Vicksburg’s “Main” Street
By Morgan Gates
In many small cities, at least “back in the day” as they say, the main shopping district was almost always “Main Street” and Vicksburg does indeed have a street named “Main” but a quick drive down Vicksburg’s Main Street today shows that it is just a quiet residential street. In 1837, a tremendous fire swept up Main Street, and when Vicksburg rebuilt, it moved its “main” street to Washington Street. Washington was named of course for the first president and paralleled the Mississippi River, which was the highway of 19th century America, and Vicksburg’s reason for existing.
Washington Street soon became the thriving shopping area of Vicksburg's antebellum period. Emma Balfour, Vicksburg's most famous siege diarists, speaks of doing her Christmas shopping on Washington Street in letters to her Sister in Law in Alabama. Vicksburg's antebellum period, of course, ended with Grant’s triumphal entry into the city on July 4th, 1863, at the conclusion of a 47-day siege. Washington Street’s location, within sight of the river, caused it to suffer grievous damage. Not many buildings from the prewar period remain along Washington today, but those that do still bear their scars if you know where to look!
Vicksburg rebuilt its shopping district once more. Postwar, Vicksburg became the realm of the "Wholesale Merchant" supplying the post-war tenant farming system. King Cotton was still on his throne post-war and the domestic and international demand remained high. Plantation owners, however, found themselves with a bit of a problem: No labor force! Few Freedmen, given the choice, which they now were, willingly returned to the fields. Attempts to coerce them eventually failed and attempts to recruit immigrants also came up short. Soon the South settled into a system of tenant farming, renting out the plantation lands in manageable parcels to small farmers (black and white), who, in this area, bought necessary supplies on credit either from Vicksburg’s wholesale merchants directly or from plantation stores supplied by Vicksburg’s merchants. These sharecroppers, as they were known, paid not only their rent but settled all mercantile accounts at harvest time with wagon loads of cotton. Many a fine old home in Vicksburg today is linked to this post-war Washington Street recovery. By the early 20th century Washington Street was the finest shopping district between Memphis and New Orleans.
The reign of King Cotton ended with a long, slow whimper in the first third of the 20th century. Vicksburg reinvented itself once more. The Mississippi River Commission located its headquarters here and Vicksburg became a focus for understanding and taming the Mississippi River. By mid century, Washington Street was still a thriving shopping area. Then, on December 5th, 1953, an F5 tornado (this was before such measurements were invented, but it was calculated years later based on damage reports) took aim at Washington Street. By the time this terrible storm dissipated, 38 people were dead and much of Washington Street’s shopping district lay in ruins. Vicksburg rebuilt, and by the 1960’s, Washington Street thrived once more.
Washington Streets most serious challenge was yet to come, however! In the late 60's and early 70's the interstate system nearly did what War and Mother Nature could not: It killed Washington Street! As business moved to Vicksburg’s new “main” street, Interstate 20, Washington Street, nearly died of neglect! A much vaunted “Urban Renewal” attempt, in the late 70’s, likely did more harm than good, and the patient lay in a semi-comatose state through the 80’s and 90’s. In the early 2000’s, it finally looked like the patient was on its way to recovery but a recession caused a turn for the worse. Now, however, it seems full recovery is nearly at hand. The area is returning to vibrancy as an arts and entertainment district. Restaurants, museums, and art galleries now line Washington Street, and old buildings that have stood vacant for decades are being refurbished. There is still much work to be done, but it warms the heart of any old Vicksburg resident to see the area revive! Come visit us and see!
The Christmas Ball
Hosted by The Old Court House Museum
Dec 9th 7:30-9:30 PM
It's that time of year again folks! The Old Court House Museum will be hosting The Christmas Ball on December 9th, and all are welcome. Come enjoy a night of good food, drinks, and period style dancing! Tickets are $30 each or $60 a couple. We also rent costumes for the evening. For more information contact us at 601-636-0741 or firstname.lastname@example.org