Vicksburg Tourism: Military park looks ahead to 150th anniversary|Part 2

Published 12:00 am Monday, March 8, 2010

These stories are the second in a series by staff writer Steve Sanoski and journalism students from the University of Mississippi. On Tuesday: the need for public transit; and the lodging role in Vicksburg.

The American Civil War took place from 1861 to 1865, with the Siege of Vicksburg, a major turning point, occurring about halfway through. Today, officials of the Vicksburg National Military Park are expecting 150th anniversary events, which will also continue for four years, to renew interest in the era and pique the next generation’s interest in history.

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Five journalism students from the University of Mississippi spent — Aline Carambat, Andrew Mullen Scott, Elizabeth Pearson, Donica Phifer and David Hopper — two days in Vicksburg last month — to gather and report on the future of tourism in the area. Their stories, directed by reporter Steve Sanoski and Executive Editor Charlie Mitchell, are being published through Friday.

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Part 1: If you build it, they will come, March 6, 2010

More tourists would be welcomed, especially since Hurricane Katrina almost halved park admissions.

“This park is not a destination park,” Chief of Operations Rick Martin said. “It’s a park that people see if they’re going between Dallas and Atlanta. Vicksburg is midway.”

People en route South to New Orleans would also stop, he said, but leisure travel in that direction came to a halt with the August 2005 storm .

“When New Orleans got wiped out during Hurricane Katrina we lost a lot of visitation,” he said. “There were a lot of buses that just didn’t come through here.”

The park was created by an act of Congress in 1899. Its 16 miles of tour roads adhere to the siege lines as they existed in the summer of 1863 and form a perimeter around the older parts of the city.

Harry McMillan is director of the citizen-initiative support group known as the Friends of Vicksburg that has been raising private donations for the federal park to spend on restoration and preservation. Only Vicksburg and one other Civil War park, Gettysburg, test and license civilian tour guides. McMillan is one of them and knows firsthand about the decline.

“My individual tours are down from previous years,” he said. “Obviously, the more people that come into the park the more people will want a personal tour, and if the numbers are down the numbers of tours that we give will go down.”

McMillan cites the Delta Queen Steamboat Company’s shutting down in 2008 as another factor. The company had operated three boats for luxury cruises on the Mississippi.

“When the Delta Queen would come to Vicksburg, they gave the people on the tour boat excursions. It was not unusual that when the American Queen, the largest tour boat, came there would be four busloads that would go to the national park for a three-hour tour,” he said. “When the Queens stopped coming, all of those stopped.”

National Park Service logs show 584,102 people visited in 2009, down from 1,023,370 in 2002.

Martin said with fewer families taking old-style, cross-country road trips, the park is likely to serve a more regional audience.

“Finances being what they are, people are probably going to stay closer to home and maybe do day trips as opposed to overnights,” he said.

Bill Seratt, executive director of the Vicksburg Convention and Visitors Bureau, said marketing the city is tending in that direction, with more money than ever being spent on advertising the park as the main local attraction for its history, artistic sculptures and natural beauty.

“We are promoting the park more through paid media than has ever been done in the past,” he said.

As for the 150th anniversary, planning commissions are at work in almost all the states where fighting occurred. Here, there will be an intensified schedule of re-enactments and educational events.

Seratt said he thinks the events during the sesquicentennial will be critical to a continual upswing in visitation.

“I think that the programming that is presented during sesquicentennial is vital to maintaining and growing numbers beyond the sesquicentennial,” Seratt said. “There seems to be less and less interest in war tactics and greater interest in interpretation of civilian life. I know that part of the park’s mission is to interpret that civilian life.”

Martin said he has attended conferences where the National Park Service discussed what needed to be done to attract more visitors, in particular younger generations and minorities.

 “The NPS is looking at what we need to do to that fourth-grader,” he said. “If you get the kids involved in it, they’re going to grow up caring for the parks. They’re going to love the parks.”

In order to increase awareness of the 100-year anniversary of the park service itself, which will be in 2016, a decision was made two years ago to increase the number of employees at national parks, Martin said.

“Every park got additional funding to hire more what we call centennial seasonals so that there would be more public contact when people come to the parks,” he said. “We put all our money into the summer. That’s when we hire our summer seasonals.”

Not all parks are experiencing the downward trend here. Overall visitation to all national parks, most of which are scenic and recreational, jumped to 285.4 million in 2009, an increase of more than 10 million from the previous year and close to the record turnout of 287.2 million in 1987.

In Vicksburg, the park does not allow camping or picnicking, in part to preserve the park as a sacred field of battle.

The tour roads link hundreds of markers and statues and large memorials that honor military personnel from all states that participated in the campaign. Also part of the park are the raised USS Cairo ironclad gunboat, the 18,000-grave Vicksburg National Military Cemetery, a downtown house on Crawford Street that served as headquarters for Confederate Gen. John C. Pemberton and a slice of land in Louisiana that preserves a part of the canal Union commander Gen. U.S. Grant dug in an attempt to get the Mississippi River to bypass Vicksburg.

David Hopper is a student at the University of Mississippi.