The Great River Road

One of the many little gems of the GRR is 30 miles south of Vicksburg: Port Gibson, the town General Grant found “too beautiful to burn.” As they did with Savannah, Georgia, the Union Army spared Port Gibson during the Civil War, and decades of economic doldrums have spared the town from the Walmart sprawl that at times seems to have enveloped the rest of the South. Fine homes still grace the pleasantly shaded main drag, but most eye-catching is the giant Monty Python prop known as the Church of the Golden Hand because its steeple is topped by a gold-leafed hand, its index finger pointing the way to heaven. Actually, this is the circa-1859 First Presbyterian Church (601/437-5428), whose interior is lit by the gasoliers of the famous steamboat Robert E. Lee, the record-setting winner of the Great Steamboat Race of 1870. Newspapers of the day reckoned that millions of dollars were wagered on the outcome of the New Orleans-to-St. Louis race, which attracted international attention. The Lee’s three-day, 18-hour, and 14-minute victory was an upset for the favored title holder, the Natchez.

Across the street from the Golden Hand, next to an Exxon station, stands another unusual building, Temple Gemiluth Chassed, an elaborate Moorish-arched temple built in 1892 by Port Gibson’s then large and prosperous Jewish community.