The Okolona, Houston & Calhoun City Railroad, 1933 - 1939
On April 20, 1933, the Times-Post reported that Will N. Ethridge had purchased the Okolona-Calhoun City Branch. Ethridge was an attorney for the M&O who lived in West Point. Ethridge, along with T. A. Rhodes, also of West Point, and Eugene B. Ethridge, a resident of Meridian, had organized a company and purchased the branch from the Southern. Local papers reported that Ethridge had gone to Washington to arrange the purchase with the ICC, and that a 16-man bridge crew had been put to work on the branch line with instructions to overhaul and repair all bridges as quickly as possible.
The charter for the new railroad was recorded in Calhoun and Chickasaw counties on April 17. The ICC approved the purchase and the new company began operation on May 16, 1933. The Monitor-Herald issue two days later described the new railroad's operations. The first train would leave Okolona on Tuesday morning and make a round-trip to Calhoun City, returning in the afternoon. A daily schedule, excepting Sundays, would be maintained. The article stated that at first only the steam train would be operated, but that if the business justified it, the company anticipated the addition of a motor train originating at Calhoun City for the convenience of passengers, mail, baggage and express to connections. The article reported that the offices of the OH&CC would be maintained in Houston. Joint facilities would be maintained at Okolona with the M&O uniondepot style. Agencies on the line would be located at Houston, Vardaman, and Calhoun City. Station stops would also be made at Bacon, Van Vleet, Parkersburg, Hall, Hollis, and Derma. An agreement dated July 15, 1933 lists the following operating equipment leased from the M&O:
1 Rogers Locomotive No. 184, a small ten-wheeler built in 1900
1 Combination Passenger-Baggage Car No. 414
2 Wooden Rat Cars Nos. 406 and 582
6 Wooden Box Cars Nos. 17204, 17206, 17207, 17210, 17216, and 17220
2 Section Motor Cars Nos. M-100 and M-101
3 Push Cars
1 Lever Car
Passenger Service by Mack Truck
In the fall of 1933, true to its promise to the travel-hungry residents of Chickasaw and Calhoun counties, the OH&CC added a motor car to its line. However, this was no ordinary motor car. A headline of the October 12, 1933 issue of the Times-Post stated "Mammoth Highway Bus To Be Used On OH&CC Railroad." According to the article, only one other railroad operator was known to be using such vehicles for rail passenger service, and that operator was none other than John Ringling, the famous circus magnate. The article stated that the first four months of operation of the OH&CC had given its managers the confidence to add the motor coach for passenger service, and the bus was being put into condition for rail service by mechanics at the Mack-International Motor Truck Corporation at St. Louis. The new "train" would originate each day in Calhoun City (recall the daily steam freight/mixed trains originated in Okolona) and would carry passengers, mail, baggage and less-than-carload freight, making two round-trip runs to Okolona during each day of its expected daily operations. The mixed steam train would continue to run as usual, giving the road six trains daily.
The new motor coach arrived in November of 1933, and pictures of it ran on the front pages of both the Times-Post and the Monitor-Herald. The Times-Post stated that the charge for service would remain the same as it had been for the mixed-train service, two cents per mile. Initially the motor coach was not carrying mail, but the local communities had petitioned the Post Office department to establish a mail line on the route and it was expected that this would be done. The papers said that the motor coach "is equipped with the best of reclining chair seats and rides very smoothly and comfortably. It has begun to develop a patronage and bides fair to grow with its daily service.
The December 14, 1933 issue of the Times-Post said that "Many citizens along the route are taking advantage of the bus to come to town to do their shopping. The fare is small - two cents a mile - and the rural dweller is finding out that he can come to town, spend several hours shopping, attend to business and get back home before night at little cost for transportation. The bus service deserves, and will get, the whole-hearted support of the public.
The annual stockholders' meeting was held in Houston in January 1935. One of people who spoke at the meeting stated that the OH&CC was providing the best rail service the territory had ever known. The railroad was reported to be examining the feasibility of operating a combination road-and-rail motor coach, similar (one supposes) to the Pullman Railplane operated by the GM&N between Tylertown and Jackson, Miss.; however, this project never came to fruition.
The popularity of the railroad with the local populace continued. In the spring of 1935, the city of Houston organized its chamber of commerce, and Ethridge, president of the OH&CC, was elected president of the chamber of commerce. In May, the railroad celebrated its second anniversary, and again photos of railroad officials, including Orin Ford, appeared on the front page of the Times-Post. In August" the Times-Post reported that the OH&CC had installed a "shiny new red caboose" on its two daily (per weekday) steam trains through Houston. The caboose, which took the place of the old coach that had been used since the railroad began operations, was reported to have been equipped with cushioned seats for passengers and to have added "considerable to the appearance of the train and comfort of the passengers." In October 1935, the Times-Post reported a call for bids for the construction of an overpass of the OH&CC on Jackson St. in Houston, just east of the OH&CC depot. The overpass was constructed sometime in 1936.
Sometime in 1935 or the first half of 1936 the OH&CC expanded its steam roster a final time by purchasing a second ten-wheeler, no. 9, from the Mississippi Eastern Railway in Quitman, Mississippi. This was a 1916 Baldwin engine which weighed 134,500 Lbs.
A new motor coach was purchased in 1936 and the Times-Post article stated that it was being prepared for service. Its capacity was reported to be double that of the existing coach (although the picture on the right which is said to be the second motor coach, does not appear to be larger) which was to be completely overhauled and held for emergency and relief services.
Going, going ...
As early as June 1933, Rhodes, the vice president of the OH&CC was bemoaning the lack of business the railroad had been getting from Houston. Rhodes describes cases where shippers had chosen trucks over the railroad, and then spoke of one case where the road had lost the business of a local shipper because the OH&CC could not make room in its work force for a friend of the shipper. Rhodes goes on at some length with a plea for business, pointing out that a lack of business would force the closing of the road and therefore the loss of rail service to all those communities located on the line. This only three weeks after the opening of the railroad.
The railroad kept trying. In November 1934, the railroad instituted pick up and delivery service for less-than-carload freight. The novelty of this service was that it did not matter where the freight originated or to where the freight was destined, as opposed to the restricted pick-up and delivery of freight by other railroads. This service was being installed in response to the assurances of local shippers that the railroad would be chosen over trucks if pick-up and delivery was provided. Trucks had taken a heavy toll on the railroad's business, and the management of the railroad stated that a return of business was necessary if a discontinuance of rail service was not to take place.
The OH&CC held on for a while but could not last forever. In March 1938, the line was forced to cut back to one round trip three times a week by the mixed steam train, while maintaining two daily round trips by the railbus. This would not be enough. The February 23, 1939 issue of the Times-Post reported that hearings on the abandonment of the line would be held by the ICC in Houston on March 24. During the hearings Ethridge submitted a statement, in which he listed 14 factors contributing to the end of the railroad. These read almost as a litany of railroad woes, and include an element of timelessness: decline in freight tonnage; decline in passenger traffic; decline in mail revenue; decrease in timber, a principal revenue producer; loss of coal, cotton and other commodities to trucks; threatened loss of gasses, oil and other commodities to trucks; refusal of shippers to revert to rail service; improved highways and county roads with accompanying increased introduction of truck lines, private automobiles and contract carriers; increased and increasing taxes; increased operating costs; impossibility of increased business necessary to pay for railroad maintenance and improvement; necessity of meeting outstanding obligations incurred in purchase and operation of railroad; and the effect of impending merger of GM&N and M&O on OH&CC.
In May 1939 the examiner recommended the abandonment of the line to the ICC. One of the primary reasons given was the impending merger of the GM&N and M&O, which would deprive the OH&CC of "practically all its traffic destined to Houston, and on traffic to points west thereof would no longer perform the line-haul movement from Okolona to Houston." Further, "the evidence shows that traffic is not being handled in sufficient volume to enable the applicant to operate the line without loss and that prospects of the development of additional traffic which! would enable the line to become self-sustaining are not encouraging.
One problem with the OH&CC was that the 60 lbs. rail on most of the line had forced slow trains in order to ensure safe movement and over half of the ties needed to be replaced. As before, sawmills along the line protested the abandonment decision, as well as a wholesale grocery in Calhoun City, whose owner believed that his business would be eliminated and possibly his investment would be lost. The finance docket states that citizens of Calhoun City, Derma and Vardaman, all of which were west of Houston, were interested in buying the portion of the OH&CC between Houston and Calhoun City, but an agreement had not been reached, primarily because this group did not feel it should be compelled to pay $20,000 for a right-of-way for which the seller had paid $1.
The ICC authorized the abandonment of the OH&CC and the citizens of Calhoun City, Derma, and Vardaman were unable to reach an agreement with the OH&CC owners. Unlike the previous time when the line went up for sale, no potential buyers had come forward. The September 7, 1939 issue of the Times-Post announced that the OH&CC had sold its rails and other movable equipment to the Long Island Machinery and Equipment Co. of New York City, the company submitting the highest bid. Wrecking operations were to begin immediately after October 1, the date announced by the railroad for the suspension of operations. The official abandonment occurred at midnight on September 30, 1939. Thus almost 80 years after the initial charter was granted, and 33 years after the tracks were first laid, the trains were once again absent in Vardaman.
Sources: “Trains to Stop at Derma”, David Bridges, GM&O Historical Society News, Issue 90, 1999, GM&O Historical Society, Joliet, IL; Calhoun County Monitor-Herald; Houston Times-Post; Wikipedia;
WPA Writer’s Project History of Chickasaw County written in the 1930's
The Southern/M&O Railroad, 1902-1933
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