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Newest mural honors rails, boats

Ray and Nancy Neilsen get their picture taken by Jason Hopkins of Hopkins Photography in front of the newest City Front mural, which Ray Neilsen sponsored.(Jon Giffin The Vicksburg Post)

[5/14/04]About 50 people attended the second ceremony in a week Thursday, celebrating another panel in the City Front mural project.

The new mural, depicting early railroad trains crossing the Mississippi River, was sponsored by Ray Neilsen, general manager of Ameristar Casino Hotel.

Mural Committee Chairman Nellie Caldwell said it was the enthusiasm and generosity of people like Neilsen, who has sponsored one of the other $15,000 panels, that are making the mural project successful.

“He shares the vision that we have of filling our flood wall with murals and has been a really, really big help,” Caldwell said.

The ceremony was at the Southern Cultural Heritage Center because of rain in the area. Last Friday, a mural was unveiled portraying influential African-Americans in the city’s history.

The newest painting depicts two steam-powered transfer boats as a train is coming off of one onto tracks at the bank of the Mississippi River. Before 1930 when the U.S. 80 Mississippi River Bridge opened, trains were taken across the river by ferry boat.

Rail lines were first opened from Vicksburg to Jackson in 1835 and the first train crossed the river here by boat on Oct. 27, 1885. Before then, freight was unloaded from trains in Vicksburg and taken across by boat to train cars on the Louisiana side.

The painting depicts The Pelican, built in 1902, and The Albatross, built in 1907. Both ferries served the railroad here until 1930.

“I’ve always been fascinated with trains,” Neilsen said. “Trains represent hope and freedom.”

The casino his company has operated here for 10 years is in the shadow of the river bridge, near where transfer boats once painstakingly moved rail cars across the Mississippi.

Neilsen previously sponsored the “early exploration” mural, and his wife, Nancy Purviance Neilsen, donated $5,000 to Vicksburg and Warren County Historical Society for the Jefferson Davis mural, to be unveiled on June 3.

“I’m happy to sponsor these murals because I firmly believe these murals will bring people to our community,” Neilsen said.

Ray Neilsen is the third generation in his family in the casino industry and is the son of Ameristar president and CEO Craig Neilsen. Ray Neilsen came to Vicksburg when the casino opened here in 1994 and worked as the beverage manager for two years before transferring to Iowa.

“You have really set a high standard when it comes to giving back to the community,” said Mayor Laurence Leyens.

The paintings are by muralist Robert Dafford whose previous work here includes scenes depicting Teddy Roosevelt’s historic bear hunt, the Biedenharn Candy Co. and the first bottling of Coca-Cola, the Sisters of Mercy, downtown Vicksburg, steamboats on the Mississippi River and the founding of the city.

Murals being planned are the Sultana, the flood of 1927, the USS Cairo and the Vicksburg National Military Park.

The entire area along the flood wall, once run-down and overgrown, is being redeveloped into a park for residents and tourists.