Newest mural honors river bridges|[5/24/06]

Published 12:00 am Wednesday, May 24, 2006

As temperatures nearly reached the 90s, about 100 people gathered for the 18th unveiling of a Vicksburg Riverfront Mural Tuesday afternoon. The mural honors the city’s two Mississippi River bridges.

&#8220Two Bridges at Sunset,” the fifth mural to be painted on the north floodwall by artist Robert Dafford, was sponsored by Ray and Nancy Neilsen, who were in Las Vegas and unable to attend the ceremony.

This is the third mural Ray Neilsen, former general manager of Ameristar Casino Vicksburg and current vice president of operations and special projects of Ameristar Casino Inc., and his wife have sponsored. The first two – Early Explorations and Train Ferries – were painted on the south floodwall.

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Nancy Neilsen’s children, Chip Burr and Kelly Jeffers, both Vicksburg natives, were in attendance to help unveil the mural.

&#8220We were proud to be able to represent Ray and continue his investment in the community,” said Jeffers, who works as Ameristar’s entertainment coordinator.

Burr, who is manager of the Heritage Buffet at the casino, gave a speech to the crowd of about 100, telling his own timeline as a Vicksburg native as it related to the two bridges.

&#8220What I think makes the town, the mural project and the bridges are an integral part,” he said.

Burr remembered the bridges from his childhood on family vacations to his teenage years when he had more &#8220mischievous” reasons for crossing the bridge to his more recent thoughts on the structures.

&#8220I now think of them as monuments of progress,” he said.

The first bridge, privately funded as a for-profit venture, was constructed between 1927 and 1930 and cost $6.5 million, said mural historian Nancy Bell. At the time, the 7,500-foot structure was the only bridge across the Mississippi River between Memphis and New Orleans. In 1963, it was announced that a new four-lane highway bridge would be constructed south of the current bridge. The Mississippi River Bridge opened to traffic 10 years later, in 1973.

The mural depicts the two bridges as seen from Ray Neilsen’s office window, said artist Dafford. Neilsen’s office is just north of Ameristar Casino along Washington Street.

&#8220(We) took several trips to photograph the bridges, but Ray insisted on the view closest to his office,” he said. &#8220Eventually, I came to see that that’s the best view.”

The mural also includes three boats, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers’ Motor Vessel Mississippi, the Coast Guard’s Cutter Kickapoo and Ergon’s grocery boat Big Valley in the river, offset by the two bridges. The old bridge &#8220eclipses” the new bridge, Dafford said, showing its more historical prominence.

The hour-long ceremony was complete with entertainment – a verbal walk through Vicksburg’s history by five kindergartners from Under the Sea Kindergarten. Their rhyming history lesson – complete with colored drawings – depicted cultural and historical hot spots, many of which have already been documented through historical murals.

Vicksburg Riverfront Mural Chairman Nellie Caldwell said Dafford and his artists will return in the fall to begin painting two of the 13 planned historical murals that will complete the north floodwall over the next few years. The Flood of 1927, possibly sponsored by employees of the Corps of Engineers, is the only one that has been announced for the fall.

One more mural, funded by graduates of Carr Central High School, has been painted on the north wall and will be unveiled in the fall.