History of Alabama and Vicksburg R. R.
By George M. Crowson1
The story of the century-old Vicksburg Route of the Illinois Central System constitutes one of the most colorful chapters in the history of Newton County. It is a story of heroic pioneering, persistent struggle of great aspirations, disasters and triumphs. During the great conflict between the North and South this historic line of railroad was the objective of the contending armies and the scene of many stirring battles. At the close of the struggle it was little more than a streak of blackened ruin and wreckage.
The rails of the pioneer railroad were laid through Newton seventy-six years ago, but the history of the undertaking goes back almost to the beginning of the railway era. The first steam locomotive in the United States was Stephenson’s America, brought from England by Horatio Allen in 1829. It was only two years later, on December 19, 1831, that the Clinton & Vicksburg Route companies was incorporated by the State of Mississippi with authority to build a railroad thirty miles in length between Vicksburg and Clinton to replace the slow-moving oxen then used to transport most cotton to the river.
A graphic description of conditions in that early day is thus stated in a contemporary journal:
Some idea of the expense of this (ox-drawn) movement may be formed by those who have seen cotton coming over dreadful roads, up to the hub, dragged slowly along twenty, thirty or forty miles as we have seen it coming into Vicksburg, hauled by five yoke of oxen carrying 2,800 to 3,000 pounds, and so slowly that motion was scarcely perceptible. So many oxen perish in the yoke in winter and spring that it has been said, with some exaggeration, that you might walk on dead oxen all the way from Jackson to Vicksburg.
The first spade of earth in the construction of the road was cast at Vicksburg in 1833. On December 25 of that year the Clinton & Vicksburg Railroad Company was succeeded by the Commercial and Railroad Bank of Vicksburg, which was chartered to build a railroad from Vicksburg to Jackson and conduct a banking business.
By the beginning of 1837 several miles of railroad had been built, and the following year a steam locomotive, the Commercial, built by Matthias Baldwin, Americas pioneer locomotive builder, arrived at Vicksburg. The first regular trip of the Commercial was to a point five miles east of Vicksburg on May 15, 1838, and on November 1, 1838, a regular schedule of two trains daily was established between Vicksburg and the Big Black River. Meanwhile construction of the road eastward from the Big Black River was progressing slowly. Slave labor was employed almost entirely in building the road. The heavy cuts, high trestles and the long bridge across the Big Black River rendered construction difficult. The Big Black bridge was finished early in 1839, and by the first of July, that year, the road was completed to Edwards Plantation, eighteen miles east of Vicksburg, and the first train from Vicksburg to Edwards was operated July 20, 1839.
The road was built of wooden rails, set five feet apart, capped with strips of iron fastened to the rails by means of iron spikes, which worked their way through the rails to such an extent that it was necessary for trackmen to make daily trips over the line to drive them in. Those protruding spikes were known as snake heads.
While the line between Edwards and Jackson was under construction, a branch line was being extended from Bolton to Raymond. An advertisement in the Raymond Times November 15, 1839, reported that cars are now running daily within a mile and a half of Raymond and quoted freight rates on cotton from Raymond to Vicksburg at $2 per bale, whiskey, port, molasses, etc., at $2 per barrel, and other articles at 75 cents per 100 pounds.
Judge R. H. Thompson of Jackson, a distinguished member of the Mississippi bar, who was for twenty years local attorney for the Illinois Central Railroad at Brookhaven and who was an attorney for the Alabama and Vicksburg at Jackson for many years, said the Raymond branch was the first railroad he ever saw. He was than a small boy, and it made a profound impression on him. As he stood watching the arrival of the train, one of the astonished spectators exclaimed, Lord! Who pulls the monstrous wagons?
From the beginning the construction and operation of the road was carried on with great difficulties. Progress was exceedingly slow, and on February 13, 1840, an assignment was made by the trustees for the benefit of the creditors. The trustees bent every effort toward completing the road. Additional slaves were procured from the planters along the route, and before the close of 1840 seven years after the ground was broken at Vicksburg the road had reached Jackson. This was Jackson’s first railroad, and its coming was an event celebrated everywhere in Hinds County.
The road was operated by the trustees until March 8, 1848, when it was sold at sheriffs sale. A quaint advertisement appearing in a Jackson newspaper in April, 1842, quoted the round-trip fare over the 45-mile line between Jackson and Vicksburg at $5, which amounts to more than 8 cents a mile. The name of the railroad was changed March 9, 1850, to the Vicksburg & Jackson Railroad Company. Morris Emanuel, an enterprising Vicksburg merchant and land owner, was president of the company.
In the meantime the railroad between Jackson and Brandon, fourteen miles in length, had been built by the Jackson & Brandon Railroad and Bridge Company, largely with funds borrowed from the state. This company was incorporated February 5, 1836, and reincorporated February 5, 1841. The Jackson-Brandon line was begun in 1841, grading was completed in 1845, and the road was completed and opened for operation in 1849. The company owned between 200-300 slaves, and the roads were built almost entirely by slave labor.
On February 23, 1846, the Southern Railroad Company was chartered in Mississippi to construct a railroad from Brandon eastward through Meridian to the Mississippi-Alabama state line, there to connect with a railroad of the same name in Alabama, but the charter was allowed to lapse without any actual construction being done. The Southern Railroad Company (which should not be confused with the present Southern Railway System), was reincorporated March 9, 1850, as a Mississippi corporation. The controlling spirits of the enterprise were Thomas Bigby, Morris Emanuel, and William C. Smedes of Vicksburg. Mr. Bigby, the principal stockholder, was a prominent merchant and landowner. He served as vice-president of the railroad for a number of years and as president of the road for a time until it was sold to London interests in 1881, when he retired at the age of 80 years. William C. Smedes, the first president of the company, was a distinguished member of the Vicksburg bar and is sometimes referred to as the father of the Southern railroad. Other directors of the Southern Railroad Company were Colonel Nicholas D. Coleman, Ezekiel Pickens, James M. Calhoun, Bartholomew Smith, Alexander H. Arthur, and William H. Siddell.
In July, 1852, the Southern Railroad Company acquired the Jackson and Brandon Railroad and Bridge Companys line between Jackson and Brandon, including lands, depots, slaves, engines and cars, and proceeded to extend the line eastward toward Meridian.
The road between Brandon and Morton, twenty-one miles in length, was completed in 1858, and the rails were laid through Newton County in the latter part of 1860. By the first of June, 1861, two months after the outbreak of the War Between the States, the entire line between Vicksburg and Meridian was in operation, and on June 3, 1861, the first train to run over the completed line entered Meridian, then a village of about 100 inhabitants. It had previously been known as Balls Log Store, but at the suggestion of John T. Ball, founder of the town, its name was changed to Meridian by William C. Smedes, president of the Southern Railroad Company, at the time the railroad was completed into the town.
During the next few years the railroad experienced all the vicissitudes of war. The territory through which it passed was drenched with the blood of contending armies, and the railroad and its rolling stock were torn up, burned and laid waste by defenders and invaders alike. The route between Jackson and Vicksburg was almost a solid battleground. The broken uplands in Hinds and Warren counties were scenes of numerous skirmishes and several important battles. Desperate battles were fought near Raymond, at Champion Hill, Bakers Creek, and Big Black Creek. Jackson was sacked and burned and Vicksburg was the scene of one of the greatest military sieges ever witnessed on this continent. The following graphic account of the damage done to the railroad during the war is contained in a report which Morris Emanuel, president of the Southern Railroad, made in the fall of 1865:
At the close of the war we were left to contemplate its blighting effect on our road and property, as evidenced by our tracks torn up, crossties burned, rails bent, twisted and broken, bridges and culverts destroyed, depots burned, cars destroyed, and locomotives and all other machinery in a damaged conditionwithout a dollar in the treasury, with nearly $1,5000,000 of unpaid debts that had matured during the war, besides upwards of $500,000 of unpaid interest coupons, making a total of more than $2,000,000 of indebtedness past due.
The disasters to the road and rolling stock of the company by the rough wheels of war have been very damaging and numerous. On the 24th of April, 1863, General Griersonss raid destroyed Newton station, burning the depot building containing the books and papers of that office, with some freight; also destroying the cars of two trains and injuring the engines. The troops tore up half a mile of track and destroyed the trestles. In May, 1863, the United States troops under General U. S. Grant, while at Jackson, burned Pearl River Bridge and several hundred feet of high and expensive trestle work, partially destroying several miles of track east of Pearl River including the valuable bridge over that river, together with upwards of 3,000 feet of high trestle work connected with it; also Bakers Creek Bridge and a number of smaller ones.
On the march of General Grants army to Vicksburg five engines and fifty cars were captured and twenty-two freight cars were destroyed at Jackson. The damage done to the road between Jackson and Big Creek, including Pearl River and Big Creek bridges, were estimated at the time at $204,000. In the following July, after the surrender of Vicksburg, the United States Army again marched to Jackson in pursuit of General Joseph E. Johnston and pursued him to Brandon and Morton, tearing up track and destroying bridges and trestles in their march to such an extent that trains did not run further than Brandon before the 6th of January, 1864, and for a portion of the time trains ran no further west than Morton.
In February, 1864, General Sherman made his great march through the state on a parallel line with the railroad and near enough to it for the cavalry to make sudden dashes on any station he thought proper to destroy. His troops burned the station houses at Brandon, Morton, Lake, Newton, and Meridian. Machine shops and other company buildings at Lake were destroyed. While the army of General Sherman remained in Meridian seven miles of our track were as effectually destroyed as labor and skill combined with energy could do it; also 7,000 feet of bridges and trestles, including two expensive bridges across Chunkey River, together with the eighty-three other trestles along the line.
Superadded to these heavy losses, the valuable brick depot and the warehouse at Jackson were destroyed by fire in November, 1862, and a commodious depot building at Morton was burned in February, 1863. These two depot buildings, on account of their supposed security, were made the repositories of all the valuable records and papers belonging to the company. It was deemed prudent to transfer the archives of the company from Vicksburg during the bombardment, and they were all sent to those two depots and were consequently destroyed. All the furniture, with the valuable library, fine paintings and costly plate of the late William C. Smedes, then president of the company, were entirely destroyed by the burning of the Morton depot.
The line between Vicksburg and Meridian was originally built wide gaugethat is, its rails were laid 5 feet apart, and of course, the locomotives and cars were designed to run on that width of track. The Vicksburg, Shreveport & Pacific Railroad, forming the western extension of the Vicksburg Route in Louisiana, was originally built on a gauge of 5 feet 6 inches, but in the early 80s the gauge was changed to the present stand and gauge of 4 feet 8 inches. To add to the confusion, the gauge of the Illinois Central gauge running north and south through Jackson, which had been 5 feet originally, had been changed to 4 feet 8 inches to conform to the Illinois Central gauge north of the Ohio River.
Locomotive and train, 1870s
As a result of this Babel of Gauges the locomotives and cars of the Vicksburg & Meridian Railroad could not be operated over either the Illinois Central or the western extension through Louisiana, and passengers and freight had to be transferred at Jackson and Vicksburg. At Vicksburg and Delta Point a double handling was necessary once on either side of the river as there was no car transfer steamer, much less a bridge, at that time. On each side of the river, all freight had to be raised or lowered by elevators between platforms on top of the river banks and wharf boats. This, of course, limited the volume of traffic, was expensive and occasioned delays in shipment.
In order to facilitate the transfer of equipment from one railroad to another it became necessary to change the gauge of the Vicksburg & Meridian to standard gauge. This was accomplished on October 22, 1885, when the gauge of the entire line from Meridian to Vicksburg, 152 miles including sidings, was changed in about 16 hours.
In 1889 the entire line from Meridian to Shreveport became a part of the Queen & Crescent Route. The Meridian-Vicksburg Railway line was subsequently known as the Alabama & Vicksburg Railway, and the Delta Point-Shreveport line was known as the Vicksburg Shreveport & Pacific, but the two roads were under a common management from 1889 until they became a part of the Illinois Central System on June 2, 1926.
With the opening of the new Vicksburg Railway-Highway Bridge on April 28, 1930, the train-ferry service between Vicksburg and Delta Point, which had been in operation for more than fifty years, was discontinued.
Many students of railway history are convinced that had it not been for the Civil War, the Vicksburg Route would have been a link in the first transcontinental railroad. The Thirty-second Parallel route, extending from Charleston, S. C. to San Diego, California, through Vicksburg, had been the dream of engineers and the theme of statesmen from the time of the great California gold rush until the outbreak of the war.
The original proposal had been for a railroad from St. Louis or some point on the Great Lakes to Oregon, but with the acquisition of California and the sensational discovery of gold at Coloma in 1848, popular sentiment demanded that the proposed road should terminate in California. There was much controversy in Congress and elsewhere as to the most feasible route for the railroad. Railroad conventions were held in St. Louis, Memphis, Monroe, Louisiana, New Orleans, and elsewhere, each of which passed resolutions strongly endorsing the proposed project and each urging that the route be laid through their city.
At the Vicksburg, Shreveport, and Texas Railroad Convention, held in Monroe, Louisiana, July 5, 1852, and presided over by Colonel Nicholas Coleman, of Vicksburg, pamphlets were distributed declaring that nature had designated that the Atlantic and Pacific oceans shall be united by arms of iron, stretching across this great and magnificent continent in a degree of latitude where there is no ice or snow to interrupt the gigantic embrace. It will be made plain as the sun at noonday that no other place on the banks of the Mississippi presents anything like the advantage which is presented by Vicksburg.
The Monroe convention adopted a resolution urging that some means of communication from the Mississippi River through the northern parishes of Louisiana and through Texas to the Pacific Coast, which can be passed with reasonable safety and speed, is necessary to meet the wants and wishes of our citizens at either end, and it is equally necessary to aid the Government in controlling the Indian tribes along the Mexican boundary and protect our frontier settlements from depredations.
The following winter Congress enacted a bill directing that government surveys be made to ascertain and report upon the feasibility and cost of several routes proposed for a transcontinental railroad. A few months later, in 1853, parties of government surveyors were in the field engaged in these surveys. It was soon demonstrated that the shortest, most feasible and most economical of these routes was by way of the thirty-second parallel, through Meridian, Jackson, Vicksburg, Monroe, and Shreveport, thence by way of El Paso and the Gilla River to San Diego.
In the years that followed, partisan and sectional rivalry waxed warm and at times bitter over the proposed route of the Pacific railroad. The southern route was strongly supported, particularly by southern representatives in Congress, and its prospects of final adoption were favorable until the turn of political events which led to the outbreak of the Civil War. Before that great conflict was brought to a close the route westward from Omaha had been definitely chosen. Thus, the present Union Pacific, instead of the Vicksburg road, became the first rail route to the Pacific Coast.
Although steel rails had replaced iron rails on many of the larger railroads in the country by 1880, the Vicksburg and Meridian route still had many miles of the primitive chair pattern iron rails in use. These rails were much shorter than modern rails and weighed only forty-seven pounds to the yard about one-half of the weight now in use and they became so worn and badly bent from long use on unballasted track that train crews were given strict orders by General Superintendent Carroll to run slowly to avoid accidents and to save the equipment from being shaken to pieces.
Jim Meehan, the superintendent of motive power, had the most difficult job on the railroad, keeping the engines and cars in running order. This railroad then owned only about a dozen locomotives, several of which had been in service so long that few of the old engineers could remember when they were bought. Despite Jim Meehans best efforts, engine failures were frequent and costly.
If we get rid of some of our very aged and almost useless locomotives, wrote General Manager John Scott in the spring of 1885, I should be happy indeed. They are not only very expensive to maintain and operate, but they cannot haul as many cars as are necessary to enable us to cope with the low passenger and freight rates now prevailing. However, he concluded, in view of the financial condition of the railroad, I abstain from making a recommendation.
Mr. Scott was right rates were then lower than they had probably been at any previous time. Yet the average passenger rate on the Vicksburg and passenger-mile or nearly double the Meridian in 1884-1885 was $3.77 per the present two cent rate, and the average charge in 1884-1885 was $2.78 per ton-mile, or nearly three times the average charge on the railroads that year. Providing better and cheaper transportation is one of the many ways in which the railroads have progressed since that time.
1. Originally published in the April 30, 1936 Edition of the Newton Record.