In with a boom|Military park sees big changes in ’10

Published 12:00 am Friday, January 1, 2010

The newly designed theater entrance at the Vicksburg National Military Park visitor center gives the impression that a cave is being entered, reminiscent of the caves some Vicksburg residents called home during the Union siege of the city in 1863.

Life in the caves is now part of the park’s visitor orientation film. “Where Brothers Fought,” the park’s first updated documentary in more than 30 years, introduces park visitors to Vicksburg’s Civil War experience.

“It’s a big difference from the old film,” said VNMP chief of operations and acting superintendent Rick Martin. “We got so much more than we bargained for.”

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For Martin, other park rangers and staff at the city’s most popular tourist attraction, the new year also will bring a new theater sound system, a new chief, an improved tour road and facelifts to some of the park’s landmarks.

R. Michael Madell will take over as superintendent Jan. 17, moving to Vicksburg after completing a stint as superintendent of the Missouri National Recreational River park site in South Dakota.

Madell began his career with the National Park Service more than 20 years ago while he was in college and has served at the Little Rock Central High School National Historic Site, the Mississippi National River and Recreation Area and with the U.S. Forest Service at Land Between the Lakes National Recreation Area in Kentucky and Tennessee.

“Vicksburg is one of the premiere Civil War parks in the United States,” said Martin. “For someone to come here, I think it’s definitely a feather in their cap.”

Though the new superintendent might not arrive in time, Vicksburg residents will get a chance to see the park’s new documentary at its “world premiere” Jan. 21 at the Southern Cultural Heritage Center. Show time will be announced at a later date.

In addition to the civilian experience, the film also includes area battles and the siege, the fighting of the U.S. Colored Troops at Milliken’s Bend and maps to help show troop movements.

Production chief Lenny Rotman of Boston’s Northern Light Productions, the company that wrote, cast, videotaped and edited the movie, will be in attendance at the SCHC showing, and Martin hopes Vicksburg residents who took part in the filming last April will also attend.

“We’ll show the old one first and then the new, so people can really see the difference,” he said. At 20 minutes, the new is slightly longer than the one that has set the stage for park visitors since the 1970s, but its producers “just couldn’t cut anything else out of it,” Martin said.

Park officials are also busy preparing for the selection and installation of state-of-the-art sound and viewing equipment in the theater, expected to be operational by summer. “We’re looking to get a completely new system,” Martin said, including surround-sound and high-definition projection components. “It will have everything that goes with a high-tech system.”

Lower-tech, but just as critical, are ongoing road and restoration projects that have seen the South Loop of the park’s 16-mile tour road closed to both vehicular and pedestrian traffic in recent months, and a new face to the historic Shirley House, just east of the Illinois Monument on Union Avenue.

The South Loop — about a three-mile stretch of the tour road southwest of the visitor center and on the other side of Clay Street — includes a number of Confederate monuments such as Alabama and Kentucky, as well as the Indiana Union monument. Crews have replaced concrete slabs on the road, resurfaced asphalt and installed or repaired curbs and drainage ditches, Martin said.

The loop has temporarily reopened, but will close again for an undetermined period of time Jan. 4. Work remains to be done restoring the grounds, painting road lines and completing the walkway to the Kentucky monument.

“It’s a safety issue,” Martin said of closing rather than trying to keep one-lane access open, “not just with the pavement, but also, a lot of heavy equipment is out there.” Unusually heavy rains and other weather-related problems also caused some delays.

Dedication of the Kentucky monument, which was installed in May, is tentatively scheduled for May 8, Martin said.

Park officials are also eagerly anticpating interior restoration to begin at the Shirley House. “People will be able to go inside,” Martin said. “It’s going to be all fixed up and probably have some type of furnishings, perhaps reproductions of period furniture. Terry Winschel, our park historian, said that since he came here about 30 years ago it’s never been open to the public. This is really going to be fantastic.”

The work will be funded by a $1.5 million federal stimulus grant.

The Shirley House has also recently been painted and rotten wood exteriors have been replaced or repaired. A fire-suppression system is in the works to be installed.

Park officials also plan to stabilize and reinforce the Mint Springs Bank near the National Cemetery, Martin said, and the cultural landscape plan has been approved, but not yet funded, to clear areas of vegetation and restore sight-lines at several former battle sites.

Among the things not scheduled to change in 2010 are park fees, which include the $20 annual pass many walkers, bikers and runners purchase to exercise on the park’s hilly roadway. Many come out after the new year to work toward their resolutions, but winter weather usually tests their resolve, Martin said.

About 1,500 passes were sold in 2009, up from 1,000 in 2008.

“On nice days it’s pretty busy out here, in the mornings, too,” Martin said. “We have our regular walkers and runners, some as early as 4:30 or 5 a.m.”

The new year also brings the need to plan future events. Madell, a native of Michigan with a master’s degree from the University of Minnesota in recreation, parks and leisure studies, said he looks forward to celebrating the sesquicentennial, or 150th anniversary, of the Civil War here in Vicksburg, one of its most significant battle sites.


Contact Pamela Hitchins at