and straight.
“I remember when I first saw (the canal), I was amazed at how big it was,” he said. “But there was not as much to see.”
Devening and his friends roamed around the south part of town, exploring the world beneath the city’s surface.
“We had a good time,” Devening said. “It was something different to do.”
Natchez native Ralph W. Jennings and his friends explored the north part of town.
“There was a group of children about my age, between 8 and 12 years old,” Jennings said. “We were always running around, exploring the bayous. We got to know most of the ways on the north side pretty well.”
Brick drainage tunnels and storm drains were a favorite of the crowd. They were a way to escape and get where they wanted to go.
“During daylight, you could get pretty far away from the parents and get back,” Jennings said. “It was among the things we were admonished not to do when we were discovered doing them.”
Other, smaller canals are scattered throughout town, not attached to the main artery of the canal, Gardner said.
“Some are off Madison and Myrtle Streets in the old part of town,” Gardner said. “We have found them because they occasionally fall in, and we realize there’s a canal there we didn’t know about.”
The drains are still functioning decades after they were built, most of them from brick.
“It’s really kind of fascinating to look at them,” he said. “The way the bricks are mortared in, they’re strong. The way they’re engineered, it took some ingenuity from somebody. We are here in 2007 and still marveling at their expertise.”
Most of the older drains were likely put in when the antebellum houses were built, Gardner said. After that, clay pipes became the norm.
Regardless of how well it was built, the large canal down Canal Street is getting a facelift. The aging arches were not designed to support streets carrying cars and tractor-trailers, and several spots have caved in over the years.
The city is basically building another tunnel inside the existing one, spraying concrete over supportive steel rods.
“We’re rehabilitating it, not destroying it,” Gardner said. “When we look at it from a historic aspect, we’re preserving rather than demolishing it. It’s old and part of our history, and we don’t want to take away from that.”
The work might or might not last another 200 years, but Gardner said he was continually impressed by the work of those who came before him.
“Being an engineer,” he said, “if I built something that lasted 180 years, I would say that was pretty significant.”