EARLY TRANSPORTATION IN MADISON PARISH
Modified by RPS from Madison Journal Centennial Issue August 14, 1975, Section V pp. 1-3
Water transportation was of prime importance in the early settlement of Madison Parish. Since streams offered the easiest means of travel, all the settlements were made along their banks.
The Indians who came to the area on hunting expeditions used small canoes called pirogues for transportation wherever possible. They were made by hollowing out a cypress log, pointing it at the bow and squaring it off at the stern. The pirogue was the only type of boat available to the white hunters and settlers, who learned how to use it from the Indians. They discovered that, though light pirogues could be driven over the sluggish bayous five or six miles an hour by a good paddler, their operation required great skill for they could be capsized with amazing ease.
Some pirogues were so small that they held only one man; others were large enough to carry a thousand pounds at more. The larger boats were operated on the Mississippi River for carrying the more valuable light freight, such as fur, to the New Orleans market. Some of these boats, loaded with skins, turned over as many as four times in one day.
FLATBOATS AND KEELBOATS
Early frontiersmen rafted timber down the river to Natchez or New Orleans. Rafts were clumsy and hard to handle. They were I soon replaced with flatboats, or "broadhorns," called thus because the long sweeps used to guide them rose from either side like the horns of a steer.
Raftsmen would club together what stock of peltries and other salable articles they had and purchase or build a flatboat and float down to New Orleans. There they would sell their goods, break up the boat and sell it for lumber, and make their way back on foot on horseback. It was, a perilous trip either way. Going down they found a river full of snags and sandbars, sometimes with and treacherous currents. Flatboats were often completely wrecked, striking submerged snags or running aground on sandbars. Going home, their way was by murderous outlaws who preyed on travelers-cutthroats such as the Harpe brothers, Samuel Mason and his gang, and the infamous John A. Murrell.
The Natchez Trace, named from the fact that it followed the old Natchez Indian trails through the wilderness was used as far as Natchez by most of the traders and boatmen from Madison Parish, the west side of the river being almost impassable near the mouth of Red River.
The flatboat was difficult to haul up stream because it persisted in hugging and scraping the shore. To avoid the land journey and make it easier to carry supplies back home, traders began to use the keelboat, which had a rudder with which the boat could be steered along a course parallel to the bank.
Trips down stream were usually made in the early spring in order to take advantage of the swift currents of the flood season. Though it took only ten or twelve days to go down stream to New Orleans from this area, it took four or five weeks to return.
Returning upstream was, a laborious process. Sometimes the crew propelled the boat by "poling," walking from one end of the deck to the other pushing on poles thrust into the bottom. Where it was necessary to fight the current, they had to go ashore, tie a line to a tree upstream, and pull the boat forward, repeating this, process again and again.
At times when the shore was bad for walking and the water swift and deep, the crew leaned over the side, grasped willows on the bank and pulled the boat upstream. This was known as brushing.
The numerous bends in the river proved a decided hardship in upstream travel for keelboats. It Was necessary to take the inside curve of each bend so as to avoid the centrifugal sweep of the current. No crossing could be, made without dropping back at least half a mile under the force of the current.
AGAINST THE CURRENT
Before Madison Parish and its river neighbors could reach the level of settlement and prosperity they were destined for, a significant development in river transportation had to occur. The first hint of it came in 1811, when the "New Orleans" came down the river from Pittsburgh. It was the first steamship on the Mississippi. Like others of its kind, it sat fairly low in the water, with its engines below deck. When it tried to go back up the river, its engines weren't powerful enough to push the vessel against the current. The "New Orleans spent the rest of its days profitably plying the trade between New Orleans and Natchez.
It was believed that no steamship could go against the current above Natchez. Henry Shreve believed otherwise, and built the "Enterprise" with exceptionally powerful engines. The "Enterprise" made it up the river in 1815, but it had to work so hard that it was all but torn to pieces.
Shreve decided in 1816 that a steamboat should rest on rather than in the water like a steamship. This was the essential difference between a river steamboat and an ocean or lake steamship. Shreve put the engines of his "George Washington" on the deck and laid them down instead of standing them up, as on steamships. There was an engine on either side, each connected independently to the paddlewheel on its side: This enabled one wheel to go ahead while the other was reversed, giving the vessel great maneuverability. With this new kind of, design, the steamboat came to dominate the rivers several years later.
The ability of the steamboat to go upstream made it possible for traders to take their produce to New Orleans and return without undue expense or hardship. This had a tremendous influence on the settlement and development of the parish. Planters along the rivers were able not only to ship their produce to market at lower cost but they could also obtain supplies at regular intervals with greater ease.
Small towns along the river became the main supply points for the parish. By 1840 packet boats were making weekly trips to such small towns as Milliken's, Bend, Delta Point and New Carthage.
Although not as Important at first as the Mississippi steamboats, those which plied the waterways of the interior greatly added to the prosperity of the parish. The principal interior stream in Madison was the Tensas River. The Tensas is roughly parallel to the Mississippi, but 10 to 15 feet lower in elevation. It drains practically the entire area, and almost every bayou in the parish connects with it. The first steamboat entered it in 1837. Many of the smaller steamboats got up as far as the post at the mouth of Roundaway Bayou.
The Tensas could only be navigated during high water, however. The navigation season ran from November to July, The dry season, luckily, came at a time when the produce of the plantations had already gone to market. So no great inconvenience was suffered by the period of low water, except that the passenger traffic was handicapped. During these times those who were obliged to make trips could go by way of the roads to the Mississippi and board steamers there.
Rates for the Mississippi and the Tensas steamers were about the same. Fare was five to six dollars on the small "draft" steamboats of the Tensas from the mouth of Roundaway Bayou to New Orleans. It was five dollars per person from Delta, on the Mississippi to New Orleans, except in the spring when, because of slack business, the rate was five and a half dollars.
But the man who traveled the Mississippi certainly got much more for his five dollars than the man who traveled the Tensas. These Mississippi steamers were floating palaces. Their quarters were elegant. They had large ballrooms, gambling casinos, lounges, and beautiful dining rooms. The meals served on board were not to be equaled. They served such delicacies as raw oysters, which were kept on ice.
The Tensas steamboats, on the other hand, were not so luxurious as their big brothers on the Mississippi. They were, in fact, almost the exact opposite. A traveler on one of these smaller ones, the "Concord," complained: "It should be named the 'Discord", for the firemen abused the mate, the cook fought the steward, the mosquitoes waged war on the passengers, and the passengers are not yet done cursing the mate, fireman, steward and mosquitoes; in fine, the boat and all connected with her. A more miserable, dirty, slow moving, improvided, chicken-thievish craft never walked the waters. It excites my spleen to think of her."
Despite their drawbacks, these small steamboats were invaluable to the cotton planters in the interior and the citizens of Richmond certainly must have thought them valuable. Throughout the entire history of the Richmond paper, its editors continued to advocate that Roundaway Bayou be cleared for smaller steamboat traffic.
Roundaway was in a unique position. It had its mouth at the Tensas and flowed in a curve to the Mississippi at New Carthage. Had it been made navigable to steamboats, it would have linked the Tensas and Mississippi Rivers. Richmond would have been the trading center of Northeast Louisiana. But the snags and cypress trees in the bayous were too high, and the bayou itself too shallow. The trees could not have been just cut to the low water mark, as was the practice; but they would have had to be removed altogether.
Late in 1841 the Police Jury of Madison Parish passed an ordinance for the improvement of Roundaway Bayou from Richmond to the Mississippi River at New Carthage. Planters living on this bayou were to be exempt from work on the public roads and were required to place their slaves upon the bayou to remove the willows, brush, logs, and stumps that impeded navigation of the stream. A canal lock was proposed at the mouth of the bayou, near New Carthage, which would hold the water and afford navigation at all times. But the lock was never constructed, for most planters believed that to hold water in the streams would prevent the proper drainage of their plantations. At that time here were no drainage canals in this area with the exception of small ditches constructed at the expense of the plantation owners.
The captain of a snag boat which was clearing Tensas River at the time, came to Richmond in 1844 to determine the probable usefulness of Roundaway as a navigable stream, He reported that for not more than $2,000 the bayou could be made navigable for steamboats with a capacity up to 700 bales of cotton. The state did not appropriate this money; however, but continued to make small appropriations for the improvement of navigation on Tensas River and Bayou Macon. More than $7,500 had been spent on these streams by 1847 and steamboats operated on them about six months of the year.
One reason that interest in Madison's internal navigation seemed to drag was that the streams, as they were, offered fair means of transportation during a part of the year. When water in the bayous was deep enough, farmers put their cotton on flatboats and floated it down to the steamboat landings on the Mississippi and Tensas Rivers. To aid in this type of transportation a break in the Mississippi River levee near New Carthage was left open to allow sufficient water to come through for navigation of Roundaway and Vidal Bayous. Low levees along these streams kept the water from flooding nearby plantations. This break in the levee was left open for several years. Eventually planters in Tensas and Concordia Parishes complained that too much water came through upon them and the crevasse was closed.
Interior navigation became less important in the decade preceding the Civil War due to the construction of the railroad. Ironically, Grant's armies, whose destructiveness impoverished the parish for years, revitalized Madison's interior navigation. They destroyed the railroad, damaged the levees, and dredged out the lower end of Roundaway Bayou in order to transport troops by steamboat.
The flooding caused by dilapidated levees put the streams in excellent condition for steamboat navigation. Before the railroad was rebuilt in 1870, this bayou transportation was important. Even after the railroad was rebuilt, high water sometimes covered the tracks and prevented the trains from running. Boats were used then to bring in supplies and take out cotton.
Until the railroads made them obsolete, small steamboats ascended the bayou during high water as far as the railroad trestle In Tallulah. As late as 1913, a mass meeting was held in Tallulah to discuss navigation of Roundaway Bayou. The meeting prompted by local dissatisfaction with high railway freight rates. Engineers stated that at a small cost, locks and dams could be built on the bayou, allowing water to be kept at a sufficient level for steamboat navigation. But money was not available for the project. After 80 years of controversy, Madison's waterways had not and would never be extensively improved.
The Mississippi steamboats reached their peak in 1860. Although river traffic was disturbed during the war years, it thrived for many years afterward. With Richmond burned to the ground and Tallulah hardly more than a railroad depot, the river towns of Milliken's Bend and Delta were the most important communities in the parish.
Several steamboats passed Milliken's Bend each day, stopping to discharge passengers or freight if any were aboard for that landing, or stopping to receive such when flagged by the landing keepers. These boats brought heavy cargoes of merchandise and produce from the Upper Rivers and returned laden with sugar, rice, coffee and other such merchandise as ordinarily moved from the South to the North.
The Anchor Line steamboats brought most of the merchandise entering Madison Parish from St. Louis. Ten Anchor Line vessels were in operation in 1880. There was also a line of packets operating northward from New Orleans. Though these boats carried both passengers and freight, they catered especially to passenger service for which they were famous.
The life of a resident near the Mississippi River was not complete without at least one trip on the river to New Orleans. Many made the trip solely for the social life since there were amusements consisting of dancing, gambling, and constant entertainment. Sometimes, the gambling was for very heavy stakes.
There is an old legend of how the well-known plantation, "Compromise'," got its name. The plantation, then known as "Wall Place", together with several other properties, was owned by a man named Jones. On a trip to New Orleans Mr. Jones engaged in heavy gambling with a passenger from an upriver town. As the stakes grew heavier, and Mr. Jones lost continuously, he wagered all his properties and lost them. In the settlement of the debt, his friends intervened and a compromise was made by which Mr. Jones retained title to "Wall Place." On reaching home he immediately changed the name of the plantation to "Compromise".
Other steamboats helped make life enjoyable for Madisonians. These were the huge and famous Showboats, some carrying a full complement of circus entertainment that was quite comparable to shows traveling by rail. They had elephants, menagerie, ring performers and everything else comprising a circus. It often took a day and a half to disembark and set up the show.
The circus boat came every fall when the crop had been gathered and there was "money in the country". Its coming was heralded weeks in advance. Another type of river entertainment, which was more 'high-class" and expensive, was the Theatrical Boat -a floating theatre. These were patronized by cotton planters and merchants along the river.
Life on a steamboat was potentially dangerous. Snags and sawyers lurked in the river, ready to rip open the bottom of a steamer; fires sometimes broke out in the inflammable cargo; boilers sometimes exploded, often as a result of overstraining in racing with other boats; and collisions occurred in the fogs of the lower Mississippi.
At the Milliken's Bend landing on Oct. 29, 1891, the large passenger and freight boat "Oliver Beirne" was consumed by fire in the night. Thirteen people were cremated or drowned and seven more died later from severe burns and pneumonia. Dr. Yerger and his daughter Jessie (later Mrs. J.Y. Bonney) cared for the injured. The whole town gave assistance to the suffering.
Delta was stricken by a natural calamity in 1876 when a neck of land near the town caved into the river. Water at once poured through the opening, tearing away the banks, and completely changing the course of the river so that it no longer flowed in front of Vicksburg.
A great sand bar was thrown up at Delta's front door, and the former steamboat landing to the town could no longer be used. The landing was changed to the upper end of Grant's Canal but this once thriving town lost its importance as a shipping point on the river. Six years later the parish seat of Madison was moved from Delta to Tallulah.
Caving banks and inadequate levees forced Milliken's Bend to move to a new site in 1880. The natural change from river to rail transportation doomed it, as well as the steamboat industry, to extinction by degrees. The last inhabitant moved away in 1916, about the time rail carriers had driven the steamboats from the lower Mississippi River.
But river transportation on the Mississippi was not completely abandoned. During the First World War was learned that our railway system could not transport all the freight that the expanding needs of the day demanded. As long as speed is not an important element, extremely heavy, non-perishable freight can hauled much cheaper on the river.
In March 1918, the Federal government made provisions for improving river transportation. The Federal Barge Line was put in operation that same year. Today powerful tugboats towing huge barges move more tonnage up and down the Mississippi in a year than the steamboats, at the height their glory, could have move in several years. The two can hardly compared though. The steamboats made the river part of people's lives in a way that is done now only when the levees fail. Where excited passengers waited at the dock for a once in-a-lifetime trip New Orleans or St. Louis, There is now only swampland and trees, which tacitly attend the passage of a prosaic tug and its tow of barges.
The Madison Parish Port Commission was formed in 1966 by an act of the Louisiana legislature. The Police Jury was authorized to appoint six commissioners; those six appointed one other commissioner. The current commissioners are J.M. Gilfoil; Chairman Jim Brown, Vice-Chairman Herbert Massey, Secretary Dr. L.A. Anthony, Dr. George Webb, Moses Williams an James Folk.
One of the Commissions first acts was to pass a three-mil property tax. The commission has the power to issue and sell bonds.
In its nine years of operation, the Port Commission has pumped a landfill out of the river for an industrial park. The park is equipped with lights, a sewer system and railroad lines. In addition, the commission has brought two industries into the parish, Valley Steel and Complex Chemical Co.
So far the commission has been unsuccessful in getting docking facilities for the parish. Land is currently being surveyed for the construction of a dock, but Chairman Gilfoil has no idea when the dock will be built.
The commission has applied for a Federal grant, and hopes to get it within a couple of years. Until it does, Madison Parish will have no share in he busy Mississippi River traffic.
Though the bayous and streams of Madison Parish provided a natural means, of transportation, they by no means superseded the construction of roads. In fact, much more effort was spent in the parish on building and improving roads than on developing Madison's internal waterways.
Bayous and rivers were great for handling freight traffic, because most of that went north and south between St. Louis and New Orleans. But people also wanted to go to places like Vicksburg and Monroe, and for that they needed roads.
There were roads in the Parish before Madison even existed. Even before the Louisiana Purchase, stagecoaches passed through here carrying passengers and mail on roads connecting a point on the river opposite Natchez with the Ouachita and Morehouse settlements. Traveling through this swampland, the stagecoach had to slow down to the tedious pace of about two miles an hour.
The road was hardly more than a path of cleared trees. The frequent rains and overflows turned it into a muddy trap, which the stagecoach driver sometimes had to avoid by finding a passage through fields. When passing through dense woods, the driver often had to leave the coach and survey the road ahead. He sounded the ruts and marked out a safe channel with stakes he cut from the underbrush with his hatchet.
Many of the wooden bridges were so poorly anchored that a sudden rain would raise the creeks and float the bridges away. When this happened, the coach had to ford the streams with water running through the vehicle. The men with their tall boots had no danger getting wet, but the ladies were forced to mount the seats until the creek was crossed.
Even for a man on horseback, it wasn't easy traveling through this parish, and a horseman often had to swim across a bayou, risking the loss of both his horse and life. The paths were so obscure that the trees along them had to be blazed by chipping off bark, just to indicate where the trails were. A good many of these were impassable through the winter and spring.
Some Monroe members of the business community in the 1830s wanted to establish a horse trail between Vicksburg and Monroe. In 1836, they employed three of the best woodsmen of the country to explore and mark out such a road. These experts - Peter X. Oliver, James H. Stevens and a Dr. Hubbard - were paid $1,000 each for their expedition.
They set out from Monroe in the fall of 1836 and soon became lost in the thick canebrakes and swamps near Bayou Macon. It took them 10 days to find their way to some sign of civilization. They ended up in Prairie Jefferson (now Oak Ridge) which was completely off their course. In later years they used to tell the story that during their aimless wandering through the almost impenetrable forest, they subsisted entirely on alligator and wildcat meat. These same men tried again the next year, this time using a compass. They surveyed the line, which later was used by the Vicksburg, Shreveport and Texas Railroad. Yet, after all this effort, the road could only be used in dry weather.
The first parish police jury, during the same year Madison was created established a road from Richmond to Milliken's Bend along the Mississippi River. Shortly afterwards, a stagecoach route was built from New Carthage to Richmond, connecting with the Vicksburg to Monroe route which also passed through Richmond.
Other roads were established throughout the parish. In fact, most of the police jury ordinances in the early years of the parish were concerned with road construction. The same philosophy behind levee building and the clearing of streams applied to the building of roads-namely that the planters whose lands were crossed by the roads paid for their construction. The slaves of these planters were requisitioned for the considerable labor of building 60-foot wide roads. These workers were poorly supervised and were given inadequate tools. The men appointed as commissioners laid out roads where they, themselves, would benefit most. This resulted in many roads being built in the wrong places to do most good and at greater expense.
These early roads were dusty in dry weather and axle deep in mud in the wet season, They meandered in every direction to pass isolated farms and made sudden detours to avoid natural barriers. Streams were crossed at fords, and bridges were found only at rare intervals. The few loose plank bridges that were built had no railings to prevent horses or vehicles from going over the sides.
Wherever possible, roads were built along the banks of bayous in order to secure better drainage. The drainage on one side was excellent, of course, but culverts were needed on the other side to provide proper drainage. The builders often made the mistake of leaving trees overhanging narrow roads, keeping out the sunlight,
Ferries were added to the parish in the 1840's and '50's. They were operated by private enterprise that paid $25 a year in taxes to the police jury. The more important ferries were those upon the Tensas River, Bayou Macon, Eagle Lake and Roundaway Bayou in the interior, and the one between DeSoto and Vicksburg on the Mississippi.
The average prices for crossing the interior streams were 25 cents per wheel for a vehicle and 10 cents each for every animal attached to it. For a man on horseback, the price was 20 to 25 cents. The rates for Mississippi ferries were about double that of ferries on the Louisiana side of the river.
The police jury later got the idea to use tax money, experienced workers and proper tools to build roads. Roads were more intelligently planned and economically built using this method. Yet real improvements were not made on Madison roads until the latter part of the century when bond issues were floated for the improvement and maintenance of roads. During those years bridges were built, drainage was improved and the more important roads were dragged.
"The "speed kings" claim they can't tell when they are running over fifteen miles at hour. Well they will find out and this knowledge will cost them about ten dollars per lesson." - Madison Journal May 13, 1916
Following the turn of the century, the automobile made its appearance, and Louisiana became "highway conscious." Eight thousand cars and trucks in the state were trying to find roads to run on by 1909. The Madison Parish Police Jury could not meet the demands for new roads.
The state began to help with the creation of the first State Highway Department in 1910. The highway engineer drew up a map showing the various roads that were considered state highways having priority for state funds. This early state system was made up of about 5,000 miles of main line roads connecting several parish seats and major trade centers. Madison Parish really did not benefit by state aid until 1922.
The Madison Police Jury reorganized the road system of the parish in 1913. It selected a road engineer, Leo Shields, to grade and map all roads and look after bridges for both Madison and East Carroll.
The U. S. Congress passed a Federal Aid Road Act in 1916 appropriating funds for highway construction to be administered by the state highway departments. The Louisiana Legislature passed laws in 1918 and 1921 authorizing the highway department to receive these funds and to comply with the restrictions of the federal act. Louisiana engineers established a system of federal routes, including Highway 80 and Highway 65 traversing Madison Parish.
Highway 80 or the "Dixie Overland Highway" was completed from Vicksburg, through Tallulah to Bayou Macon in 1924. Two years later U, S. Highway 65, running through the parish from north to south, was completed. These highways were gravel-surfaced roads built with the parish contributing 25 per cent of the project cost.
The Dixie Overland highway was paved in 1929; it was appropriately advertised as the Dixie Overland "Concrete" highway. Highway 65 was paved in 1931. Smaller "farm to market" roads were built during the 1930's to feed into the main lines. Many of these gravel-surfaced roads have since been paved.
Until this time, there were few bridges in the parish except for the railroad trestles and the major highways. An iron bridge was built across Roundaway Bayou at the junction of Brushy Bayou in 1912. A concrete bridge later replaced it. Under Mayor D. H. Allen, the village of Tallulah in 1937 built a substantial concrete bridge across Brushy Bayou, connecting the two halves of the town. This was the Johnson Street Bridge. The Louisiana Department of Highways in 1962 built the bridges at Mississippi and Kimbrough Streets.
The first bus line was opened through the parish the year the Dixie Overland highway was paved. The line, connecting Tallulah with Jackson, Miss. and Monroe, was called the Motor Transportation Co. The buses contained eight seats for passengers and made the 60-mile trip to Monroe in two hours.
There were two bus lines through the parish by 1954: The Missouri Pacific Transportation Company and Continental Trailways. The Arrow Coach line later replaced the Missouri Pacific. The Missouri Pacific, Delta Motor Freight Lines and Red Ball Motor Freight serve the parish as motor freight lines.
A private company constructed the old Vicksburg Bridge in 1928-1930 at a cost of $6,000,000. Its Memphis promoter, Harry Bovay envisioned it as an important link in a major coast-to-coast highway. Yet traffic lagged with the coming of the depression, and almost from the first day of operation the bridge was in trouble.
Instead of it being a major traffic corridor through Vicksburg, the bridge actually became a barrier. The tolls were too high: $1.25 for an automobile and driver with 25 cents for each additional passenger. Trucks, buses and trailers paid proportionately higher fees. As a result, the big trade exchange between Vicksburg and northeast Louisiana slowly faded away.
The bridge went bankrupt, and many investors, including Bovay, were wiped out. It soon became apparent that some government agency would have to take over the structure to lower the high-toll schedules, which were driving away the traveling, public.
Madison Parish had a chance to buy the bridge, but too many townspeople thought it would be a "white elephant." Warren County, Miss. finally bought the bridge in 1947 at the amazingly low price of $7,000,000. But, if Madison didn't want to buy the Vicksburg Bridge, it wanted even less for Warren County to purchase it. Eighty per cent of the structure was located in Madison, and the parish had gotten quite a lot of money in taxes from it. The Madison Police Jury was afraid that any government agency operating the bridge would claim it was a public utility and refuse to pay taxes on it.
Besides tolls, the bridge collected fees for the gas and power lines crossing the bridge, and from the railroad which used the bridge. This revenue amounted to a $1,000,000 for Warren County. As expected, the county was not inclined to pay Madison Parish the money it deserved. Sheriff Hester, as ex-officio tax collector, sued Warren County for a higher assessment than the county was then acknowledging. Hester won the suit, even though it was appealed all the way to the U. S. Supreme Court. The parish now receives almost $50,000 a year in taxes on the bridge. Warren County still complains that the bridge should be tax-exempt, but the profit it makes on the structure, amounting to roughly $400,000 a year, belies this belief.
Automobile traffic through this area grew phenomenally, and it became evident that the 18-foot wide bridge was not adequate for today's larger sized cars. Traffic at one end would have to be halted several times a day to allow wide loads to cross without accidents. The bridge was a bane to interstate truckers who slowed to a crawl when passing each other. The squeals of their tires rubbing against the rail on the side of the bridge were nerve-racking.
A new Vicksburg bridge was begun in 1967. The year before, Warren County stopped charging tolls on the old bridge, which had dropped to 10 cents a trip by that time. The new bridge was to be a joint venture of the Louisiana and Mississippi state highway departments, with the Federal government providing the lion's share (90 per cent) of the construction costs. The bridge was built in three phases under three different construction companies. Three men were killed while working on the superstructure. Finally, six years and $30 million later, the project was completed in 1973.
Madison Parish tried very hard to lay to rest its searing nightmares of the Civil War and the bitter years which followed, The war was change, personified into a hellish demon to be exorcised from the land. Life must return to normal, to the way it was always lived. And it did, for awhile. But a different wind was blowing which would sweep away the past like dry leaves. It began in small gusts just before the war, almost as a prediction of the tempest to come. With the subtlety of a summer zephyr, it irrevocably etched its pattern onto Madison, a pattern that remained long after the mold was broken. That mold, was the railroad - the great urbanizer.
Railroading was a political issue from the start. There was no way it could be otherwise. The construction of a railroad was a tremendous investment. Careful planning was needed to pick the most valuable route. And since a railroad could mean prosperity or death to a region, value was in the eye of the beholder.
Naturally, New Orleans wanted a railroad; it wrestled with proposals for a railroad through Jackson and one through Opelousas. J.D.B. DeBow, editor of DeBow's Review, put the question in realistic dimensions. Perhaps the city was overlooking a far more important route. DeBow suggested that the railroad make Shreveport the point of departure into Texas. The line would be part of the ambitious Southern Transcontinental Rail Route being pushed by southern statesmen. Extending from Charleston to San Diego, the route would open up new channels of commerce through North Louisiana and the increased trade would come to New Orleans by river traffic. Such a route was urged by a railroad convention held in Shreveport in November 1850.
Representatives from many Texas counties and Louisiana parishes, including Madison, urged the Louisiana legislature to donate overflowed lands to the railroads. A convention in Monroe made similar requests.
The northern tier of parishes did not like the plan; they thought the eastern end should be at Lake Providence instead of Delta. It was predicted that the Madison route would help to triple Madison's cotton production, and the northern parishes naturally felt bypassed. But the Madison route prevailed and was endorsed by the Southwestern Railroad Convention in New Orleans.
An act of the Louisiana legislature created the Vicksburg, Shreveport and Texas Railroad Co. in March, 1852, "for the purpose of constructing, and making a railroad, from the Mississippi River at a point opposite Vicksburg, running westward through the northern part of the State of Louisiana, by way of Monroe on the Ouachita River; thence west by the most direct practicable route to Shreveport on Red River; thence west to the line of the State of Texas." The route was surveyed in 1853. Officials decided to begin building the road westward at three points: Vicksburg, Monroe and Shreveport. Construction began in Madison Parish on August 8, 1854.
Pearce Horne of Milledgeville, Ga. was put in charge of construction in the parish. He got the job through his father, J.H. Horne one of the first railroad contractors, who later became superintendent of the road.
According to local belief, the road was surveyed to run through Richmond, the parish seat and the most important town in this part of the country. Perhaps the right of way through the fine plantations around Richmond was too expensive, or for some reason the planters were generally opposed to a railroad traversing their property.
For whatever reason, the route was changed to run about two miles north through the present site of Tallulah, which was then a part of Scotland plantation. Local legend explains the change this way, taken from the late William Murphy's History of Madison Parish:
"Tradition has it that the line had been surveyed to run through Richmond, over a route most favorable for its construction; then Chief Engineer Horne, who was building the road met a certain lady, a charming widow, the possessor of large plantation acres; he was unmarried at the time. The railroad going through Richmond would miss her plantation by some miles.
"If the line could be changed a little to pass a few miles to the north, it would traverse her properties and greatly enhance their value. Could not such a change be considered?
"Under the circumstances the matter could but receive the most serious consideration by the gallant engineer. True, if the line were to be diverted, Richmond would feel the hurt and likewise true that there were no towns to be touched by the railroad if a new route were adopted. Yet the wishes of so interesting a woman were not to be lightly ignored.
"The survey through Richmond was abandoned; the road was built on a line some miles further north running across the widow's fertile fields, and then her interest in the kind engineer suddenly and permanently waned.
"At this turn of fortune the railroad man apparently began harking back in memory to a former love; for when he established a little station where the line crossed Brushy Bayou, he named that station for the sweetheart of his younger days - Tallulah and the town which grew around it was destined in later years to become the parish seat."
Pearce Horne, the manipulated engineer, transferred from the railroad to the army of Northern Virginia in 1861, and got his first war wound that same year in action around Richmond, Va. He was wounded again the following year in the second battle of Manassas (Bull Run). He emerged from the war a captain, with a distinguished wife in tow, the same girl for whom he had named a tiny railroad station in Louisiana. She was Tallulah Johnson, daughter of a former governor of Georgia, Herschel V. Johnson. Gov. Johnson had been Stephen Douglas' running mate in the 1860 presidential campaign against Abraham Lincoln. Tallulah also was the niece of James K. Polk, 11th President of -the U. S.
The Hornes lived in Dalton, Ga. and were the leading planters in North Georgia. Capt. Horne died in 1903; his wife passed away at her home in 1925, at the age of 85. They had nine children, one of whom, Mrs. Tallulah Russell, visited Tallulah during its Centennial celebration in 1957.
As for the widow who slyly cultivated Horne's friendship to get the railroad to pass through her property, her identity has never been firmly established, She may have been Mrs. Henrietta Amis, owner of Fortune's Fork plantation, a few miles east of Tallulah. Notarial records in the Clerk's office record Mrs. Amis as granting the V S & T a right of way through her land a in 1855.
No one can tell for sure who the widow was though several have tried. Possibly the story is only legend. It was not unusual for the railroad to bypass important towns. Perhaps the planters around Richmond wanted too much money for the right-of-way through their lands.
The company needed a 150-foot swath of land for its railroad. Most of the landowners granted or sold this land for a few dollars. Notarial records occasionally show stipulations that the company erect cattle guards around the railroad to prevent the accidental killing of livestock, or that the land never be used for anything but railroad purposes.
Construction was financed largely by business interests along the route. Madison Parish residents had subscribed more than $47,000 worth of stock by 1856. However, building a railroad was very expensive. The company had spent $571,000 by 1856, but had laid only 10 miles of track.
Construction stepped up in 1857, and the road was completed to Tallulah Station, 20 miles from. DeSoto Station on the Mississippi River opposite Vicksburg. The first train pulled up to the little station, freshly built on banks of Brushy Bayou, in September 1857. A huge crowd of people from all over the countryside greeted the train, and the event was an occasion for much speech making. At that time there were only 80 miles of railroad in all of Louisiana.
Tallulah was the end of the line for several months. The road was not completed to Delhi until 1859. But by the time the Civil War ended further construction in 1861, trains were running regularly to Monroe over a track 75 miles long.
Trains were kept in operation until it became evident that the northern forces would occupy this territory. The entire line between Delta and Monroe was destroyed by the Confederate army in 1863 to keep the Yankees from using, it. The Union Army burned the stations at Tallulah and DeSoto. The railroad from Monroe to Delhi was rebuilt in 1867. From Delhi to the Mississippi River, travel was by stagecoach. By 1870 the roadbed had been rebuilt from Delhi to Delta.
J. W. Green, superintendent of the railroad, placed the following announcement in the Dec. 24, 1870 Ouachita Telegraph: "On and after Sunday, the trains on the road will run as follows; passenger trains leave Monroe daily at 5:00 A.M., arrive at Delta at 11:A.M., leave Delta at 2:00 P.M, and arrive at Monroe at 7:45 P.M. Freight trains leave Monroe at 6:00 A.M. Monday, Wednesday, Friday, and leave Delta 7:00 A.M. on Tues. Thursday and Saturday. Through freight per load will be carried by passenger train. Way-freight will be shipped by freight train. Freight for flag stations will be delivered at designated point, at owners' risk, whether the will be anyone there to receive it or not..."
Delta was connected with Vicksburg by a ferryboat called "Omaha City." It took 30 minutes to cross the river to Vicksburg on this ferry. Serving both river and rail transportation, the little town of Delta was a hub of activity. It contained 16 buildings in 1870, including a courthouse, a jail, several stores and storehouses. It had a population of around 500 and was the parish seat of government.
John T. Ludeling and Associates of Monroe bought the railroad in 1871, and formed the Northern Louisiana and Texas Railroad Co. The U. S. Supreme Court in 1874 declared the purchase fraudulent and the property was thrown into receivership. It was sold under foreclosure to the Vicksburg, Shreveport and Pacific Railroad Co. in December 1879.
The section of the railroad through Madison Parish proved to be a source of expense to the owners from the start. It was imperfectly built, bridges were poorly constructed, and train wrecks were weekly occurrences. The roadbed was low, and due to the wretched conditions of the levees after the Civil War, traffic was frequently interrupted by overflow. The roadbed was raised in 1885 and trains ran even during high water. Later when better levees had been constructed, overflows did occur so often and trains hauled practically all freight. Even then its initials stood for "very slow and poky" to Madisonians for many years.
The railroad company made the mistake of failing to help develop agriculture and other industries in the territory through which it operated. A more rapid development of industries would have resulted in more business for the road.
The V. S. & P. came under the control of the Illinois Central System in 1926. The St. Louis, Iron Mountain and Southern Railroad Co., constructed another railroad, running north and south through Tallulah during 1901-1902. It later became a part of the Missouri Pacific Railroad.
These two railroads Illinois Central and Missouri Pacific have served Madison up to the present. For many years both lines had regular passenger service. Th Missouri Pacific's only passenger train was the Delta Eagle, which ran between Tallulah and Memphis every day.
The Illinois Central had the larger business of the two railroads. It had two or three passenger trains arriving and leaving every day. In addition, it carried the east and west freight. Tallulans would often take their mall to the IC station instead of the Post Office.
It is a local tradition that Tallulah Bankhead once went through the town on the IC railroad. She and her friends were having a party in their private car at the rear of the train as it was passing through the Madison Parish seat. Local citizens say that Bankhead, who was rather intoxicated at the time, stood up on the porch of her car and yelled, "What in the hell are they doing with my name over everything?"
The Missouri Pacific discontinued the Delta Eagle about 1953. The Illinois Central stopped carrying passengers in the early 1960's. Today, both are still providing freight service.
© 1999 Richard P. Sevier (firstname.lastname@example.org)