Work begins on installing Cairo’s new roof

Published 12:00 am Tuesday, July 31, 2001

The ORIGINAL 20-ton canopy of the USS Cairo Civil War gunboat is lifted from its bindings by five Bracken Construction cranes Saturday. A temporary roof over the Cairo was installed earlier.(The Vicksburg Post/MELANIE DUNCAN)

[07/29/01] The original 40,000-pound canopy frame that protects the USS Cairo was taken down Saturday in preparation for its new roof.

After six hours of tediously maneuvering the 22-year-old frame, five cranes owned by a subcontractor, Bracken Construction Co. Inc. of Jackson laid the structure to rest.

Malouf Construction Inc. of Madison will erect a new Kevlar-like tent, about 440 feet by 68 feet, which will replace the previous metal roof.

“Sunlight will penetrate it some, but water cannot,” project superintendent John Haik said.

The new canopy will extend down further to protect the 139-year-old Union gunboat, one of seven gunboats built by the North to gain control of the Mississippi River and divide the Confederacy.

“(The original canopy) wasn’t protecting the boat the way it should,” Park Ranger Michelle Riter said.

Riter said wind-blown rain, sunlight and bird droppings were eating away at the historic wood and iron on the Cairo.

The new $2.9 million canopy is expected to take about nine months to erect, Haik said.

A temporary canopy, erected between the original canopy and the reconstructed remains of the gunboat, will remain in place until the new roof is installed, he said.

The Cairo’s life was short-lived during the Civil War. It was commissioned in January 1862 and sunk a year later in the Yazoo Canal n the first boat to be sunk by an electrically detonated torpedo.

In 1956, three researchers, Edwin C. Bearss, then historian at Vicksburg National Military Park, and his two companions, Don Jacks and Warren Grabau, set out to find the Cairo with only a compass and iron probe bars.

Three years passed before warship’s grave site was confirmed with divers bringing up armored port covers.

In 1960, the pilothouse, an 8-inch smoothbore cannon, its whiteoak carriage and other artifacts were found perserved by the Yazoo mud. This prompted the State of Mississippi, the Warren County Board of Supervisors and local supporters to assist in the recovery of the boat.

The remains, cut into three pieces, were salvaged four years later and towed to Vicksburg. By 1965, the Cairo was taken by barges to Ingalls Shipyard in Pascagoula, Miss.

In 1972, Congress turned the title of the gunboat over to the National Park Service and authorized the restoration of the boat for display in the park. Five years later the boat was transported to park and placed on a concrete foundation near the Vicksburg National Cemetery.

Access to the Cairo Museum is limited, so visitors are advised to call the park to see if the facility is open.

“It is on a day-to-day basis…we are keeping it open as much as we can,” Riter said.