Turning Points1

The period from 1830-1920 represents the Golden Age of the Railroad. Not only did the railroad represent the most vital way of transporting cargo and freight long distances in a quick and efficient manner, but it proved a vibrant force in settling the American West and connecting the industrialized Northeast with rural America.

For the early planners and financiers, many trans-continental routes across this nation were envisioned, one of which was the Gulf States route.  Also referred to as the “Thirty-Second Parallel Route”, this route would start at the Atlantic Ocean coastline at  or near Charleston, South Carolina, swing through the mid-sections of Alabama and Mississippi before crossing the Mississippi River on its way to the California coast and the Pacific where it would terminate at San Diego. Ironically, Jefferson Davis, as then Secretary of War, was a major proponent of this route. Did Davis, in the year 1852, sense that this railway system would be a vital part of the infrastructure for the South in fighting against the government he then represented?

Building that route would take many years and tremendous capital, far beyond the means of any single investor. In the meanwhile, shorter routes were planned.

In 1833 construction was begun near Vicksburg by Clinton & Vicksburg Railway Company. A separate link between Jackson and Brandon was started in 1841 by the Jackson & Brandon Railway Company, this link to be 14 miles in duration. Construction of the third link, between Brandon and Meridian, was begun in 1850 by Southern Railway Company and completed to Morton in 1858, through Newton County the latter part of 1860 and by June 1861 had reached Meridian, just in time to be converted to military usage in the Civil War. Through a series of mergers, the independent railways would become known as the Alabama and Vicksburg Railway Company, a name that would later change with subsequent owners.

The right of way for this railroad system must be secured, cleared, and elevated in order that tracks could be laid. Critical to this massive project was the raising of sufficient capital and recruiting both skilled and non-skilled labor. A & V used both standard and creative methods to make this happen. Stock was routinely offered to would-be investors. Although the company owned their own slaves, they often contracted with plantation owners along the route, who would in turn provide their slaves to do most of the labor. When the railroad approached Absalom Feldon Temple of Hickory about crossing his land, they came up with a unique arrangement. He would give the railroad the right of way they needed across his land, but they would in return give him stock in the company, along with a job with the railroad as section foreman, the responsibilities of which were to maintain a section of the track in the Hickory-Chunky area.

Most political leaders recognized the economic impact the development of a railway would bring through their county and supported the project whole-heartedly. Their support often went to extremes, as they sometimes gave away “in lieu” lands or public lands for which they had no legal authority to give.  But there were also political leaders who regarded the railway system with apprehension.

Railroad officials had closely followed the general route of the Winchester Road as they moved eastward from the city of Jackson. Their intent was, upon crossing the Scott-Newton County line, to swing to the southeast in the direction of Garlandville and Paulding, and then veer northeasterly into Meridian. Although a longer route, the terrain was easier to navigate and the stream crossings few in number. Political leaders in Enterprise, Clarke County, Mississippi, were so optimistic that railway officials would change their route and select Enterprise over Meridian that one merchant actually designed a master plan for the small city he thought Enterprise should be.

Turning Point Between Lake and Lawrence

The Turning Point Between Lake and Lawrence. Here the track shifts from a southeasterly direction (and the town of Garlandville) to an easterly direction (and the town of Newton). At the top of the picture is the overhead bridge for the east-bound lane of Interstate 20.

Work crews were already laying track in the western part of Newton County when company officials took time off to meet with Jasper County officials regarding their proposed route. At a pubic meeting at Paulding the company met stiff opposition. Farmers complained that the sound of the train engine would certainly make their cows go dry. Housewives complained that the soot and cinders from the smokestack would soil the wash they had hung on the line. And certainly the trains would bring all kinds of riff-raff to their pristine setting.

With this type of opposition, A & V officials selected an alternate route that led across the southern third of Newton County. It was a turning point in the history of both counties, and officials in Enterprise were fuming since any hope that they might get the route was doomed.2

This alternate route was certainly a much more expensive route since it involved building bridges across at least nine stream crossings, and, once the construction reached the limestone hills east of Chunky, the work crews would literally have to take dynamite to blast their way over, through, and around the difficult terrain.

In the wake of the laying of tracks and the beginning of railway service came the beginning of a number of towns—Lake, Lawrence, Newton, Hickory, and Chunky included. To the south in Jasper County, the town of Garlandville, once a vibrant trade center, began to slowly sink into extinction. Paulding, once a center of learning and literary achievement3, would shrink in size to little more than a courthouse and church.

On August 20, 1903, J. C. Butts and his wife sold to Gulf & Chicago Railway Company a tract of land some 100 feet wide for the sum of $75 near the town of Union4, one of a series of purchases that would lead to the construction of a north-south railway system with connections between Union, Newton, and Bay Spring in Jasper County. By 1908 G & C Railway Company had been bought out by the New Orleans, Mobile and Chicago Railway system, only one of several name changes that would follow.

In the wake of construction of this new railroad came the founding of three towns, all of which would have a brief history--Stratton, Doolittle, and Roberts. When railway officials failed in their attempt to acquire the desired right-of-way at Decatur, they swung to the west of town in their route, then a mile south of Decatur created a terminal, known as Jeff, from which they literally backed freight into Decatur.

Newton County SW Quadrant
By the 1920’s railways were beginning to feel stiff competition by a new means of transportation—the motor vehicle. Ridership on the railroads was beginning to decline.

Most roads in our nation prior to this time were narrow dirt roads with little or no drainage or improvements along their shoulders, a throwback to Indian trails of a different era. In 1926 Congress approved legislation to build a number of two-lane federal highways, each of which would be laid with concrete, have a median stripe, and which would have improved grading and drainage. One of these federal highways was Highway 80.

Highway 80 through most of its length paralleled the route of the Gulf States railway system envisioned 75 years earlier, beginning at Florence, South Carolina and ending at San Diego, California. In the Newton County area, it connected with the towns of Lake, Lawrence, Newton, Hickory, and Chunky. For almost fifty years Highway 80 would stand as the best road in Newton County until being replaced by a four-lane highway, Interstate 20.

The construction of Mississippi Highway 15 would follow in the 1930’s and would serve as a parallel highway with the north-south railroad. Beginning near Walnut at the Mississippi-Tennessee state line and ending near Biloxi, Mississippi, Highway 15 crosses through 15 counties and covers more than 328 miles. The original route through Newton County was of dirt construction, and largely west of the current location.

Notes

1. Special thanks to Guy Hollingsworth and Greg Boggan in the preparation of this story. Reference has also been made to George M. Crowson, “History of Alabama & Vicksburg Railroad”, The Newton Record, April 30, 1936.

2. J. M. Kennedy, History of Jasper County, Jasper County News, Bay Springs, May 30, 1957. A related story is told by Richard Carr in Nancy Katherine Williams’s The History of Newton, Mississippi, 1860-1988, The Newton Record, Newton, Mississippi. In this story, Thomas Irish Doolittle, as a means of enticing railroad officials into changing the route to cross his plantation in Newton County, met the surveying party near Forest with wagons loaded with 25 hams, a wagon load of black bread, and four barrels of whisky. This story could not have applied to Thomas Irish Doolittle, who then was a young boy, but could have easily been accomplished by his father, Roger Williams Doolittle.

3.. The Eastern Clarion, published at Paulding from ca. 1848-1860, was one of the leading state newspapers in its day. With word that Jasper County would not get the railroad the publisher moved his operation to Jackson, Mississippi, where the newspaper eventually became half of the equation of The Clarion-Ledger.

4. Newton County Deed Book 26, page 73.

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