Living in Jackson

Underground Rooms: An Update

September 11, 2020

Museum Curator Uncovers an Answer

Commercial Exchange Basement Summary

This summary was compiled by Harrison Marcott, Curator of Collections at the Ella Sharp Museum. It regards the origin and purpose of the basement that was uncovered at the Commercial Exchange complex. It was compiled using Sanborn Fire maps from the ESM's permanent collection and known information from previous scholarship.

About Sanborn Fire Maps:

These maps were created by the Sanborn Map Company (SMC) and sold to insurance companies. Their purpose was to allow agents to easily visualize and calculate prices for fire insurance policies for homes and businesses. Sanborn maps were the most used tool for pricing policies from about the 1840's through the 1970s. They are very precise, and detail building materials, internal rooms, sprinkler systems, etc. The maps were updated by pasters who would visit clients and literally paste updates into their map books. It's not uncommon to see several pasted layers on one map from multiple updates to an area.

While these maps weren't designed for historians, they are one of the best tools we have for examining the evolution of urban spaces. We can see the actual layers of change as an area progressed through time. They're also highly detailed, and precise to the point that they can be laid over each other and maintain exact scale regardless of their age difference. The ESM has several in its permanent collection, spanning from 1893 to 1971.

The story of the Commercial Exchange building begins in 1885, when Samuel Collins and brothers Dwight and Henry Smith constructed the Collins Manufacturing Company, a factory that built carriages, sleighs, and buggies. This factory sat where the Commercial Exchange currently resides. Figure 1 shows the Collins factory from our 1893 map. The red color indicates brick construction.

In 1895, this factory burned to the ground. It was successful to the point that it was reconstructed that same year in a new U-shape, this would become the Commercial Exchange building we know now. In 1908/09, additions were built.

Figure 2 is from our 1907 map, which shows two layers of pasted updates, likely made in 1908/09. If these were peeled back, you would see the original U-shaped rebuilt factory. We can also see the ghosts of two yellow (wooden frame) buildings on the complex.

More importantly, in Figure 3, we can see that there is a spur of brick construction on the south side of the building. These is labeled "Steam Dry Kilns", these were historically used for drying and treating lumber. The building featured 3 iron chimneys and an automatic sprinkler system. It connected to a frame building where rail cars would presumably offload their cargo, likely lumber, possibly directly in the kilns. If so, it would make sense that the kilns would be at floor level with a heat source underneath. The iron pipes that were found could be steam pipes or part of the automatic sprinkler system.

The basement discovered during the bulldozer accident starts 60 ft. away from building 3. According to measurements (1"=50ft), the basement would have sat directly under this steam kiln spur. It's certain that it's part of the same building.

Figure 5 from a 1931 map shows that the space has been restructured into a "truck repair shop", now with cement flooring. The chimneys are now absent. It is possible that this basement was completely sealed when this change was made.

Lastly, we can see here in a map addition from 1948 that this building has been removed. The ghost of the building is still visible under the pasted addition, which means that it was likely demolished close to 1948. If it was covered as previously described, it's possible that this basement has been sealed from 1948 until it's accidental uncovering a month ago. It is difficult to say for certain what exactly this space was used for. I'm of the opinion that it was linked to the steam kilns in some way, but the building saw so many uses that it's possible it could have been used for some other manufacturing purpose. I am certain that it was the basement of this building spur.