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The History of Mississippi Railroads: Yesterday and Today

Photo courtesy of JP Valery on Unsplash.

Railroads have a storied history within the Magnolia State, and their legacy is forever intertwined in the formation and development of Mississippi.

This mode of transportation had significant contributions to the fabric of society, government, commerce, and the development of the state. The railroads still play a prominent role in society today. To truly understand the railroad system’s impact on Mississippi, the background and history of these mighty steam engines must be explored.

The first construction of railroads in Mississippi began in the early 1830s. As the timber and lumber industry gained prominence, the railroads began to play a very prominent role in the state. These primary antebellum railroads consisted of short tracks that led to nearby waterways to transport lumber to other markets until the late 1800s, and the state was home to only 75 miles of track until 1850. 

As progression and development occurred across the nation and the state, Mississippi soon saw the development of some of the most prominent railroads, including the Mobile and Ohio and the New Orleans, Jackson, and Great Northern, which was the first railroad line to run north and south throughout much of the state—allowing for a significant connection between Canton and New Orleans in 1858. 

Railroad construction continued to dominate in the southern parts of the state, allowing more direct connections to major locations for the transport of lumber.

On the cusp of the Civil War, Mississippi contained 872 miles of railroads. Major railroad towns during this town were Corinth, Meridian, and Jackson. This mode of transportation would play a significant part in the national events that arose during this upheaval of the nation. 

Although the railroads were integral to the state during the Civil War, they did not go unscathed, receiving considerable damage from General William Sherman’s hands. Sherman’s troops destroyed 21 miles of railroad tracks around Meridian and damaged most of the Mississippi Central line, including railroad bridges, stations, and cars.

Due to remarkable resilience, the railroads would only stay down temporarily. In the 1870s and 1880s, railroad construction and lumber industries arose as Mississippi’s primary industries. New railroad tracks continued to be laid, and by 1910, the state was home to 4,223 miles of railroads. By the 1880s, the Louisville, New Orleans, and Texas Railroad constructed local lines in the Mississippi Delta, and they were crucial to the development of growing cotton in the state.

The railroads increasingly grew along the Gulf Coast as the seafood and tourism industries continued to thrive and prosper in popularity. Tourism exploded as visitors now had direct access to the beaches, restaurants, and hotels of the Gulf Coast thanks to the development of the New Orleans, Mobile, and Chattanooga Railways.

The railroads of Mississippi have been engrained in the culture of our Southern society and continue to influence the state and community even though other modes of transportation have taken prominence in the ever-developing world of technology and business. 

The prominent railroads in the state are the Amtrak trains that run through The Magnolia State. Additionally, the City of New Orleans connects New Orleans to Chicago, making stops in McComb, Brookhaven, Hazelhurst, Jackson, Yazoo City, and Greenwood, and the Crescent, which connects New Orleans to New York with stops along the route in Picayune, Hattiesburg, Laurel, and Meridian. 

Several museums throughout the state are dedicated to telling the story of this integral part of the state’s past. The Friends of Amory Regional Museum, Inc., McComb City Railroad Depot Museum, Mississippi Agriculture and Forestry Museum, and the Water Valley Casey Jones Railroad Museum are devoted to keeping the memory of the railroads in the state alive.

In further celebration of the Mississippi railroads, abandoned tracks have resurged thanks to the Rails-to-Trails conservancy project. One of the most notable projects has been the Longleaf Trace in the Pine Belt region. 

The Longleaf Trace begins at the gateway in Hattiesburg near the University of Southern Mississippi and travels throughout five communities, culminating in 44 miles of fun in nature while also improving citizens’ quality of life. Completed in 2000, part of the Mississippi Central Railroad that was no longer used was turned into walking, biking, jogging, and horse riding trails. A devoted group of local citizens was determined to preserve the legacy and history of the railroads while giving them a new source of inspiration as they have very successfully served the community and have offered a beautiful natural retreat for so many.

The legacy of the Mississippi railroad is one steeped in history and lore. It is an integral part of the culture of the Magnolia State. Although many of the tracks no longer serve to transport trains, the importance that they have established in the state is kept alive and still serving the community today. 

Report

Written by Judy Smith

Judy Smith has been a freelance writer and photographer for several magazines and publications around the South, including Social South Magazine, Our Mississippi Magazine, DeSoto Magazine, Deep South Magazine, Country Roads Magazine, among others. She received her Bachelor’s Degree in Journalism and Paralegal Studies, Master’s of Science in Mass Communications, and PhD in Communications at the University of Southern Mississippi. And Judy Smith is proud to forever be a Mississippi Girl.

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