Buried in time Digs unearth Vicksburg, Rolling Fork finds

Published 12:05 am Sunday, July 18, 2010

Not far from where children run through the splash fountain at Catfish Row on sweltering afternoons, children in Vicksburg 140 years ago would have been running out of the way of countless mule-drawn loads of cotton, wood products and other goods taken to waiting steamboats.

So says a required archeological assessment conducted in advance of building the new Corps of Engineers Interpretive Center.

In the 1870s, the Vicksburg riverfront along the northernmost portion of Levee Street was an industrial landscape dominated by the S. Spengler Saw and Planing Mill. On any given day, about 220 employees of the mill would have been busily making doors, sashes, blinds, window frames, stairway columns and home decorations that were loaded onto barges and trains to be sold to home and business owners across the ever-expanding country.

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“With all the boats passing by on the Mississippi River — which still ran past here at that time — and the railroad being right here, this would have been a prime location,” said U.S. Army Corps of Engineers Environmental Section Team Leader Chris Koeppel as he stood beneath the dry-docked MV Mississippi, the centerpiece of the Corps’ $16 million interpretive center and museum under development and slated to open in late 2011.

Aided by contract archaeology firm Panamerican Consultants, the Corps recently completed a series of digs around the MV Mississippi at Levee and Jackson streets that shed light on a bygone era of industrial activity along the riverfront — which was forever altered when the Yazoo Diversion Canal was dredged in 1903 after the Mississippi River carved a new path south of downtown Vicksburg.

While a lot of evidence of the Spengler mill was decimated by a railroad depot built over the site in the 1890s, Corps and Panamerican archaeologists unearthed hundreds of artifacts from a nearby shingle manufacturing plant Spengler also likely owned, according to historical records.

“The intact factory floor was probably the most exciting find. It was actually bigger than we could excavate. It was brick, but there was probably wood on top of it,” said Koeppel. “Largely, though, we found a lot of evidence about the people who worked at this factory and how they lived their lives — lots of bottles, tins and plates — and evidence about the kind of technology the factory was using.”

The artifacts collected from the digs are being washed and cataloged at Panamerican’s Memphis headquarters. Eventually, they will be turned over to the Cobb Institute of Archaeology at Mississippi State University, and Koeppel said the best of them will be featured in the Mississippi River interpretive center and museum when it’s completed. Full reports of the digs and the artifacts found will also be released publicly by the Corps later this year.

Family records at the Old Court House Museum show S. Spengler — sometimes going by a first name of Seraphine and, in other documents, Steve — was a French immigrant born in 1822. He came to Vicksburg via New Orleans at an unknown date. Spengler apparently started a saw mill somewhere in the city in the late 1850s, and eventually built his small empire along Levee Street in the early 1870s.

“This probably would have been the largest company at the north end of downtown,” said Nancy Bell, executive director of the Vicksburg Foundation for Historic Preservation. “The records we have show Spengler’s mill employed about 200 men who did general woodwork … and another 20 skilled carpenters who manufactured store fixtures, window frames, stairway columns and decorations.”

According to documents compiled and recorded by Works Progress Administration historians in the mid-1930s, four large warehouses existed on the Spengler site, inside which the “pure heart cypress” products “for which Spengler was famed around the country” were built and stored. Spengler reportedly died in 1886 from injuries he sustained after falling from a buggy on Washington Street.

Maps of the city in 1902 show an A&F Spengler Saw Mill in operation north of the mill site on Levee Street, which in 1897 was leveled so the space could be used for a Yazoo and Mississippi Valley Railroad depot and freight shed.

“They obliterated most of the earlier historical components here,” said Koeppel of the railroad construction.

Such archaeological digs as those undertaken at the MV Mississippi site are required by several federal laws anytime the Corps, other federal agencies or private developers undertake a construction project on land deemed to be of some historical significance.

“Any time we do anything that is going to disturb the ground, we are required by several federal laws to be considerate of the impacts to threatened and endangered species, marshes and wetlands, the floodplain and also to cultural resources and archaeology,” Koeppel explained. “So our biologists and archaeologists are always busy; always traveling.”

Also at the MV Mississippi site, many artifacts from the later railroad activity were recovered, such as wooden and brick piers from a loading dock, railway switches and ties. A report of those finds will also be compiled and made public. Still, some pieces of the historical puzzle represented by the found artifacts have yet to be put together.

“When they were constructing the train depot, it appears they brought in a lot of stoneware; ceramics that were made in a factory in Vicksburg — essentially a pottery factory — and they were dumped in as a fill for a surface to build the railroad beds,” said Banks Leonard, Panamerican senior archaeologist. “Either the pottery factory was demolished somewhere in the city and then this was brought in as fill, or the other possibility is it’s just refuse from an operating factory that was located there. We haven’t determined yet which one of those possibilities actually occurred.”

The site also yielded a few shards of prehistoric pottery — not entirely unexpected as Native Americans are known to have used the same river landing sites below Vicksburg’s bluffs that the city’s settlers eventually made permanent — but Leonard said the digs did not turn up any evidence of a Confederate battery that is thought to have been stationed in the area during the 1863 Siege of Vicksburg.

Meanwhile, in Rolling Fork, Corps and Panamerican archaeologists are in the early stages of excavating artifacts from a sprawling prehistoric community that appears to date to the 1300s. That work is ongoing at unspecified sites on a 33-acre area on which the Corps plans to build a $6 million interpretive and educational center, near the iconic Red Barn off U.S. 61. Research and digs there began in late 2008, and will continue in the coming months as the Corps further plans the museum location.

“No one knew how complex this site was. There are literally hundreds, if not thousands, of artifacts. It looks like a pretty significant prehistoric village dating to the 1300s or 1400s,” Koeppel said. “We’re finding a lot of processing tools for meat, corn and hides. A lot of stone tools for hunting and for sewing, and a lot of tools for cutting and shaping wood. When you find villages like the one in Rolling Fork, that’s when you’ve found something really significant.”

While some limited excavations of the area at one of two nearby Native American mounds was done in the 1940s, the current archaeology work being done at the site is the first modern exploration of the prehistoric remains. Geophysical work, which involves scanning the ground with high tech radar equipment to see what’s beneath, is to begin next month.

“Those are both very interesting projects,” said Drew Buchner, Panamerican vice president and Memphis branch manager, of the Vicksburg and Rolling Fork digs. “We do a lot of real mundane archaeology work, so both of those have been really fun projects that we’re excited to continue working on.”

The interpretive center project has been funded in phases and is one of the final components of a revitalization of City Front.