LOOKING BACK: A continued history of the Mississippi River Commission building
Published 8:00 am Wednesday, September 13, 2023
By Nancy Bell, Vicksburg Foundation for Historic Preservation
In a continuation of our history of the United States Customs House, Post Office, and Federal Court, in July 1891, The Daily Commercial Herald reported that “the cistern in the rear of the public building intended to supply drinking water to Uncle Sam’s employees is a wonder to all brick masons who have examined it.
“It is now approaching completion at a cost of about $500. Its walls are of brick and from 13 to 20 inches in thickness. The bottom is paved with three feet of concrete. It has two four-inch inlets and an eight-inch outlet, the latter at a much higher level than the former. It will be divided into two parts by a partition of brick, and all the water used must filter through this wall. After the mortar has set it might be safely dug up and carried anywhere, being quite as strong, though not as portable as, a jug. There is nothing like it in the town, nor probably in the entire South.”
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The Post reported that the Weather Bureau Office had started displaying signals from the flagstaff on the public building.
“The white flag indicates clear or fair weather. The blue flag indicates rain or snow. White and blue flag (parallel bars) indicates local showers. A black triangular flag when placed above the other flags indicates warmer temperature, and when placed below the other flags indicates colder temperature: when not displayed indicates the temperature will be about stationary. White flag with a black square in the center indicates the approach of a decided fall in the temperature.”
Also in July, the federal government was taking bids for lighting the public building with gas and electricity and in September the gas fixtures and chandeliers were being installed. The Herald reported that “They are arranged for the used (sic) of gas and electricity, but the latter element will not be introduced at present it appears, since the building has not yet been connected with the electric station. The wires are all there, however, and the federal courtroom with its five chandeliers will blaze upon occasion with 60 gas lights or 40 incandescents.”
The paper also reported that “so far as its heating arrangements are concerned the building is still incomplete and as coal is considered totally inadmissible arrangements are being made for heating it with gas stoves, temporarily, since the necessary furnaces will be put in eventually.”
Heating was the last thing on the mind of the occupants and visitors of the building that July, however, it was the extreme heat. The Post reported that “W.H. McCullough, custodian of the public building, is doing what he can to make pleasant the torrid days of those who are in attendance on the Federal court, now in session. In the courtroom today he has placed a big 200-pound block of ice, on which an electric fan is playing. The cold air seeks a low level and circulates through the court room noticeably lowering the temperature. Besides, Mr. McCullough fills the usual number of water coolers with iced water, has distributed buckets of ice water, with dippers, through the corridors, and there is ample water for everyone. The other day the temperature in the grand jury room became almost unbearable, and Mr. McCullough hastily got a large piece of ice and an electric fan, and in a few minutes, the jurymen were able to continue their work in comfort. He is now using about 500 pounds of ice each day in the Federal building and the money used is well spent.”
Gas stoves were finally installed and activated on Nov. 13, 1891, and the Post reported that employees were “as snug as a bug in a rug.” By January 1892, patrons were complaining about how the smoke from the gas stoves had impaired the beauty of the walls and ceilings of the building. In April, the secretary of the treasury asked Congress for an appropriation of $2,500 to furnish heating apparatus for the building. The apparatus did not arrive in Vicksburg until November 1892 and it was reported that it would take six weeks before the installation was completed because it involved “a vast amount of work, there being much masonry to be laid.”
The Herald opined, “It is to be hoped the next house may make an appropriation to whiten the interior of the building anew, as it has been seriously blackened by smoke from the temporary devices used to heat it.”
In August 1911, Congressman J.W. Collier told The Vicksburg Evening Post that the Supervising Architect was working on the specifications for an extension of the building to the south and that actual work would be “commenced in about three months from now.” This was very optimistic, however, because work on the addition did not begin until January 1913 by Daniel McCarthy and Company, builders from Philadelphia.
Work continued into the summer of 1914 with Collier asking Congress for an extra $8,000 to finish the work. In December the crews were installing linoleum, the annex was in full use, and the occupants were already complaining about lack of space. The Post reported that a “move was already afoot” to ask Collier to petition Congress for another addition that would be built to the south of the new addition, which never came to fruition.
The drawing is the 1913 Sanborn Insurance Map that shows the original building and the slated, in 1913, new addition. The building now houses the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers Mississippi River Commission.