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Railroads of Meridian

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This generously illustrated narrative follows the evolution of dozens of separate railroads in the Meridian, Mississippi, area from the destruction of the town’s rail facilities in the 1850s through the current era of large-scale consolidation. Presently, there are only seven mega-size rail systems in the United States, three of which serve Meridian, making it an important junction on one of the nation's four major transcontinental routes. The recent creation of a nationally prominent high-speed freight line between Meridian and Shreveport, the "Meridian Speedway," has allowed the Union Pacific, Kansas City Southern, and Norfolk Southern railroads to offer the shortest rail route across the continent for Asia-US-Europe transportation.

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1 Antebellum Beginnings

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Development of permanent communities in most of the Gulf states began with the Treaty of Dancing Rabbit Creek, signed in 1830 at the end of the War of 1812. This agreement ceded to the U.S. government lands previously controlled by indigenous tribes of Choctaws, Chickasaws, and others. Credit for establishing Meridian’s predecessor, a settlement known as Sowashee, belongs to Richard McLemore of Virginia, who purchased several thousand acres and began recruiting new settlers. The village was named for a nearby stream that flooded the area regularly. Thus, the Choctaws had given it the name “Angry Water.”

Eventually, McLemore sold large plots around the village to two ambitious businessmen, Lewis Ragsdale and John Ball, who soon began to lead in the development of a larger town. By late 1833 much of McLemore’s original tract had been incorporated into Lauderdale County, which by 1850 included five villages, with Marion as the county seat.

The initial line to reach east-central Mississippi began in the port of Mobile, Alabama. Always considered a poorer cousin to its western neighbor near the mouth of the Mississippi River, Mobile found its shipping tonnage in a declining position in the mid-1840s after its ranking among U.S. ports dropped from third (behind only New Orleans and New York City) to sixth position in a scant six years. Much of this was due to the rapid expansion of railroad building along the Eastern Seaboard during this period, as the complementary roles of railroads and waterborne transportation began to evolve. Such activity had been largely absent along the Gulf, as the major cotton states (Alabama, Louisiana, and Mississippi) contained a total of only 165 miles of trackage in 1848.

 

2 A New Start

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During the period immediately after the war, rail planning and construction again became important to Meridian’s economy as well as throughout all the former Confederate states. Both of the troubled lines in western Alabama were finally completed. The Selma & Meridian Railroad’s ongoing financial problems led to another reorganization in 1871 as the Alabama Central Railroad. However, a new disagreement arose after the Northeast & Southwest Alabama, operator of the York–Meridian line, refused to give Alabama Central the trackage rights into Meridian it had granted to the Selma & Meridian prior to the war. To counteract this decision, the Alabama Central obtained court approval to construct a 12-mile line from York to Lauderdale, Mississippi, where it would be granted trackage rights over the M&O. This line began operating in July 1878, although later consolidations would render it unnecessary.

These difficulties were no doubt tied to the bankruptcy of the North & South Alabama line in October 1868. This allowed its return to the previous owners, the Wills Valley, which renamed it the Alabama & Chattanooga Railroad. However, financial problems continued, and on January 1, 1871, the state of Alabama foreclosed on its bonds and became the legal owner. The state’s efforts to sell the road to another investor dragged out for nearly six years before a London banking firm, Emile Erlanger & Co., made a successful bid in June 1877. It renamed the line Alabama Great Southern Railway Co. Ltd. and began rebuilding it to contemporary standards (Harrison, First Supplement).

 

3 A New Century

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Although traffic levels on the Mobile & Ohio had increased substantially after the reorganization of 1879 and later completion of the line to Saint Louis, the road hovered near insolvency during the 1890s. It was hemmed in by Illinois Central lines on the west and those of Louisville & Nashville to the east. Many contemporary observers suggested that Mobile & Ohio needed a powerful partner to assure its future success. Not surprisingly, the growing Southern Railway system seized this opportunity to expand its influence by offering a stock swap to M&O owners, exchanging a share of M&O for a share of Southern Railway Co.– Mobile & Ohio. This led to acquisition of 90 percent of M&O stock by April 1, 1901, with the level reaching 94 percent by 1929. With this bold move, the moribund M&O became a member of the Queen & Crescent system, solidifying Meridian’s role as a Q&C hub.

The Southern undoubtedly expected this move to lead to outright merger, but there was opposition from elected officials in Mississippi who were unwilling to accept control of a homegrown railroad by a Virginia company. To non-southerners this might seem surprising in view of the two states being political allies during the Confederacy period. However, in hindsight it appears that opposition was rooted in the extreme dislike by average southerners for large corporations (especially railroads) in the wake of the distasteful times of Civil War Reconstruction. More details of what became known as the Mississippi Merger Suit will be discussed in a later section. Needless to say, Southern Railway put a positive spin on its control of M&O, noting publicly that the two roads enjoyed a harmonious relationship in their operations (Harrison, First Supplement).

 

4 Entrepreneur Extraordinaire

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While the early history of the GM&N was developing to the west of Meridian, another of its citizens would follow the path of William H. Hardy, developer of the New Orleans & Northeastern. Sam A. Neville entered the city’s rail scene as an archenemy of the traffic monopoly by the Queen & Crescent combine. Neville was born in Kemper County (immediately north of Meridian) in 1870, and his family moved to Meridian when he was seventeen. He later became associated with a number of businesses with a wide range of products, from caskets to pickles. By 1906 he was a partner in the Meyer-Neville Hardware Co., located on Front Street, which was adjacent to rail lines in the downtown area. After a fire destroyed the building, Neville soon became an officer of the Millbrook Lumber Co. and was also chosen to be president of the Meridian Board of Trade and Cotton Exchange. Such local groups were the ancestors of today’s Chambers of Commerce.

His position with the Board of Trade eventually fueled Neville’s desire to expand Meridian’s rail service to include a competitor to the Q&C. However, this would not be an easy task, since the most valuable corridors were already under Q&C control. His first rail venture began with the April 1911 charter for the Meridian & Deep Water Railroad, an attempt to tap into the thriving north–south boat traffic on the Tombigbee River, which lay only 50 miles eastward in Alabama. Construction began on Meridian’s east side, with rails extending from M&O’S Bonita Branch. Soon there was widespread concern within Meridian that the construction would damage the Bonita Lakes, the city’s main water supply, and the resulting public outcry caused Neville to halt the grading. Interestingly, evidence of this early construction is still visible today along the hiking trail at the lakes and at the picnic island formed by one of the early cuts.

 

5 Roller-Coaster Ride

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The Mobile & Ohio timetable of October 1, 1922, included the same level of passenger service in Meridian as in 1916, namely, Nos. 1–4 plus locals 5 and 6. However, it shows that Pullman transfers had been revived by the Alabama Great Southern to Birmingham and the New Orleans & Northeastern to New Orleans, although there was no sleeping car occupancy leaving the Crescent City, requiring a passenger to ride coach to Meridian and then board the sleeper. Between Birmingham and Mobile, both M&O trains carried sleepers in both directions, although the road had discontinued (presumably due to cost) dining car service on Nos. 1 and 4 and reinstituted meal stops in Cairo, Illinois; Jackson, Tennessee; plus Corinth, Tupelo, and Meridian, Mississippi.

A new approach to passenger relations was clearly evident in M&O’S February 27, 1927, timetable. Gone were Nos. 3 and 4, replaced by the Gulf Coast Special (Nos. 15 and 16), which carried a New Orleans Pullman and a parlor-lounge-dining car. Schedules of the road’s four trains were shortened by over two hours, allowing it to advertise their rides as a “passage through the historic and scenic South in daylight.” The Special continued M&O’S connection with the Montgomery trains (now denoted as Nos. 115 and 116). This timetable also included a note that Nos. 1 and 2 carried a drawing room–sleeper between Memphis and Mobile (via transfer at Tupelo). Conversely, by this time there was only a single local on the main line between Mobile and Saint Louis, consisting of Nos. 7 and 8 between Meridian and Jackson, Tennessee. However, both of these trains also carried a Memphis connection at Tupelo.

 

6 A Tumultuous Decade

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Early operations of the Rebel streamliner (see Plate 1) proved to be the economic miracle hoped for by GM&N’S management. In 1935 its total cost was 44.4 cents per mile (including a direct operating cost of 31.8 cents), while it produced a surprising income of 59 cents. The excess of 14.6 cents per mile provided needed funds for general operations. But, more fundamentally, this surprising experience began to convince the road’s management that using diesel-electric locomotives for freight could also produce similar savings. It was a lesson they would not forget in the coming years.

An important event in 1936 was the road’s decision to create an independent highway subsidiary, Gulf Transport Co., thus consolidating and formalizing its earlier forays into supplementary highway transportation. The road’s management emphasized that this company would not seek new business but would be a low-cost supporting element of its rail-based operations. Consequently, the bus company was never a large moneymaker, but neither did it produce a drag on net income. However, it did go a long way in convincing shippers in its service area that GM&N valued their business (Oliver).

 

7 Coming of Age

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Beginning at this point in the Meridian story, the narrative will digress to include the senior author’s personal recollections from his early years around the city’s constantly changing rail scene. However, to start the record at its beginning, I was born in a white frame house surrounded by fields of cotton and corn outside the tiny crossroads village of Boligee (Greene County), Alabama, founded in 1926. The house sat on a dirt road and was only a quarter-mile from the home of my father’s parents, giving me constant access to their busy family life, which included my youngest uncles and aunts, who were still living at home.

It was four years after the crash of 1929, and the nation, especially the South, was still in the depths of the Great Depression. Fortunately, my father and grandfather were able to work steadily at their blacksmith shop, J. A. Lamb & Son. Even as a three-year-old, I was fascinated by machines, and it was always a treat for me to go inside the dingy, dirt-floored shop to explore the many tools used to make all manner of metal parts, from shoes for horses and mules to components of wagons, buggies, and an occasional auto. Indeed, my father had been one of the first young mechanics in Greene County to learn about auto repair as soon as Henry Ford’s pioneering Model T had migrated to the area’s roads. Moreover, their small shop was the only place for general repair in the tiny village, which was 10 miles from the county seat, Eutaw.

 

8 Postwar Metamorphosis

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During my senior year in high school (1950–51), I was immersed in recording the diminishing presence of steam locomotives in Meridian. Unfortunately, the GM&O dropped its fires so quickly that I was never able to photograph one of its steam-powered trains in action. But there were still opportunities on the other three roads (SR, IC, and M&BR). I was extremely fortunate that the cold weather of the fall and winter of that school year gave me my only opportunity to record local steamers with billowing smoke plumes. Indeed, my rarest steam locomotive photo was taken on a frigid day when I casually dropped by the SR/IC yard for a quick inspection and saw, to my astonishment, a Birmingham train about to leave behind one of Southern’s largest engines, a simple articulated 2-8-8-2.

I had seen photos of these mountain engines operating in their usual territory between Birmingham, Atlanta, Knoxville, and Asheville, but I never expected to see one on the relatively flat lines of the AGS. In subsequent years I discussed this rarity with Frank Ardrey and other Southern observers, and none could recall such a movement. I finally concluded that this could have been just an unusual substitute engine for the normal 2-8-2 or a shakedown run for the articulated giant fresh from an overhaul at the Finley shops in Birmingham. But the real reason will always remain a mystery.

 

9 More Changes

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Two alternative modes of transportation appeared during the postwar period. Expansions of America’s highway and airway systems would soon sweep away the centurylong monopoly of rail travel, resulting in a steady decline in passenger train service. Additional financial underpinning for such trains was removed with the cessation of mail-hauling contracts as well as railway post office (RPO) service by the nation’s postal department. As the number of daily trains decreased steadily during the 1950s, the cavernous waiting room at Meridian’s 1906 Union Station fell silent for hours on end. Indeed, the beginning of the end of the city’s passenger train era was the 1960 destruction of the old station. A smaller replacement was rebuilt from one of its single-story wings, while passenger sheds were removed from boarding platforms, leaving a strange, denuded atmosphere suggestive of an empty yard. Although such downsizing was repeated countless times throughout the nation, it was even worse for many towns and villages. For them, neither the service nor any replacement structures were left in the aftermath of this sea change in American travel.

 

10 Another Renaissance

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Congressional passage of the Staggers Rail Act of October 1980 was the most extensive overhaul of the nation’s railroads in over half a century. At once it redefined the rules by which railroad commerce was carried out by erasing many of the restrictions that remained from the early twentieth-century era of railroad dominance in interstate transport, a period characterized by the involvement of the Interstate Commerce Commission in virtually every strategic move by a railroad company. In the wake of this deregulation, rigid ICC control was replaced by the less restrictive policies of the Surface Transportation Board. The Staggers Act also allowed more aggressive marketing by railroads and redefined the playing field with respect to consolidations. One of its overall benefits was to transform rail investment into a more attractive market.

An anticipated effect of this loosened federal control was an acceleration of mergers by the nation’s largest companies, themselves formed from an earlier round of mergers during the 1970s. The first of these mega-mergers was the 1980 formation of CSX, which combined lines of the Chessie and Seaboard systems. The former was composed of Chesapeake & Ohio, Baltimore & Ohio, and Western Maryland, while the latter included the Seaboard Coast Line and affiliated lines such as L&N, Clinchfield, and the West Point route.

 

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