by Michael D. Wynne
Most of our early Alexandria history was lost due to the not one, but three “great” fires of 1848, 1850, and 1864. We know almost nothing of what our town looked like from that period and earlier. One of the most talked about losses of the 1864 fire, a fire caused by the retreating Union soldiers during the Civil War, was our parish courthouse.
We do know there was a courthouse building existing at least by 1818 due to surviving records from outside the parish. But where the courthouse was then, what it looked like and how many different courthouses that have existed between 1805 and 1864 has been lost to time.
After the 1864 fire, no formal courthouse existed until 1870. Likely, courthouse matters were held in one of the few surviving houses in town after the fire. But on March 16, 1870, Governor Henry Clay Warmouth approved legislative Act 85 “authorizing the assessment and collection of a special tax of $25,000 to rebuild a Courthouse in the Parish of Rapides.” These funds were to be generated by a special property “not to exceed one cent” of the total value of all moveable and immovable property in the parish.
Revenue derived from that source, which was deposited in the state treasury, was devoted to erecting a courthouse and enclosing it with an iron fence; said courthouse to be erected within the town of Alexandria. In addition, the act required the district judge to appoint five “Commissioners of Construction” whose duties included selection of plans and specifications for the new structure, to determine the quality of the necessary building materials, and to negotiate with all interested contractors for construction of the new parochial building. In order to pay the builders for work on the structure, the Commissioners were to periodically withdraw parochial funds deposited in the state treasury.
This reconstruction era courthouse was replaced in 1903 by a Romanesque style larger courthouse. Both the 1870 and 1903 courthouses were located at the very same location on the river before the eventual building of the levee would require the destruction of what was once 1st Street. The magnificent 1903 courthouse lasted till 1939 when the present seven story courthouse, built by the Works Progress Administration, was built on Murray Street.
Several photographs of the magnificent 1903 courthouse still exist including one of its elegant courtroom, a rarity. But until recently, no photograph of the 1870 courthouse had ever been located.
On this page is an unusual, but unique photograph of the 1870 courthouse. Upon very close examination of the photo, it appears to have been taken at the time of its demolition in 1903. Several window casements have already been removed and there is a pile of used interior lumber on the far right side of the building. On the left side of the photo is likely what was First Street, now under the current levee, with the river out of view outside of the photo on the far left. The building next to the courthouse with the sun shining on the wall is the parish jail with bars visible on very close inspection. The wooden building that is past the jail shows part of a sign on the side, “(Horse) Liniment,” with photos of two horses just above the words, likely making this a store of some sort. Another business is also visible beyond this later building. The street is likely blocked off due to the demolition of the courthouse and other buildings. In the rear of the building, a metal picket fence, as specified in the legislative act, is barely visible. Also visible is an electric pole with a early primitive street light visible beneath.
It has been said that “History is not what happened, but what has survived of what happened.” Here is a very important building of our own history, sadly long forgotten, until just now.