|One with the River||Published Jan/Feb 2005|
Casinos are the big game in Tunica, but outside the resorts, visitors discover the delta’s culture is closely tied to the Mississippi River.
By Darlene P. Copp
|Tunica is flush with its expanding status as a premier Southern getaway destination, a designation this northwestern Mississippi city has duly earned over the last decade.
Starting in 1992, Tunica County has transformed itself from one of the poorest counties in the nation to one of the largest gaming markets. Its cut of casino revenues has been reinvested in every area of community life and into still more reasons for travelers to visit Tunica.
Located about 30 minutes south of Memphis on U.S. Highway 61, more than 10 million people visit Tunica each year. Most visitors come to Tunica to play in the nine casinos. But outside these resorts where fine dining, star-studded entertainment, spas and outdoor sports abound, visitors can immerse themselves in the culture of the state’s Delta region, fashioned and shaped by the timeless Mississippi River.
A monument to the river
Tunica’s $26 million tribute to the Mississippi River that flows 2,300 miles through the heart of the country opened in March 2004 as the multi-faceted Tunica RiverPark. Experiencing all it has to offercruising, walking, learning, watching can take the better part of a day. Its interpretive center, a striking steel edifice with architectural elements that suggest sails and portholes, overlooks the mighty river.
A cavernous reception area allows floor-to-ceiling views of the river as it makes its determined way to the Gulf of Mexico just beyond New Orleans. Rocking chairs stretch invitingly along a shaded outside deck for those unhurried visitors who want nothing more than to relax and gaze on Old Man River. They might even begin to read one of the river-themed books available in the gift shop, such as “Rising Tide” by John Barry, who was consulted on the creation of the RiverPark’s museum.
Begin a tour with the short film. Inside the map room, an animated map highlights the scale, scope and influence of the river. From there, return to the earliest times of the surrounding region, which affected the exploration, settlement and westward expansion of the United States. Almost 300 artifacts, scale models, videos and artwork accompany accounts of prehistoric mound builders and Spanish conquistadors. A fanciful wildlife diorama and four huge aquariums represent the natural world along the Mississippi.
A wide, steel staircase reflecting the RiverPark’s modern design spans the museum’s two floors. Upper-level exhibits delve into man’s efforts to travel, tame and control the Mississippi. Through videos and vignettes, models and maps, salvage and simulation, the broad spectrum of river history comes alive, including the golden age of steamboats, the use of ironclad gunboats during the Civil War, the devastating flood of 1927, and the work of levee boards. After becoming immersed in its many stories, visitors are ready to appreciate bird’s-eye views of the river from the third-floor observation deck.
The RiverPark encourages river viewing along a gently curved promenade and on a 1.9-mile paved trail that incorporates river overlooks and boardwalks through a riverside forest. One activitya riverboat cruiseputs visitors on the river.
Aboard the Tunica Queen paddle-wheeler, passengers can eat a hearty deli-style lunch, have an afternoon snack, or enjoy fine dining at sunset during cruises that feature musical entertainment and the captain’s commentary on river trivia. A morning cruise also is offered. Open-deck seating allows for relaxed river watching afterwards.
A window on the past
Richard Taylor, who farmed cotton for 25 years and spent nine years ginning it, says, “The Delta is too flat to keep any secrets.” As program director of the Tunica Museum, he often dons special attire to heighten visitor interest in his stories of the Delta.
Exhibits detail how the Delta, an alluvial plain stretching between Memphis and Vicksburg, was cleared of hardwood forests and cultivated by slaves for wealthy cotton planters. Successive displays chronicle how the region’s agriculture evolved. Other exhibits focus on topics unique to the Delta ranging from the Jim Crow era to the impact of casinos. A small theater plays the stories of local citizens describing their involvement in the Civil Rights struggle. To round out the museum’s offerings, a separate wing features rotating exhibits on a gamut of special subjects.
No traveler to Tunica should leave without learning something about the Delta blues, America’s wholly original musical form. While the Tunica Museum and the RiverPark museum added a blues exhibit to their mix, the best place to understand how the blues developed and influenced musicians around the world is at the Horseshoe Casino’s Blues and Legends Hall of Fame. Music plays in the background while bold artwork infuses vibrant exhibits that pay tribute to all the great blues artists. From orchestra leader W.C. Handy, who first heard the blues in 1903 while waiting for a late night train, to B.B. King, who still maintains a demanding touring schedule, all the legendary bluesmen are given their due. In addition, the Muddy Waters’ quote, “The blues had a baby and they named it rock ‘n’ & roll,” introduces displays that highlight rock stars like Chuck Berry, Janis Joplin and the Rolling Stones, all of whom were inspired by the blues. Guitar and harmonica collections add another layer to the story of the blues.
These cultural attractions add to the entertainment choices available to Tunica’s guests. Visiting these gems will pay off with an enlightened view of Tunica.
Darlene P. Copp is a contributor from Oxford, Miss.
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