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Rosenberg Treasure: Civil War Artillery Shell from the Illies Property

Civil War Artillery Shell from the Illies Property

Rosenberg Treasure of the Month

Last Updated: August 8, 2019 by Rosenberg Library | History


During the month of August, Rosenberg Library will exhibit a Civil War artillery shell fired from a Union vessel during the Battle of Galveston, January 1, 1863. The shell was excavated at the corner of 21st and Postoffice in 1919. Donald McKenzie, Jr. donated it to Rosenberg Library in 1920.

Civil War Shell
Civil War artillery shell found at the property once owned by John H. Illies, an early Galveston resident. Galveston and Texas History Center, Rosenberg Library

In 1919, an old commercial building at the southwest corner of 21st Street and Postoffice was undergoing renovation when an unusual artifact was unearthed. It was an artillery shell from the Civil War, and it confirmed a tale passed down through the family of Donald McKenzie, owner of the property.

John Henry Illies was an early Galveston resident who owned a successful grocery and wholesale business. In 1845, he purchased two lots near 21st (Center) Street and Postoffice. He later built a frame cottage at the site which was surrounded by a flower garden and fruit trees. He lived there with his wife, Justine.

During the Civil War, a pivotal battle took place in Galveston on January 1, 1863. After Confederate troops launched a surprise attack, Union gunboats began firing in downtown Galveston, damaging numerous commercial buildings and residences. According to Justine, an artillery shell crashed through the roof of the family’s home, narrowly missing the couple’s infant son, Charles.

Presumably, the shell was buried at the Illies property some time between 1863 and 1867. John Henry Illies died in 1866, and Justine Illies erected an investment property on the lot next to their residence the following year. It was a two-story frame structure with retail space on the ground floor and a residential space on the second floor.

Justine Illies later remarried Donald McKenzie, and they had another son, Donald, Jr. together. Donald McKenzie, Jr. became an architect on the island, and in 1929, he razed the 1867 Illies Building (which he co-owned with his half-brother Charles Illies) to make way for a five-story apartment building.

Illies Building circa 1929
The 1867 Illies Building on 21st Street. According to a Galveston Tribune article published April 13, 1929, the 1867 Illies Building was the last remaining wooden building on 21st Street between Postoffice and Church at the time. Galveston and Texas History Center, Rosenberg Library
1867 Illies Building
Architectural rendering of the 1929 Illies Building / Justine Apartments. Galveston and Texas History Center, Rosenberg Library

McKenzie named the development “Justine Apartments” in honor of his mother. The Justine Apartments included state-of-art amenities such as an elevator and a trash incinerator for residents. Each unit featured terrazzo floors, colored cement walls, and Murphy beds, plus refrigerators and gas stoves. The 90-year-old structure continues to operate as an apartment building today.


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Rosenberg Library

Rosenberg Library has offered over a century of community service to the Galveston area, and is the oldest public library in Texas in continuous operation. The building itself was dedicated on June 22, 1904, the birthday of its patron, Henry Rosenberg. The Moody Memorial Wing opened in 1971, more than doubling the floor space and allowing for a children’s library, a history center, several galleries to showcase museum collections, and later, a computer lab. The Library accepted its first museum piece shortly after it opened in 1904. Since then, thousands of rare and interesting objects from around the world have been added to the collection. Each month they display a “Treasure of the Month”. Learn more by visiting the Rosenberg Library page and the Gifts of Henry Rosenberg section.

2020-01-22T15:10:23-05:00

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