10 Chapters
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1 Antebellum Beginnings

J. Parker Lamb Indiana University Press ePub

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.

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7 Coming of Age

J. Parker Lamb Indiana University Press ePub

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.

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8 Postwar Metamorphosis

J. Parker Lamb Indiana University Press ePub

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.

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6 A Tumultuous Decade

J. Parker Lamb Indiana University Press ePub

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).

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2 A New Start

J. Parker Lamb Indiana University Press ePub

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).

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