Probably the closest shortline to Memphis, the Mississippi Central (MSCI) operates the line from Grand Junction, TN, to Oxford, MS. Now relegated to shortline status and largely abandoned, this route was once one of the oldest and most important lines in the state. The route was originally chartered as the (original) Mississippi Central in 1852, with the charter of linking Canton, MS, where it connected with the New Orleans, Jackson, & Great Northern, with Grand Junction, TN, where it joined the Memphis and Charleston. This gave them a continuous rail connection all the way down to the Gulf of Mexico. Interestingly enough, as with many southern railroads before the Civil War, the line was built with a gauge of 5 feet - 3.5 inches greater than standard gauge, and incompatible with the northern rail network. Sometime before the Civil War, the line was extended from Grand Junction north another fifty or so miles to Jackson, TN. At Jackson, it met the Mobile & Ohio, which ran up to a point on the Mississippi River immediately below Cairo, the then-terminus of the Illinois Central.
In 1861, the nation plunged into Civil War, with Mississippi breaking off to join the Confederacy. The Mississippi Central would play a significant part in this conflict. On 2-Nov-1862, General Ulysses Grant's army would start at Grand Junction, TN, and follow the Mississippi Central southward, capturing it as a supply line from the Union for his advancing troops. About two weeks later, his 37,000 troops lay seige to Holly Springs, MS, and establishing it as a base of operations for their march south to Vickburg. The confederates succeeded only a month later in wrecking the junction at Jackson and destroying significant portions of the Mississippi Central, effectively taking it out of play for the Union. By mid-1864, it was back in Confederate hands and serving as a supply line to southern Tennessee, and again destroyed, but this time by the Union.
With peace and the union restored by 1866, the Illinois Central was looking for ways to connect itself with the ports of the Gulf Coast. They realized that the future lay in bridging the industry of Chicago with ports on the coast. In 1872, the IC purchased the Mississippi Central and the New Orleans, Jackson, & Great Northern. However, the Mobile & Ohio, which hereto had provided the northern connection out of Jackson to the Mississippi River, was a competitor of the IC. Thus, a new line was in order from Jackson, and by late 1873, a new route was complete from Jackson to across the river from Cairo. By ferrying freight across the Mississippi River at Cairo, the Illinois Central could achieve nearly a continuous rail connection between Chicago and the Gulf of Mexico. Ferrying freight is not very effective, and definitely not a cost effective way to run a railroad. Something else was in order.
Realizing that eventually the lines would connect all the way through, the IC had the entire 550 miles of southern 5' gauge system converted to standard gauge on 29-Jul-1881. The conversion of the main took 9 hours and 30,000 laborers, but it was indeed complete in a single day. At the end of that decade, the IC completed the Cairo Bridge, a four mile long steel structure spanning the Ohio River. This finally linked the southern half of the system to the northern half without the car ferry in the middle.
The line's position in the limelight would not last, however. It had a fundamental flaw - it bypassed the important river town of Memphis. By 1893, the IC would acquire the Chesapeake, Ohio, & Southwestern. Despite its name, it included a line that linked Memphis to Granada, the CO&S's interchange with the ex-MC line. By the middle of the next decade, the IC started routing most of its passenger traffic away from the MC and over onto the Memphis route. By 1941, passenger service disappeared from the route. By 1982, as part of ICG's great system rationalization, the line was abandoned south of Oxford as far as Bruce Junction (a few miles north of Granada) and north of Grand Junction as far as Jackson. The section between Granada and Bruce Junction is still operated by the IC/CN to interchange with the Mississippi & Skuna Valley. Most of the rest went up for sale as a shortline.
What was left of the Mississippi Central between Grand Junction and Oxford was sold to Kyle Railways on 1-Mar-1982 and operated as the Natchez Trace Railway. This went on for about a decade. Then, on 1-Apr-1992, Pioneer Railcorp bought out Kyle Railways' interest in the NTR and, on 12-Jan-1993, officially changed its name to the Mississippi Central Railroad. The line continues today under this banner.
Today's operations are based at the Holly Springs, MS, yard, and are run on an as-needed basis. Power usually seems to be PREX GP20 3032, an ex-ATSF unit. (Photo #100, from May 2003) However, MSCI 1604 and 1605 (Photo #101, from 2003) seem to be used occasionally. These two units, rebuilt from GP9s and classed as GP16s, are both in the classy Pioneer black-and-yellow scheme with Mississippi Central on the side. They move around, so they must be used, but I've never seen either 4 or 5 powered up. Track speed is low, since the track is not in the greatest of shape. Also, the units do not have ditch lights for running both directions, which limits their speed. If I remember correctly, their radio frequency is 160.380MHz, and they're often quite chatty while out on the line. At least when I've seen them, an employee in a truck runs along ahead of the train (on the road), checking grade crossings and bridges as needed. (I had a pretty good chat with the gentleman doing this in June, since we both had plenty of time to kill at each crossing. The MSCI guys all seem to be fairly friendly folk.) As with most low-density lines, the real trick to the MSCI is actually catching them out and running.
On my way back from checking out the Mississippi & Skuna Valley, I stopped by the Holly Springs depot and yard. The depot itself is an enormous, grandious structure built in 1865 to replace the one that the Union army burned to the ground. It had a restaurant, twenty one luxury sleeping accomodations, and much more, and it is still an interesting sight, as historic and imposing as many of the other historic buildings in Holly Springs. You can see part of it in the background of Photo #102 (also from 2-May-2003). The yard is easily accessible by public road, and contains a number of interesting railroad relics. Most notable is Southern 8274. This GP7 worked on the original Natchez Trace Railway and was sold to Pioneer when they took over the line. Now, though, it's little more than a cannibalized hulk in the backlot. (Photo #103) The back lot also has things like PREX 2, an odd but nicely painted bay window caboose that always sits in this fenced-off area. In what must just be someone's sense of humor, there's also PREX 97, an enormous Jordan spreader. When was the last time they had that kind of snow to deal with?
I caught them mostly by accident. I'd actually followed the line up from Oxford, hoping to catch a train on or near the magnificent Tallahatchie River bridge. No luck there, but my Holly Springs stop revealed that PREX 3032 was not in the yard. Since the line is often far from the road between Oxford and Holly Springs, there was always the chance I'd missed them somewhere, but I figured I'd take the slow road back to Memphis just in case. Turns out, my suspicion was correct.
Just north of Holly Springs, I started picking up chatter on the radio. Nothing really intelligable, but I could tell it wasn't BNSF or NS-type chatter like I'd expect to hear. So, I checked the first public grade crossing I knew of at Hudsonville. I looked right as I went to cross the rails, and I saw a boxcar rear. It didn't appear to be moving, so I assumed they were now using the main for car storage for some reason. I went a little further, whipped the car around at a wide spot in the road, and went back over the crossing. Tada - no boxcar! Huh?
So, I drove up to the next available point - the crossing at Lamar. Lamar is a the only town of significance between Holly Springs and Grand Junction, and the MSCI has a small siding in town loaded with old, odd cars. Back in 2003, there was an old Rio Grande aspen gold and silver boxcar (ex-DRGW 60903) sitting there. (Photo #105) When I got to the grade crossing, I noticed a truck pull up that I'd met coming down the road from Hudsonville. I didn't really think much of it (another fan?) until I noticed that the guy's lips were moving in sync to the words coming out of my scanner. Ah, an employee! Since he realized that I was listening to him, I went over and said hello. We got to talking about a lot of stuff - the MSCI, my trip to Memphis, how he came to work out here, cars, all sorts of stuff. He was kind enough to tell me that they'd be going up to Grand Junction and tying for the night, and then go back in the morning to fetch the interchanged cars from the NS. Shortly thereafter, 3032 showed up (Photo #106) with four cars in two - three boxcars and a bulkhead flat with two giant tarped objects on it. Since this was the first MSCI train I'd ever seen moving, the chase (if you can call following a 10-15 mph train that) was on, and it was even going my way!
It's hard to get a variety of shots on the MSCI's north end. For the most part, the railroad runs away from the highway through swampy land, and where you can access it, it's travelling down a narrow green canyon. As an example, we see 3032 heading out of Lamar and back into the tree chasm (Photo #107). So, really the choice of shots at the next crossing, up at Michigan City, wasn't all that much better. (Photo #108)
At Grand Junction, the plan was to drop the cars so that an NS job could get them overnight and drop new cars for the MSCI. The power would then drag these cars back to Holly Springs early the next morning. 3032 and crew slowly brought the 3032 up into town (Photo #109), first having to stop at the south end of the siding and clear a small tree that had fallen over and fouled the main. Once they did that, they brought the cars in on the main, tied them down (Photo #110), and moved the power off (I think onto the siding) so that the NS job could just come down and pull the cars. Since the action was over, I called it a day with the MSCI at that point and headed back to Memphis to catch some sleep before working that night.
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This work is copyright 2006 by Nathan D. Holmes
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All photographs in this trip report were taken with a Canon EOS 10D using either a Canon 28-105mm USM or a Canon 75-300mm f4-5.3 IS/USM.