By Annie McKee
The Meridian Star
“Meridian and railroads, the two were synonymous for about seventy-five years. In fact, were it not for the railroads, Meridian might well be today nothing more than open country, a part of McLemore’s old field.”
The above is a quote from Mr. Jack Shank’s wonderful book about Meridian’s history. The book is entitled -- Meridian: The Queen With A Past. It may be purchased at Lauderdale Archives & History, Lauderdale County Courthouse Annex – phone number (601) 482-9752.
In this thoroughly researched book, Mr. Shank allows his reader an up-close and exciting view of the beginnings of the Meridian railroad community — that it was in 1855 when the first Mobile and Ohio train stopped near the McLemore home place and put up a sign with these words — Sowashee Station.
Of course, Sowashee is the name of a creek located near what is now I-20, but in 1855, the creek was a landmark for this area, with a Choctaw name meaning mad river.
Enter Mr. Lewis Ragsdale, an early railroad speculator and co-founder of Meridian. Railroad news traveled fast in this wild western frontier of the mid-1800s, therefore Mr. Ragsdale made a deal that Meridian’s first settler, Richard McLemore, could not refuse. Thus ownership of the McLemore land was transferred to Mr. Ragsdale, just in time for the said Mr. Ragsdale to offer free land in exchange for the new railroad line to run through Meridian.
Of course, Mr. John Ball, co-founder of Meridian, was just a few days later buying land from settler McLemore because he also had learned of the railroad expansion.
At the time (1855), the hamlet, later named Meridian, only had about six families. Railroad management did not consider such a low number of inhabitants feasible to construct a depot. The tenacity of the six families was even then a spirited community. No, the railroad would not build the depot, but allowed the citizens to build one at their own expense; therefore the first train arrived in Sowashee Station in October 1855.
By 1859, the Mobile and Ohio and Vicksburg, Jackson and Brandon railroad line finally came about, albeit a good bit of scuffling infused among neighboring villages, with an effort to capture the attention of railroad officials. You see the railroad company wanted a place with real possibilities — general stores, churches, schools, post office, hotels oh, and, of course, a saloon or two. By 1861, it was a done deal.
Yes, Meridian became a railroad junction, north and south, east and west. Because of the progress, Meridian would eventually become Mississippi’s largest and fastest growing metropolis – in later years, even the capital of Mississippi for a short time. However, in 1861 with all of the excitement, progress, commerce, and prospects of a bright future, a man named Sherman turned his eyes and troops toward the growing city, mainly because of the rails.
Yes, it was the Civil War. Without the railroads, Meridian might have been bypassed during that bloody time, but it was not to be. Sherman arrived and presented his famous “Sherman’s neckties” to the city – the act of ripping the rails and twisting them into loops, usually around trees. But to the Confederates and Meridianites' credit, the railroad was rebuilt in 26 working days.
Post Civil War, the community pulled together and looked to the future. Recorded in the 1882 Business Directory of Meridian – “It has continued to receive new life and prosperity from every additional line of railroad built to and from the city …, and every mile built in the future will add still more to its prominence and growth.”
Between the years of 1910-1930, the railroad shops employed totals of 5,000-plus people. It was estimated that 25,000 boxcars entered Meridian yearly. By 1945, there were three separate railroad routes into Meridian and all remained constant for the next three decades.
Many native Meridianites trace their family heritage to a close relationship with the railroad community – a great grandfather, grandfather, father, uncle, brother, son, and in later years, a few aunties as well.
“Railroading” has become a tradition passed down through the family, year-after-year. As well, there are dedicated railroad collectors and enthusiasts, such as Mr. Kermit Rasco, who recently passed away. His model railroad collection was and continues to be greatly admired.
The Meridian Railroad Museum is located on Front Street, near Union Station. Take time to stop by and admire Meridian’s railroad story and heritage – be sure to take the grandchildren with you. Because you see, Meridian is a railroad town.
Anne McKee is a writer and storyteller. Visit her website: www.annemckee.net