LOOKING BACK: The long life of the United States Customs House, Post Office and Federal Court

Published 8:00 am Wednesday, August 16, 2023

By Nancy Bell | Vicksburg Foundation for Historic Preservation

The building that now houses the Mississippi River Commission on the southwest corner of Walnut and Crawford streets was made possible through the efforts of Congressman Thomas Catchings from Vicksburg.

In June 1888, Congress passed a bill to erect a building for the use of the U.S. courts, post office, customs house and internal revenue office in Vicksburg, with the cost not to exceed $100,000. The building was designed by William Freret and his staff and the construction was supervised by engineer, A.L. Pierce.

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The Walnut Street location was not without controversy. The supervising architect, John Weems Jr., reviewed the 15 sites that had been proposed by local property owners finding that many were unacceptable locations and all were over-priced. Weems first chose the northeast corner of Monroe and China streets, but a loud outcry that this was not the “heart” of the city caused a change to the present location.

Mayor W.L. Trowbridge, according to The Vicksburg Evening Post, had to journey to Washington, D.C., to secure the location. Bids for the construction were taken and L.L. Leech and Son Builders from Chicago was chosen in March 1890 to build the Romanesque Revival building and given twelve months to finish.  The grading for the foundation began almost immediately with the concrete foundation completed by May 23, 1890. Masons were building walls by May with 120,000 bricks on site.

Often when researching buildings, I run across an article about a construction site accident. The only one that I saw for this building did not involve a construction worker, but rather a passerby. The Daily Commercial Herald reported on June 24, 1890, that “an accident which might have deprived Vicksburg society of one of its brightest ornaments occurred Sunday night at 8:30 o’clock, at the sight (sic) of the public building and for a time created great alarm and anxiety. At that hour Misses Stella and Pet (sic) Blackwell, escorted by Messrs. J.H. Redding and Frank Broughton were walking near the site which is littered with blocks of stone.

“Having a message to send, Mr. Redding went over to the telegraph office and the party awaited his return at the building. While there Miss Stella accidentally pulled one of the stones that were standing about the site over and it fell upon her, pinning her to the ground and fracturing the fibula near the right ankle. The excruciating pain of the fracture and the immense weight of the stone, nearly if not quite a ton, caused the young lady to scream out with agony and soon brought ample assistance, though four or five men had their strength severely taxed to remove the block. Dr. Sherrard was summoned and the sufferer removed at once to her home, where she is now under treatment, Miss Blackwell is so general a favorite that the accident created much concern and it was with genuine relief that her friends learned yesterday that she was in no danger and her entire recovery only a question of time.”

In July 1890, another $11,855 was allocated by the Treasury Department for furniture and fixtures. The contractor added a steam elevator in September in which to move materials in a more expeditious manner. By December, the yellow pine flooring was being installed. The kiln-dried, heart-pine 1” x 3” flooring came from Chicago, to the amazement of Vicksburgers.

Apparently, the Southern pine traveled from Mississippi to Chicago for processing and then back to the state to be installed. The upper story floors were double planked, first covered with six-inch lumber laid diagonally and then that was covered with the narrow strips. The corridors of the first floor were covered with marble tiles of pink and white laid alternatively. And this story is to be continued next week.