All Aboard …

The Time Traveler this week is taking an excursion — make that making tracks — back to an earlier era where the pace was about as fast as the power of sixty to seventy horses at a good clip.

Railroad travel is truly the only way to go, as evidenced by the Time Traveler’s journey of several years ago aboard the City of New Orleans and then the Empire Builder out West, up through Chicago and then through the Dakotas, across Montana and the roller-coaster ride through the Rockies, nearly to the Pacific Ocean on the other side.

All in all, I was able to traverse through 38 states and meet some of the finest people the American landscape has ever produced, dining with them in the railroad dining car to a sumptuous feast each time.

I must have gained twelve pounds on that trip and a lifetime of memories.

At the award-winning DeSoto County Museum, a brand-new train exhibit chronicles the history of train travel in Mississippi’s fastest-growing county, from the days when steam engines chugged through newly-cleared hardwood forests, along the river’s edge and past cotton fields that stretched across the horizon.

Thanks to longtime museum volunteer, Mr. Pat Davis, the museum now houses a vintage 1939 Lionel train engine and several cars, which graces the window ledge along the museum’s new Archives Room.

Sepia-toned photographs of railroad depots in Horn Lake, Hernando and Olive Branch provide the backdrop to the exhibit, along with rare train ticket stubs and railroad passage vouchers from 150 years ago, when train travel was a relatively new experience.

Documents from the Yazoo and Mississippi Valley Railroad from 1904, yellowed and tattered with age, detail a railroad crossing at the tiny Delta hamlet of Walls. There is also a photograph of Hernando’s railroad depot with bales of cotton stacked on the same platform that still exists. Men in overalls and baseball caps now sell vegetables under bright umbrellas at the spot where railroad passengers once embarked and disembarked for adventures far and wide.

Horn Lake’s depot is not far from where blues legend Walter “Shakey” Horton once bound a northbound train for Chicago.

One of the highest honors the Time Traveler was ever given was shaking the hand of legendary blues man Honeyboy Edwards, then 95, who caught a train south to Horn Lake in order to be present for the installation of a blues marker in memory of Horton.

“He was my friend,” Honeyboy told me, glancing wistfully at the marker along the tracks. The event, coordinated by our good friend Kim Terrell at the DeSoto Tourism Association, paid homage to the bluesman who once called Horn Lake home.

Many blues legends, including Gus Cannon of Southaven and Memphis Minnie of Walls also caught the train north to clubs in Chicago and New York, and then aboard ships overseas which took their plaintive wailings to the ears of toe-tapping Europeans.

Additionally, a very rare artifact recently discovered in a local barn is also on display.

A post Civil War railroad crate, the FedEx container of its day, that once belonged to Col. Sam Powel (one “l”),  contained treasures unknown, had been stored undiscovered in the barn on the old Joe Eli and Hautense Lauderdale place for decades until arriving in its new home at the museum, thanks to the new occupants of the home, Marcus Manning and his wife Dr. Lisa Manning, both avid supporters of the museum. The container still bears the stamped markings of “Hernando, Miss., which are printed in elegant cursive script.” The railroad crate, which could have held fine china, a fine English saddle or horse bridles, but more likely fine woolen blankets and linens, originated at the Glouchester Manufacturing Company of Philadelphia and New York.

There is also a 1909 photograph of a train engine on nearly-submerged railroad tracks at Lakeview and other historical information on Olive Branch, Hernando, Walls and Horn Lake.

In the fall of 1852, the Mississippi and Tennessee Railroad Company was chartered under the laws of Mississippi. This railroad was completed to Batesville by 1855 and to Grenada in 1857. It covered a total of 99.72 miles, according to historian J.B. Bell.

“In the early part of 1863, Memphis had fallen into Union hands along with the Memphis and Charleston Railroad. The Union strategists decided to launch a series of raids upon the Western and Atlanta Railroad in northwest Georgia and the Southern Railroad in Mississippi. These rail lines were supplying war material for the defenders of Vicksburg.

Railroads were vital to our success then as now. DeSoto County is still home to a working railroad.

We might groan and complain when a passing train stops traffic, but the fact that a railroad is still a viable means of transportation and travel indicates to the Time Traveler that DeSoto County is still a region on the move.

Robert Lee Long is Curator of the DeSoto County Museum

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