Sunday, January 31, 2010

Deconstruction, Johnson Street, Vicksburg, Mississippi

Johnson Street runs from Washington Street east down a hill steeply, turns right, and joins Lee Street near the Vicksburg High School football field. Like may other streets in town, it follows the crest of a loess ridge, the only practical pathway in a complicated topography. In the 1980s, this was a vibrant neighborhood with a church and tens of houses. Over the years, most of the shotgun shacks have been demolished, and today, I think only five houses are occupied. The Vicksburg Post recently printed a list of houses on the City's demolition list, which inspired me to record them. The first Johnson Street property on the list was 723, which is perched precariously over the gully. This was a common practice in the early 1900s. Because streets ran along the ridges, houses were built with the front door approximately at ground level while the rear of the house was supported with posts high over the gully below. Most of the condemned houses are pretty rough. The City demolishes them and places a lien on the owner to cover the cost. Over time, more and more lots are being cleared off - deconstruction. Some of my family members in other states and countries find it hard to believe that there is no demand for the land. The MB church has an engraved cornerstone which states that the congregation first organized in 1863. I met a gent in a nicely-painted house near the church who pointed out places where shotgun shacks formerly stood. No. 753 below is the last of this architectural style left on Johnson. Someone is repairing it. The following two houses, nos 715 and 751, are still occupied. The neighborhood was quiet and there were birds everywhere. I took these photographs on 31 January, 2010 with a Sony DSC-R1 digital camera, tripod-mounted. 

Update July 30, 2011: Here is a 2007 photograph of the cheerful blue house at 752 Johnson.


Saturday, January 30, 2010

Lassiter Warehouse, Levee Street, Vicksburg, Mississippi

In the late 1800s and up through the mid-20th century, Vicksburg was a bustling manufacturing and trading city. The waterfront was lined with warehouses, foundries, small factories, and processing plants. The black and white aerial photograph, taken in 1953 after the tornado, shows how downtown Vicksburg was entirely developed. (The post-tornado photograph was loaned by a generous coworker. The tornado will be the subject of a future essay).

By the time I moved to Vicksburg in the 1980s, many buildings had been torn down. Old-timers still speak of the inept redevelopment efforts in the 1970s that led to the destruction of so much of the city's heritage. Today numerous empty lots provide few clues to the commercial buildings, hotels, shops, and houses that once stood there.

The white brick building in the second photograph was the W. W. Lassiter Warehouse at 1308 Levee Street, also known as the Surplus City Building. From the Vicksburg Foundation for Historic Preservation (

"Built about 1907, this is the last remaining warehouse along the city's waterfront in an area that was lined with brick warehouses of every description, and was historically the largest and most important wholesaling district in Mississippi. When the Lassiter Warehouse was built, it was one of 50 warehouses and commercial buildings on the Vicksburg commercial waterfront. Original roof trusses, brick arches between rooms, windows, doors, fireplaces, cypress floors, and coal chutes remain, although some elements have been hidden by new materials."

Photographs 3 and 4 show the wood supports and massive bearing walls in the basement. The cypress posts were reasonably resistant to termites, and the floor joists were probably heart pine. The high pitch content also usually resisted termites. We rarely see construction of this quality today.

Sadly, the building was partly dismantled in 2008. The bricks were recycled.

May 2012 update: The shell of the warehouse remains, but there is no action on dismantling the remainder. The casino is also bankrupt and closed, so this part of Levee Street is pretty forlorn.

Tuesday, January 26, 2010

Hawkins Field, Jackson, Mississippi

Hawkins Field, located about 3 miles northwest of the downtown business district, served as Jackson's municipal airport from 1929 until 1963, when Allen C. Thompson Field (now Jackson-Evers International Airport) opened near Pearl. The city acquired the land for an airport in 1928 and named the facility Davis Field, later renamed Hawkins. Delta Airlines operated its first passenger flights from Dallas, Texas, to Jackson, stopping in Shreveport and Monroe along the way.
Hawkins Field played an important role during the second World War. According to Wikipedia:
"In June 1941 Hawkins Field was designated as Jackson Army Airbase. It activated on 1 June 1942 and was used by the United States Army Air Force Flying Training Command, as a basic flying training airfield. The airfield operated a contract flying school, by the Mississippi Institute of Aeronautics. 
In addition, the Dutch government-in-exile, following the occupation of the Netherlands, established the Royal Netherlands Military Flying School at Hawkins Field, operating lend-lease aircraft, and training Dutch exiles as aircrews for service with Allied air forces in Europe and the Pacific.
The base was transferred to Third Air Force on 1 July 1944 with units being reassigned from Laurel Army Airfield to Jackson. Third Air Force operated the airfield as an Air Force Reserve training center (2588th Air Force Reserve Training Unit). It was not until 1949 that Hawkins was once again classified as a civilian airfield."
The Mississippi Heritage Trust included the old terminal on its 2001 list of most endangered places ( According to the Trust, "The Terminal Building at Hawkins Field in Jackson was constructed in 1936 with WPA labor and is of national importance as one of only a few relatively intact civil aviation facilities surviving from the 1930s. While not as elaborate or as large as some other airports across the country, the Terminal Building is a well-preserved example of the facilities built in smaller citiies during the decade before World War II at the dawn of commercial aviation in the United States." Sadly, the building is now abandoned and, as you can see in these photographs, deteriorating rapidly.

A visitor arriving via airplane would have walked across the tarmac to a modest but handsome brick building. This was the era before jetways, but it is possible that in the rain, someone would have met passengers with an umbrella.

The interior now is dilapidated but was probably cheerful in its prime. I remember terminals like this. You picked up your ticket at an airline desk, or, if you already had it, showed it to an agent. There were no computers and all the tickets were hand-written. A buffet would have served coffee and snacks. Then, when it was time to board, passengers walked out on the tarmac without the bother of X-ray machines and the security bunglers that we tolerate today. Air travel still had a feeling of exclusiveness then. Gentlemen wore their suits, women were similarly dressed-up. Now anything flies, and it looks like it slept in the dumpster the night before.

The upper floor had a cheerful glass-enclosed sitting room with a splendid view of the air field. I suppose one could wait there for a flight and relax with a cig and a coffee. I was going to say drink but I think Jackson was dry until the 1960s.

When I visited the old terminal in 2006, the gate was open at the adjacent hangar and I was free to walk around. I took the interior pictures with a small Sony DSC-W7 camera and some Kodachromes with a Nikon. When I returned in 2008, the gate was closed and I had to go to the West Ramp Road entrance to the terminal used by private aircraft. A policeman generously took me to the old terminal in his patrol car. We looked inside, but the building was so damaged that it was no longer safe to enter.
Kodak Panatomic-X film, Fuji GW690II camera, 90mm ƒ/3.5 lens

By 2009, the terminal had deteriorated significantly.

This last photograph shows what it was like to board a flight in 1956 from a terminal similar to Hawkins Field. In this case, the field is Ellinikon International Airport in Athens, Greece, and I am little guy with the red suitcase. My mother and I were on our way from Athens to Rangoon, Burma, via Beirut, Tehran, Karachi, and Bombay. It was a long trip with a hotel overnight somewhere, possibly Karachi. The plane is the magnificent Lockheed Constellation, operated by TWA. Life seemed so much more leisurely then....

Monday, January 25, 2010

Naval Reserve Center, 181 Jefferson Street, Jackson, MS

Just west of the Mississippi State Fairgrounds, there is a distinctive blue and white building at 181 Jefferson Street. The Reserve Center, with its ship-like façade, opened in 1949 as a training facility for the Navy and Marine Corps. According to the Mississippi Heritage Trust (which has a very interesting web page: ), the center was designed by architect John L. Turner.

The building was last used in 2000. It belongs to the City of Jackson and appears to be deteriorating quickly. It's sad because I think the architect was very successful at linking the building's design with its purpose and evoking a sense of the sea.

Friday, January 22, 2010

Small Towns in Mississippi: Hermanville

Hermanville is a small agricultural town about six miles east of Port Gibson on MS Highway 18. The town was probably more prosperous in the past, but not much is happening here now. People hang around, stores are closed, and the shopette sells cigs and beer coolers. The surrounding area has cotton and soybean fields and timber. What can be done to revive towns like this? We can send a trillion Dollars to bail out the politically-connected investment banks in New York but yet allow small towns to rot away?

A friend and I stopped to take photographs. The locals were a bit curious and friendly. They may not get many tourists here.

Drive west on Highway 80 towards Port Gibson and you come to "The Store," a classic Mississippi juke joint. We stopped to photograph. The proprietor came by in a pickup truck full of little kids. She was very nice and said she was trying to make a living and did not allow any violence or drugs in her place. She invited us to come by some Friday night.

I took the color photographs with a Sony DSC-W7 digital camera. And I exposed the black and white frames on Kodak Panatomic-X fine-grain film using a Fuji GW690II 6x9 camera. I developed it in Rodinol 1:50. The classic thin-emulsion Panatomic-X is my all-time favorite film. Used carefully, it shows astonishing detail. I still have plenty in the freezer and plan to keep using it.

The Volkswagen Disposal Yard, Raymond, Mississippi

Volkswagen junk yard
Raymond is a handsome little town southwest of Jackson, Mississippi. It features an elegant courthouse, historical buildings, and Hinds Junior College. But northwest of town on state Highway 467 is something just as unique: the place where old Volkswagens come to rest (maybe forever). To find it, drive west out of town on Main Street, and just after the Raymond-Bolton Road leads off to the right, look to the right and you will see a field full of mid-century examples of the people's car.
Volkswagen junk yard

I have never seen anyone there, but a coworker said he occasionally sees a gent fixing a car. Also, every now and then a slightly less beat-up example appears on the grass near the mobile home, so there clearly is some sort of flux of parts and bodies.

Volkswagen Beetles are fun and plenty of folks have a fondness for them. But I'm not sure how many of these examples will ever go to good homes. This is a humid environment, so rust takes its toll.

Volkswagen junk yard

Look at the Type 412 (the red body) in the third picture. I remember these things. They were introduced around 1973 and only came with automatic transmission for the US market. Volkswagen was ahead of its time with gauging the American public's ineptness to manage complex technology like a clutch pedal (or gauging its laziness). The 412s did not last long in the market.

Volkswagen Rabbit

In the fourth photograph you can see a US-made first generation Rabbit. I never knew why they changed the name from Golf, which was used in the European versions. The Rabbit was pretty crummy because it had been Americanized with a softer suspension, softer seats, and other compromises that took away the fun factor. Unreliability and a tendency to rust didn't help its reputation. But the diesels got 50 mpg in the 1980s.

Update: Please click the link to see a similar Volkswagen yard in Moab, Utah.

Update September 2020: The VW yard has fewer cars in it than before. I do not know if the repair business is still operating. While driving by, I saw only beetles, with no busses or other models.
Volkswagen Beetles

Thursday, January 21, 2010

The Mississippi River Basin Model, Jackson, MS

The Mississippi River Basin Model at the Waterways Experiment Station (WES) was the largest hydraulic model ever built. It was also the most complex attempt ever undertaken to model the river system that drains a good part of the North American continent. The purpose of the model was to test the behavior of the 1.25 million square mile Mississippi River and Tributaries Project and evaluate levees, floodways, cutoffs, and reservoirs. The ambitious project was conceived by Lt. General Eugene Reybold in the early 1940s after smaller models had proven their worth in examining the behavior of individual projects.

During World War II, many engineers and technicians were serving in the war effort and manpower was scarce. General Reybold arranged to use German prisoners of war as laborers to clear and prepare the site. A site was chosen in Clinton, Mississippi, about 35 miles east of the Waterways Experiment Station in Vicksburg. By the end of the war, about 1,800 prisoners of the Afrika Korps were living nearby in an internment camp. I have read that many of these men were engineers and highly-trained professionals who worked on the project with enthusiasm and typical German precision and engineering prowess. (Also, this assignment may have been a bit more pleasant than cutting timber in lumber camps in Wisconsin in winter.). Some of the officers married Clinton women.

The project took 20 years to complete, with the last sections finished in 1966. WES used the model during the great flood of 1973 to predict what would happen if the Old River Control Structure in Louisiana were to fail, allowing a major portion of the of the Mississippi system's water to flow down the Atchafalaya watershed. The last use was in 1993, during the record-breaking floods of the Mississippi system in the upper Midwest. When the Corps planned to breach some of the main stem levees near Prairie du Rocher and Fort de Chartres, Illinois, the model was partially revived to examine water flow and effects of the levee breaches. The Corps finally closed the project permanently and turned the land over to the City of Jackson in 1993. The City of Jackson mowed the grass through 2006, but abandoned all maintenance after that.
The concrete portions of the model are still largely intact. You can easily visit the site by taking Springridge Road south from Interstate 20 and then turning left on McRaven Road. Turn left into Buddy Butts Park. Part of the site has a fence, but much of it has fallen down. The land is no longer clear as in the aerial photograph above, and brush and trees are slowly taking over. But, as of January 2010, you can still easily climb the observation platforms, walk around in the river basins, and pretend that you have walked from Morgan City to Sioux City.
The concrete shaping of the landscape was amazing. Imagine the survey skill required to precisely shape the terrain representing a major portion of the continent. The little pegs in the channels are friction elements.
Some of the buildings are falling down, but several of the control houses are largely intact.
Stevens paper chart recorders
The control buildings still have rows of Stevens paper chart recorders on shelves, abandoned in place just as if the technicians planned to return to work some morning. One of my coworkers was a property officer and remembers how she had to record the serial numbers on all the instruments and pumps annually. (July 2016 update: the recorders have been stolen.)
The massive pumps are still in place, slowly rusting and getting overgrown. From what I can tell, the City of Jackson does not maintain anything on the site. This is a good example of how nature takes over, a small scale experiment of the transitions speculated in the History Channel's Life After People.
I took these photographs on January 18, 2010 with an Olympus E-330 digital camera. The first three photographs in this blog are courtesy of the Coastal and Hydraulics Laboratory, Engineer Research and Development Center, U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, Vicksburg, Mississippi.

Update May 7, 2013 (anniversary of V.E. Day): The historian of Mississippi Valley Division, Mr. Charles Camillo, generously sent me this photograph of the POWs working on one of the drainage canals. Date and photographer not recorded. 

Update July 26, 2016: For more photographs of the Basin Model, please click the links:

UPDATE JULY 2017:  A volunteer organization has been formed to clean and clear the site and develop it as an education/interpretive center. Readers interested in participating in the cleanup work, please contact: 

Sarah McEwen
President, Friends of the Mississippi River Basin Model
Twitter: @MSRiverBasinMod
Facebook: @FriendsofMississippiRiverBasin Model