Paddles up to the Riverside Hotel!
On the Banks of the Sunflower River, near Quapaw Canoe Company (LMRD #872)
Riverside Hotel: it’s time for a little personal payback!
This is a little personal payback:
30+ years ago when I first arrived in the Mississippi Delta (Fall 1991, the week before King Biscuit Festival), I took lodging in Clarksdale’s Riverside Hotel, room #7. I was told this was the “Robert Nighthawk Room,” which suited me fine. The Riverside Hotel was my first "inside" home in Clarksdale (the forest camp I found on the banks of the river was my first — and longest lasting to this very date — “outside” home!).
I was a slightly ignorant and star-struck kid (that is, struck by the starry universe of the down-home delta blues!)…. the enchanting daily life of this strange muddy town led me wandering in and out of the alleys and jukes of Clarksdale, and over the vine choked & mosquito infested turtle riverbanks, Mrs. Z.L. Hill watched me like a hawk, and was not short on mothering and gentle but firm direction.
This historic hotel has suffered the loss of founder & original owner Mrs. Z.L. Hill, and later her son “Rat” Frank Ratliff. But thanks to a dedicated team of family members (the next generation), as well as historians, preservationists, and community leaders, a restoration project is underway, and recently was awarded a large Nat’l Park Service grant to proceed forward. You can help this project along, visit homepage, and click on the GoGundMe page for adding a helping hand!
Congrats to the Riverside Hotel — for its significant award from the National Park Service through their African American Civil Rights Grant, for restoration and preservation of the hotel. For at least three generations, the Riverside Hotel has been one of the only black family-owned hotels in Mississippi and remains standing proudly as a significant part of African American Civil Rights history. The Riverside Hotel has a unique connection in history that spans across three eras of Civil Rights in America from 1915-1964.
I stayed 4 months at Riverside Hotel in Oct 1991- Jan 1992. Momma Z.L. Hill watched over my comings & goings with love and wisdom, and her son Frank “Rat” with his wry humor. Now her grandchildren and great grand-children are keeping the legacy alive through renovation, restoration, and cultural programming . I arrived in Oct 1991, and moved into room #7. John Kennedy Jr was there at that same weekend (for the annual King Biscuit Festival).
All river rats experience the circles of life, and the natural rhythms of the flowing of time, which flows along in ever widening curves, and then loops back around, and then returns back upon itself, a little further downstream, in repetitions of form and medium, but each time slightly different.
Riverside Hotel sits on banks of Sunflower River, just downstream of Quapaw Canoe Company:
Sunflower River has the Blues! How many rivers can you put-in near the Delta Blues Museum (Clarksdale), paddle behind the most active juke joint in the world (Red’s in Clarksdale), (and nearby Ground Zero Blues Club), picnic next to the place where Bessie Smith died (Riverside Hotel in Clarksdale), meander though the “birthplace” of the blues (Dockery Plantation), visit another legendary juke joint Club Ebony, (BB King’s haunt in Indianola), and end up near the birthplace of Muddy Waters (Rolling Fork)? Keep reading below for more description, and routes for paddlers!
News Release Date: May 19, 2022
Clarksdale, MS – The Riverside Hotel has secured a significant award from the National Park Service
Contact: Sonya Gates Ratliff: firstname.lastname@example.org
Clarksdale, MS – The Riverside Hotel has secured a significant award from the National Park Service through their African American Civil Rights Grant, for restoration and preservation of the hotel. For at least three generations, the Riverside Hotel has been one of the only black family-owned hotels in Mississippi and remains standing proudly as a significant part of African American Civil Rights history. The Riverside Hotel has a unique connection in history that spans across three eras of Civil Rights in America from 1915-1964.
The Riverside Hotel will receive $499,500 in grant proceeds which will help fund critical repairs and upgrades to the infrastructure, which otherwise might never have been possible. Saving, restoring and preserving are key to ensuring that the Riverside Hotel continues to have stories to tell about its place in African American - Civil Rights, Culture and Blues History.
“The African American Civil Rights grants are critical to helping preserve and interpret a more comprehensive narrative of the people, places, and events associated with African American Civil Rights movement…” said NPS Director Chuck Sams. The African American Civil Rights grants fund a variety of projects from rehabilitation to oral history documentation, in coordination with state, Tribal, local government, and non-profit partners.
“This project is supported through an African American Civil Rights grant, provided by the Historic Preservation Fund, as administered by the National Park Service, Department of Interior.”
The Riverside Hotel “was dreamed up, owned, and operated by an entrepreneurial African American woman, Mrs. Z. L. Hill, living in Jim Crow–era Mississippi and since 1944 and up until the Pandemic in 2020, the Riverside Hotel had “provided safe lodging in the Delta for some of the most famous musicians in history as well as like-minded folk”, and was the place “where Blues Gave Birth to Rock and Roll”.
As one of the few African American hotels in Mississippi during Jim Crow, it was listed in the famous Green Book and played host to a Who's Who of blues and R&B legends including Sonny Boy Williamson II, Muddy Waters, and Robert Nighthawk. Others, like Howlin’ Wolf, Sam Cooke, Ike Turner and Jessie Mae Hemphill, made the Riverside Hotel their home away from home as they toured and crisscrossed the South. Rocket 88; considered to be the first Rock N Roll song ever, was written and rehearsed at The Riverside Hotel by Ike Turner and Jackie Brenston.
Prior to becoming the Riverside Hotel, the property operated as the G.T. Thomas Afro-American Hospital for African Americans. The hospital played a very significant role in the greater Clarksdale black community during segregation and in 1937 the Empress of the Blues, Bessie Smith who was seriously injured in a car wreck while traveling between shows died of her injuries. Today, the room she passed in is preserved as a shrine in her honor, as a tribute to the most famous woman in Blues History.
In June of 2021, the National Trust for Historic Preservation listed the Riverside Hotel as one of America's Most Endangered Places giving our story visibility and a platform for us to develop partnerships and seek funding for the restoration and preservation of the hotel. Original owner, Mrs. Z.L. Hill's granddaughters, Sonya Gates and Zelena Ratliff, are working to ensure that their family's legacy and the hotel’s legacy of African American culture, blues music and civil rights history is preserved for generations to come. "African American businesses are so important, and it's a way that we can continue on," Sonya Gates commented "This funding is so important not only to ensure the preservation of the building and but also the sustainability of a three-generation African American business. Generational wealth often starts with a small business like this, and we want to continue this work and pass this legacy to our children."
The Riverside Hotel has a rich history in the music and African American history and is a significant part of the tourism business in the Mississippi Delta. The ability to restore and remain open is critical not only to the Ratliff family, but to Mississippi and the community at large.
For more information on the Riverside Hotel’s rich legacy please visit our website: www.riversideclarksdale.com or check out this article about the Ratliff Family and their family’s fight to save, restore and preserve this valuable and irreplaceable landmark:
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Sunflower River: This River has the Blues!
by John Ruskey
This river has the blues! Besides the many blues & gospel musicians who were born & baptized along its banks, its mussel shell beds, which are reported to be the richest such biota in the world, seem to be in constant danger of overzealous engineering. The Sunflower River has been neglected, dumped upon and over-worked — so much that American Rivers has proclaimed it to be America’s “Most Endangered River” in 2018.
The good news is that its forests constitute the largest bottomland hardwood forests in the National Forest system (they also produce the highest carbon-sequestration of any forests in North America!), and its banks are home to every creature found native to the Mississippi Delta, winged, webbed or otherwise. It’s a beautiful place to get away, to reflect a moment on the rivers and woods of America, to walk along its banks, to paddle its waters, to enjoy its primeval scenery. Most importantly, it’s home to all of us who live on or near its banks, and second home to many others who love it from a distance. Shouldn’t we be taking better care of our lonely muddy river — the little lonely river with a bad case of the blues?
Natural and Cultural Description:
The Sunflower River is sometimes difficult to access, in part because it is carved out of the deep mud of the Lower Mississippi Alluvial Valley. Nevertheless it is well worth the effort to explore. Paddlers are rewarded with abundant birds, amphibians and mammals, deep woods, endless wetlands, and the rich culture of the Mississippi Delta. How many rivers can you put-in near the Delta Blues Museum (Clarksdale), paddle behind the most active juke joint in the world (Red’s in Clarksdale), meander though the “birthplace” of the blues (Dockery Plantation) visit another legendary juke joint Club Ebony, (BB King’s haunt in Indianola) and end up near the birthplace of Muddy Waters (Rolling Fork)?
The Sunflower is the Mississippi Delta. If a rain drop falls in the Delta most likely it enters the Big Sun somewhere in its 250 mile north-south journey. It receives all waters good & bad from Friars Point, Clarksdale, Cleveland, Indianola, Leland, Greenville, Rolling Fork & Mayersville. The only major Delta populations it doesn’t drain are Tunica, Greenwood & Belzoni. Its tributaries include the Hushpuckena, the Quiver River, Bogue Phalia, Silver River, and due to some radical canal work, Deer Creek and Steele Bayou. The Little Sunflower, and some minor bayous and chutes are considered its “distributaries,” waterways that carry its excesses during high water. It is sometimes connected overhead out of its drainage area via Moon Lake and the Yazoo Pass to the Coldwater River and points North & East, but only after torrential rainfall or during the highest of river levels. Of course, during severe flooding, the entire Delta goes under water and then you could really say “the river connects us all!”
The Sunflower River is born in the bayous and lakes of Northern Coahoma County and meanders South some 250 miles through the Yazoo-Mississippi Delta paralleling the Mississippi River on the West and the Yazoo on the East, (with which it confluences with 10 miles above Vicksburg). A small but dynamic river, once forested, now mostly bordered by fields, the Sunflower is a rich habitat for all creatures native to the region, including black bear and panther. Its muddy current averages 2100 cfs (cubic feet per second) at Sunflower, 3461 cfs at the mouth of Bogue Phalia, and approximately 4500 cfs where it empties into the Yazoo River at Steele Bayou. Its drainage includes most or all of Coahoma, Bolivar, Sunflower, Washington, Sharkey & Issaquena Counties, some 3,689 square miles, inhabited by 133,075 people (2017 estimate, US Census).
The Sunflower and the Yazoo parallel each other (and not coincidentally the Mississippi River) for the majority of their North-to-South journey, but come from widely different origins. While the Sunflower emerges from the bayous of the North Delta, the Yazoo gurgles out of the Kudzu-covered Piney forests of the Mississippi “Hill” Country, in the form of the Coldwater River. Later it merges with the Tallahatchie (Bobby Gentry: Ode to Bille Joe), and then at Greenwood meets the Yalobusha to form the Yazoo. It also passes through Sledge (home of Charlie Pride), Marks, and Yazoo City. Greenwood was once the cotton stock market capital of the world, and Robert Johnson was reportedly poisoned in a nearby juke joint. Emmet Till was murdered on one of its bayous, igniting the stormiest period of the Civil Rights era.
All Mississippi rivers have the blues to some extent, but the Sunflower has the blues worse than any other. In its journey through the Delta, the Sunflower winds through the layers of mud and history that gave the world its first great blues singer (Charlie Patton, Dockery Plantation), the first mechanized cotton picker (Hopson Plantation), its oldest African-American founded community (Mound Bayou), rural Civil Rights era leaders (Fanny Lou Hamer, Sunflower County; Aaron Henry, Clarksdale), the Teddy Bear (Delta National Forest), King of the Chicago Blues (Muddy Waters, born in Rolling Fork, lived 25 years at Stovall) and the renowned ambassador of the blues (B.B. King, Indianola). The Rev. C.L. Franklin (Aretha’s Father) is just one of many who were baptized in her muddy waters. Bessie Smith died at the G.T. Thomas Hospital which sits on her banks in Clarksdale (now the Riverside Hotel). Today you can hear live blues along the river at juke joints Red’s and Ground Zero Blues Club, and learn about the African American history that gave birth to this earth-shaking music at the Delta Blues Museum (Clarksdale) and the BB King Museum (Indianola). Legendary woodsman, Holt Collier (1846-1936), who cornered the Teddy Bear, reported its waters to run clear & clean, and Roosevelt started each day of the hunt with a cold-water swim. One of our long-term objectives is to make the waters safe once again for fishing and swimming. What would Roosevelt think if he returned to the deep forested lands he once hunted in and found their wetlands had been drained of water?
Don't look for sandbars on this river. You will encounter nothing but thick, rich Mississippi alluvial floodplain soil, and the fields and towns and forests adjacent. Exceptional wildlife, especially raptors & amphibians. Muddy banks make for muddy landings, muddy picnics, muddy camps. In high water the mud is all hidden. But in low water be ready for climbing and descending steep slippery banks of chocolate goo as you enter and exit the waterway.
Of course, the end of one river is just the beginning of another, and so the Sunflower becomes a tributary of the Yazoo River at Steele Bayou. Not far downstream the Yazoo gets swallowed by the mother river, the Mighty Mississippi. There is an outdated plan to build the world’s largest freshwater pumps where the Sunflower joins the Yazoo, the so-called “Yazoo Pumps.” We in the Delta feel the effects of the problem the pumps are supposed to fix, that is “backwater” building up within the Mississippi Delta. We paddlers have some thoughts about this and the water situation everywhere, the lack of good water, the disappearing wetlands, the violent shifts of water levels from drought to flood, from extremely low water levels, to catastrophic flooding on all rivers in the middle of America. Why is this happening? In part because more rain is falling when it rains. In part because we keep cutting off wetlands, like the Mississippi Delta, or building parking lots or neighborhoods, or increasing our farmlands in places where the river used to naturally expand, and its excess waters be absorbed in.
I am but a canoe builder & river guide and leader of a small group of adventurers, the Mighty Quapaws. But we do know the Sunflower river better than anyone else, if nothing else for the simple fact that we are the only people that actually get out and paddle it. Poor neglected rivers. They have become the closet you stuff all your unwanted things in — where your guests can’t see them. But what if your guests did see them? Then you’d start keeping it a little neater, wouldn’t you? And that’s what we are hoping with the Big Sunflower – we are hoping that these explorations and writings will take some of the fear out of the mud and trashy banks, and add a little respect & recognition of the beauty & great expressions of life – and that more people will get out and paddle it. As more people paddle, maybe the people who dump things over the bank will be less inclined to do so — and those who would build giant expensive pumps — and who knows, maybe with the attention of others they’ll even clean up some of the mess they made last year.
Where can you paddle the Sunflower River?
There are many places along the 250-mile length of the Sunflower River to access and paddle, but the best spots are found around Clarksdale and Rolling Fork. See below for complete listing and links to water trails in Clarksdale, Anguilla, and Rolling Fork. Canoe, kayak and paddle board are all suitable vessels. Clarksdale: In the Clarksdale area, you can do a round trip from downtown, paddle upstream as far as you feel like and then turnaround. The Quapaw Canoe Company is a good place to do this from for easy parking, access, maps, and canoes, kayaks and paddle boards for rent. www.island63.com There is also a beautiful 3 mile paddle (approx 1 hr.) into downtown from the Friars Point Bridge. Or take an afternoon and put in near Clover Hill on the Farrell-Eagle’s Nest Road, 10 miles total (approx 4 hrs). http://lowerdelta.org/paddling-trails/sunflower-river/ Hopson Plantation/Shack Up Inn: Start out near Red’s Juke Joint in downtown Clarksdale and paddle 5 miles downstream for a takeout at the Hopson Bridge, directly behind Friend of the Sunflower River supporting business Shack Up Inn. Sunflower: In Sunflower, put in behind the Library, across the street from the Sunflower Freedom Project, and do a round trip paddle, first upstream, you can make an interesting foray up to the mouth of the Hushpuckena River, and then float back into town. (like climbing the mountain: do the hard work first!) Indianola: Put in at the confluence of the Quiver River, approx 8 mile paddle to the Hwy 49 Bridge below town. Walk 2 miles north into town to reach Club Ebony, BB King’s favorite juke joint. The phenomenal BB King Museum is located nearby. Anguilla: Boat Ramp at the Hwy 14 bridge. Do a round trip, or make a day (or overnight) 14 mile paddle into Delta National Forest, the largest bottomland hardwood forest in the National Forest system. http://lowerdelta.org/paddling-trails/big-sunflower/ Near Rolling Fork/Holly Bluff: Good ramp on the old channel of the river off highway 16. Paddle upstream past the distributary Little Sunflower River, and meander deeper and deeper into the woods. Round trip: go as far as you feel like paddling, then turn around and return to your vehicle. Little Sunflower River: Put in at the boat launch off the 433 (Spanish Fort Road) deep in Delta National Forest (the largest bottomland hardwood forest in the National Forest system) and explore the same woods legendary hunting guide Holt Collier frequented. http://lowerdelta.org/paddling-trails/little-sunflower/ Near Eagle Lake: Steele Bayou Confluence: put in at the Steele Bayou Control Structure and paddle upstream ½ mile to the confluence of Steel Bayou, where steamboats used to start their journey up into the frontier Mississippi Delta. Yazoo River Confluence: put in at the Steele Bayou Control Structure for a one-mile paddle to the mouth of the Big Sun at the Yazoo, the “River of Death.” Enquire about further paddling options down the Yazoo River.
Sunflower River: Options for paddlers in the Clarksdale area
The best time to get out & paddle the Sunflower is after heavy rainfall. Anytime you see the river over its normal low-water banks its gonna be great. At its best when it rises above the mud layer left by a previous high. Otherwise, be ready for stinky mud! Great adventure, and lots of wildlife. But only for hearty nature lovers, and those willing to get muddy, and make portages, and possibly get wet. Watch for snakes and poison ivy. Pack in waterproof container: Water bottles, snacks, GPS, phone, sun protection and bug protection Water levels, and when to go: Anytime is good for exploring Sunflower, but it's best when the water is up. You can read river gages here: https://waterdata.usgs.gov/nwis/uv?site_no=07288000 (PS: On this clarksdale gage, the best paddling is 12 or above...) Clark Park to Sunflower Landing (3 miles) Leisurely 3 mile paddle into downtown Clarksdale through some of the woods & neighborhoods north of town. Owls & beavers. Paddle through the cypress, oaks & sycamores of the Duck Walk. You’ve never seen downtown until you’ve seen it from the river! Put-in at Clark Park (Lee Drive & Friars Point Road) Take out at Sunflower Landing (Public Parking just downstream of 2nd Street Bridge) Clover Hill to Sunflower Landing (10 miles) 10 miles. 3-4 hours of paddling. Wild & remote-feeling. Great views of Coahoma County as it used to look. Paddle through woods & fields for miles and not see anyone. No people or buildings until you get close to Clarksdale. Lots of deer, ducks, owls, hawks, and migrating birds. Put in at bridge near Clover Hill (turn off Friars Point Road at Kenoy’s and go East half mile on Farrell-Eagle’s Nest Road. Park on SE side of the 2nd Bridge. Put in below bridge. Take out at Sunflower Landing (Public Parking just downstream of 2nd Street Bridge) Sunflower Landing to Hopson (6 miles) 6 miles. 2-3 hours of paddling. Leave downtown Clarksdale and paddle under the Railroad Bridge behind Delta Wholesale Hardware, Red’s Juke Joint, the Riverside Hotel, 61 Highway – you will see why the Sunflower River has the blues! The river alternates between short narrow passages with clogged channels through submerged trees and long pools bordered by big trees and wide fields. The banks are thick with hawks, owls & deer. Put in Sunflower Landing (Public Parking just downstream of 2nd Street Bridge) Take out at Hopson Bridge Quapaw Canoe Company: Rental & Shuttle Rates Canoe Rental: $35/day with paddles & life jackets for 2 people Kayak Rental: $45/day with kayak paddle, life jacket, and kayak rescue gear Shuttle Rates (per person with canoes & kayaks): Sunflower Landing – Clark Park: $15 Sunflower Landing – Clover Hill: $25 Sunflower Landing – Hopson: $25