Your Natchez History Minute is brought to
you by Natchez National Historical Park. On October 15, 1962, local and state newspapers
announced that final evacuation plans were being made for Natchez residents as the U.
S. Corps of Engineers began dredging close to four sunken barges carrying cannisters
of chlorine gas lying at the bottom of the Mississippi River. The barges were part of
a convoy of 16 being towed up from New Orleans to South Charleston, West Virginia for use
by the Union Carbide Company. The barges sank in March, 1961, approximately 7 ½ miles south
of Natchez, near Morville, Louisiana and it took approximately 18 months to pinpoint their
exact location. Although the Corps didn’t expect to raise the first of the barges until
late October, massive evacuation plans were implemented against the remote possibility
of a leak. Acting upon the request of Governor Ross Barnett, President Kennedy declared an
extreme national emergency, due to the potential dangers of public health and safety. The director
of the Office of Emergency Planning called the situation “without precedent in the
history of [the] country,” warning the 80,000 residents they faced an unknown potential
danger if there was a gas leak. As part of “Operation Chlorine,” as the exercise
came to be known, the Mississippi National Guard had 1,800 troops in place with almost
900 trucks ready to evacuate the population of Natchez. The public health service reported
that 20,000 gas masks and 15,000 cots and blankets were being sent to the area and that
the Red Cross was setting up a number of canteens. Helicopters from Fort Sam Houston were on
standby as were area radio stations and volunteers to help spread the word of an accident. Mayor
Nosser and Sheriff Ferrell pleaded for Natchez residents to remain calm and stressed the
potential for disaster was small. By October 25, newspapers were able to report that the
first of the four tanks had been successfully raised without incident. My name is Bill McGehee and I’m here to help
with this Natchez History Minute. In October of 1962, I was a junior at Natchez High School.
I also raised and trained horses that I kept at Hawthorne Plantation here in Natchez. We
went to school every day during the chlorine operation and one day the principal, J. O.
Brown, asked me why I had a horse trailer behind my jeep. I told him that if the balloon
went up, I was leaving Natchez with two of my horses and I would not leave them here
to suffer from the chlorine gas. Fortunately, they raised the barges without any problem
and all of Natchez and all of my horses survived without a problem. Thank You.