M&O turns 150 Saturday
Posted: Friday, April 22, 2011 8:57 pm
By KEVIN BOWDEN
L.A. Baucom of Kenton has always been fascinated by railroads.
As a young boy, he marveled as he watched the giant trains rumbling down the tracks. They are memories the 83-year-old still holds dear.
He has done a considerable amount of research on the history of railroads in this region, and this weekend marks a significant milestone for the Mobile & Ohio Railroad.
It was 150 years ago (on April 23, 1861) that the M&O Railroad was finally completed from Mobile, Ala., to Columbus, Ky.
At that time, the M&O Railroad was the longest railroad in America under one management and was the first railroad in the country to use steel rails. Prior to the M&O Railroad, tracks were made using wood and cast iron, according to Baucom.
The steel rails used by the M&O Railroad were manufactured in Sheffield, England.
Baucom has a stack of handwritten notes about the M&O Railroad and recently acquired a book detailing the history of railroads in America. His passion is obvious as he searches his memory to tell the story of the M&O Railroad.
The historic M&O Railroad was created during a time of transition for the United States. Railroads were in their infancy. The beginning of the Civil War was just around the corner.
Neither the steam shovel nor the pile driver had been invented at the time, which meant the railroad bed was built using picks, shovels, wheelbarrows and horse-drawn equipment. The labor to build the railroad consisted of slaves in the South and Irish immigrants further north.
The M&O Railroad was designed by a German engineer and had virtually no steep grades, according to Baucom’s research.
He learned through his research that the railroad came about when a group of businessmen in Mobile realized the need to establish a transportation system linking the gulf seaport to the north — where industry was located.
“It was quite possibly the best seaport on the Gulf of Mexico,” Baucom said.
Those businessmen got together with politicians and bankers to commission a study to determine whether a railroad from Mobile to the north was feasible.
Baucom said an engineering study was done and it was indeed determined that such a railroad was feasible. Next on the agenda was choosing the route and financing the project.
The strategic location of Columbus made the small West Kentucky site the most appealing destination for the railroad. Columbus had a ferry across the Mississippi River, which made it an ideal location to get freight moved northward by way of St. Louis. At that time, there was no other Mississippi River crossing south of Columbus, according to Baucom.
One of the hurdles was getting a referendum for $50,000 in bonds to finance the railroad’s construction through Hickman County, Ky. It was in 1853, on the second try, that voters approved the bonds and the green light was given to proceed with the project. The $50,000 was paid off by the railroad within five years, according to Baucom.
Piecing together the history of the M&O Railroad has obviously been a labor of love for Baucom, who is still able to detail from memory most of the pieces that went into the story of the Mobile-to-Columbus railroad.
Judge Milton Brown was the first president of the M&O Railroad and was very instrumental in getting the railroad built.
Construction of the M&O Railroad began in 1851 in Mobile, according to Baucom’s research. Work began sometime later in Columbus to the south, and it was in 1857 that the railroad reached Kenton as it made its way to Jackson.
The railroad provided West Tennessee with its first railroad and established a way for people to transport their timber, cotton, grain and dairy products, according to Baucom.
The early years of the M&O Railroad were filled with turmoil due to the Civil War and Reconstruction and this extended into the Roaring ’20s. Deals for track rights, the Great Flood of 1927, the development of new railroad lines and financial troubles all had an impact on the M&O Railroad, and then came the Great Depression.
Baucom said he has researched it all.
Henderson attorney John Talbot is working on a book detailing the history of the M&O Railroad, and Baucom encouraged anyone with information about the railroad’s history to contact him.
Baucom has obviously spent a considerable amount of time on his research. He readily admits, though, that his history is incomplete.
On Wednesday afternoon, he relaxed on the porch of his home on North Poplar Street and smoothly recounted the rambling history of the railroad. Several times he got off course with related railroad stories, but his history lesson always came back to the M&O Railroad.
He brought up another prominent name in the M&O Railroad’s history — I.B. Tigrett, a successful banker who consolidated the M&O Railroad in 1940 with his GM&N Railroad. Tigrett’s purchase of the railroad also brought a name change — the GM&O Railroad, reflecting the merger of the two companies. A later merger with the IC Railroad brought about another name change — to the ICG Railroad — and ultimately the end of the GM&O Railroad, according to Baucom.
“Most of the GM&O lines were either sold or destroyed by the ICG Railroad,” Baucom wrote in his notes.
The prominence of railroads in Tennessee has long since faded, but people like Baucom are determined to keep the memories alive.
When you consider that Union City was named because of railroads, it is indeed important to preserve history.
History books document that it was in 1829 that Nashville lawyer and banker Gen. George Washington Gibbs accepted 5,000 acres for a legal fee. That 5,000 acres is today Union City. It was Gibbs who moved to this area and got involved in railroads in the early 1830s and actually commissioned a surveyor from the M&O Railroad to lay out what was to become Union City. The city was named for the convergence of railroad lines.
Staff Reporter Kevin Bowden may be contacted by e-mail at email@example.com.
Published in The Messenger 4.22.11