The Southern/M&O Railroad: 1902-1933
The original charter to construct a railroad in the general area which became Vardaman was granted to the Grenada, Houston & Eastern Railway Co. in February 1860, "to construct a railroad with double or single track from Grenada, in the county of Yallobusha [sic], on the Mississippi Central Railroad, by Pittsboro, in Calhoun County, … to Houston, in Chickasaw County, and eastward to the Mobile and Ohio Railroad … ". There were two name changes for the railroad, first to the Vicksburg & Nashville Railroad Company in 1872, and then to the Nashville & Mississippi Delta (N&MD) Railroad Company in 1890. The last name change went along with a change of ownership of the charter because the previous owners had failed to actually construct the railroad. At some point in the 1890’s the entire roadbed was constructed between Okolona and Houston, however, the tracks were never laid and subsequent ownership of the right of way was murky. A Mr. J. W. Buchanan came from Memphis and bought the right-of-way from the stockholders and then sold it to a new company, the Southern.
In September 1902, the Southern submitted an application to create a Mississippi corporation to be known as the Southern Railway Company. This company was to be created for two purposes: "to construct a railroad beginning at the City of Okolona in Chickasaw County, Mississippi, and thence running in a southwesterly direction through the County of Chickasaw to the east line of Calhoun County, and thence through Calhoun County to a point known as Big Creek, or to some point east of there, in the County of Calhoun, State of Mississipp"'; and also to acquire and operate the Mobile & Ohio Railroad Company.
However, the Southern's plans for the acquisition of the M&O were blocked by James K. Vardaman, who had become governor in the meantime, who vetoed the necessary legislation. Although the Southern didn’t own the M&O, the Southern and the M&O had an agreement where the M&O would go on to operate the Okolona Branch for most of its life and the branch line was commonly referred to as the M&O. $50,000 worth of rail stock of the N&MD was acquired by the Southern in 1902 and the Southern then began construction of the line from Okolona. The first train reached Houston in November 1903 on temporary rails which were laid by the contractor so that a deadline could be met. These were replaced by permanent tracks in January 1904, and the Okolona-Houston segment of the branch opened for business in March 1904.
When construction continued west from Houston, the first town in Calhoun County reached by the branch was the community of Vardaman, which served as the terminus for a short time. Calhoun City, eventually became the terminus after Frank Burkett and J. S. Rome of Okolona, one or both being relatives of officials of the M&O, learned of the plans for the construction of the branch and bought land in the area which eventually became Calhoun City. However, one mile east of their property lived two men who also owned property, J. M. Smith and a Captain Lawrence. Smith and Lawrence demanded that the railroad terminate on their property, upon which a depot and town would be constructed. The dispute went to court, and in a classic example of Mississippi politics, the courts decided in favor of both. And so one mile east of Calhoun City the town of Derma was established. The railroad eventually passed through Derma and terminated in Calhoun City. The town of Calhoun City was laid out in 1905 and the branch was completed to Calhoun City on December 12, 1906, a total of 37.8 miles from Okolona. According to March 31, 1932 issue of the Calhoun County Monitor-Herald, the first regular steam train arrived in town on December 27, 1906, only two months short of 47 years after the original charter was granted for the construction of a railroad through the area.
The first passenger train arrived in Vardaman and then went on to Calhoun City on the first Sunday in January 1907. The Monitor-Herald reported that this was a great event in the history of Calhoun City and that people gathered from miles around to see the train, a sight most of them had never seen before. The passenger train seems to have unearthed a hunger of residents along the branch for travel by train, for the first regular passenger train began operations on Monday, April 15. The Houston newspaper stated that this new service filled a "long-felt want," since up until this time only a mixed train had been run and the passenger service was considered to be "of secondary importance." By January 1910, three trains ran each way every day. Later practice on the branch was to have two first class passenger trains each way daily and one second class freight/mixed train each way daily except for Sunday. One engine would be assigned to the two first class trains and a second engine would be assigned to the second class trains. It is suspected that this was also the practice in 1910. This seems to have been the pattern that lasted for some time.
Trains carrying people on the branch weren't the only ones that made the news. Sometimes other passengers were deemed newsworthy, as in the October 28, 1920 edition of the Houston Times-Post, which reported that 13 cars of cattle and one carload of hogs had been shipped from Calhoun City in a single day, all bound for buyers in St. Louis. This shipment broke all previous records and had the potential of being even bigger, but three carloads of cattle had to be left behind because of the railroad's inability to provide the necessary cars.
By 1921, some effort seems to have been made to reduce operations on the branch. Train sheets from July 1921 show only two freight trains (which were probably mixed freight and passenger trains) operating on the branch during the week. The passenger trains operated only on Sunday. This reduction in service did not last long, for train sheets from 1923 once again show two passenger trains operating daily and two freight trains operating daily except Sunday. It would appear that the residents along the branch had places to go and needed trains to take them there. The passenger trains were generally pulled by 100 or 200 class ten-wheelers and the freight trains were pulled by the more powerful 300 class engines. A May 7, 1928 M&O public timetable shows that the steam passenger trains had been replaced by gas-electric service.
"Branch for Sale; Inquire Within"
1932 was the year that the M&O went into receivership. By August 1932 only two freight trains were operating on daily schedules, and no trains at all on Sundays. Passenger service has almost always been considered the least profitable part of revenue railroad operations, and the M&O had apparently instituted some cost-cutting measures. It would not be enough. The July 7, 1932 issue of the Monitor-Herald reported that the M&O had ordered an investigation of the branch line, including its expenses and revenues. Once the investigation was completed, the receiver would then decide whether or not to ask the Interstate Commerce Commission to be allowed to abandon the line. The article concludes with a plea for residents of the area to give all the business to the railroad that they possibly can.
Work toward the abandonment of the branch continued. On August 15, 1932, the Southern filed a petition with the ICC for permission to abandon the branch. The February 13, 1933 issue of the Monitor-Herald reported that Mr. Moister, the ICC examiner, had recommended to the ICC that it authorize the Southern and the M&O to abandon the branch. The ICC Finance Docket which contains the arguments for the abandonment of the branch gives a fairly complete picture of the branch and the region it served at the time of the application. The population of the territory served by the branch was estimated at just under 19,000. The chief industries, not surprisingly, were lumbering, farming, and dairying, with com and cotton being the primary farm products. Industries along the line included lumber mills, handle factories, cotton gins, a limestone plant, a grist mill, and bulk-oil stations. In addition to serving these industries, the branch also carried all of the gravel used by the state and county for construction and maintenance of highways in Calhoun County, the gravel being supplied from the only gravel pit on the M&O system, located at Columbus.
The ICC docket on the abandonment of the branch does include some protests to the abandonment. These came primarily from lumber concerns. The owner of a planing mill in Vardaman testified that he believed the timber industry would rebound, and that if the branch were abandoned, he would move his mill to some other point. The proprietor of a mill in Derma testified that his business would be destroyed if the branch were abandoned. A witness for the protesters testified that if market conditions improved, these two mills plus a third mill at Calhoun City could ship five cars a day indefinitely and that if freight rates were reduced $2.50 per thousand board-feet, all of the sawmills in the area would be put to work.
Despite the protests, on March 16, 1933, the ICC decided to grant the petition to abandon the branch, and on March 26, 1933, the Commission issued the necessary authorization for the Southern to abandon the line and the M&O to abandon operations on the line. This was reported in the March 30, 1933 issue of the Monitor-Herald
One condition was attached to the ICC's decision to allow the abandonment of the branch: if any bid or bids for the purchase of the railroad were made within 30 days of the decision, the Southern must sell the branch at salvage prices. The 30-day period would expire on April 25. Steps were immediately taken to try to save the branch. A meeting of local businessmen was held, and efforts were begun to organize a stock company that could make the necessary purchases.
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. Ethridge provided a statement in which he gave the name of the new railroad: the Okolona, Houston & Calhoun City Railway Co.
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;
Wikipedia; WPA Writer’s Project History of Chickasaw County written in the 1930's
The Okolona Houston & Calhoun City Railroad
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