What is now the increasingly-popular Tanglefoot Trail began as a commercial railroad venture by Col. W. C. Falkner of Ripley, great-grandfather of Nobel-Prize-winning author William Faulkner.
Building that railroad turned out to be far from a simple matter, however, thanks to many name changes, ownership changes, financial challenges and competition from other rail entrepreneurs.
This past Thursday, retired archaeologist Jack Elliott – a man Union County Heritage Museum Director Jill Smith said is known for “searching out the facts” – delved into the complicated history of New Albany’s second rail line. He was guest speaker for the July edition of Museum Moments.
“It all started with Col. Falkner of Ripley,” Elliott said of the more recent rail line. “He started work on the railroad in the 1860s, really.”
The Colonel was really only elected to that title for one year while serving in the Civil War, but chose to retain it for the rest of his life.
Elliott said that one way to learn more about the old colonel is to read William Faulkner. “He was also a major participant in Faulkner’s Yoknapatawpha saga,” Elliott said. “Col. Sartoris was based on W. C. Falkner.”
“Both were larger than life. Both were Confederate colonels, both built railroads and both were shot dead on the courthouse square in the end,” he said. “Falkner was known as ‘The Deity of Tippah County.’”
As to the railroad that eventually made it to New Albany, Elliott said the first question is, “What do you call it? It has had quite a few names.”
Before closing, it was called “Mississippi-Tennessee Railnet” and known, finally, as the Ripley and New Albany Railroad but most people think of it as the “GM&O” or “Gulf, Mobile and Ohio.”
As Elliott pointed out, the railroad almost always had a name grander than its actual location – designated as from Chicago to the Gulf Coast but in reality only going about 44 miles.
He said he remembers riding on “The Rebel,” a popular and well-knownGM&O train, as a kid in the 1950s from Meridian and wondered how “The Rebel” could cover so much territory. “It turns out the Rebel was more than one train; it was a class of trains,” he said, and the Mobile and Ohio line he knew had been amalgamated into the GM&O in 1940.
“The Mobile and Ohio name did not change for 45 years but this one (here) had almost constant name changes,” Elliott said.
In 1857 the Ripley Railroad Company was formed with a goal of going from Ripley to one of three destinations – it was not specified which. Then there was the Ripley and LaGrange Railroad in 1859, when Falkner really became connected.
“In the 1850s, almost everyone was thinking about building a railroad,” Elliott said. “Even a gravel road was a luxury, which highlights the importance of having a railroad for travel.
Elliott said that Col. Falkner was very good at raising money and, after the Civil War, in 1867 revived his rail project – this time the Middleton (Tenn.), Ripley and New Albany Railroad. “W. C. Falkner was elected president of the line in December,” Elliott said.
In May 1871, the Mississippi Legislature granted a charter, now for the Ripley Railroad Company. “Falkner was elected director and president of the new one in early 1872,” he said, and ground was finally broken.
“Then it was changed to Ship Island, Kentucky and Ripley Railroad,” Elliott said. “It was conceived as a major rail line early on.”
“Railroads were always built at the beginning of a transportation network,” he said, which is also why the proposed lines were designed to at least intersect with other major lines, if not go to large rail centers.
“In March 1872 they started dirt work from Middleton to Ripley,” he said. “Rails were unloaded at Middleton and track was laid by August 1872.”
However, as Elliott pointed out, “ Col. Falkner’s projects were not always thought out so well.”
For example, the State of Mississippi was will to grant $4,000 per mile for a rail line, as long as it was at least 25 miles long, standard gauge and finished by a specified date.
Falkner had laid 25 miles by the deadline – but four of them were in Tennessee. On top of that, Falkner had built his line as a narrow, not standard, gauge.
“Four feet eight and one-half inches is standard from inside rail to inside rail,” Elliott said. “Col. Falkner’s was three feet.” Elliott could only speculate on how Falkner had planned to talk his way out of having the incorrect gauge.
While a smaller gauge meant reduced costs, it also meant smaller size cars and weaker materials for rails and equipment generally. That brought its own set of problems.
And even with the cost-cutting, Falkner failed to make the Sept. 1 deadline to reach New Albany.
The Memphis Appeal did report that the railroad eventually saw two trains with 19 flatcars that travelled between Middleton and Ripley, drawing a crowd of about 100 riders, but that was later.
An example of the smaller-gauge line may be familiar to older Union County residents as “The Doodlebug,” which many rode from time to time, going to Blue Mountain or Ripley.
“The name implies that it was not very big,” Elliott said. “In fact, it would run over a hog and derail. It ran over one man’s foot and the foot was described as ‘horribly damaged,’” but no worse than that. “Today there would be nothing left,” he added.
After Falkner failed to get the $4,000 grant, it turned out the bonds he had sold were not worth very much, either. “A new company took over, but Col. Falkner was still president,” he said.
Later, the railroad was purchased by R. J. Thurmond (who would later fatally shoot Falkner) and two others. Falkner bragged about the progress being made with his prison worker help and the kindness of people along the line bringing large basket lunches, but Elliott said he was inclined to take much of this with a grain of salt. Dirt was still being moved mostly by hand and there were continuing published notices seeking workers.
In 1877, Falkner had purchased one-third of the company and in 1886 he bought out Thurmond’s interest, giving him control.
The line was linked to the Gulf and Ship Island Railroad and later became the Gulf and Chicago from Middleton to Pontotoc.
It was in 1887 that Falkner’s line finally reached New Albany, but the Kansas City, Memphis and Birmingham had gotten here about six months earlier. As a result, the Falkner line would forever bear the cost of maintaining the crossing at New Albany (a situation that continued until this past year when the crossing was removed).
Work was slowing, although why may not be clear. Elliott said it took one year and three months to build the line 19 miles from Ripley while earlier, 25 miles were built in less than half a year.
Regardless a silver spike joining the rail line to the other was driven in Pontotoc in 1888.
When Col. Falkner was shot and killed, the family took over and ran the railroad for a time but eventually the project may have just become too big for them and they sold out, Elliott said.
“Essentially, it became just a segment in a long railroad and Ripley lost importance,” Elliott said.
Traffic dwindled over the years and the line was eventually shortened before the current owners, Mississippi Tennessee Railroad, announced plans in 2003 to close and abandon the line from New Albany southward That was when it was placed in the federal rail-banking project and became the Rails-To-Trails Conservancy 44-mile riding and walking path it is today. The New Albany and Ripley line continues to operate just north of the former crossing and back up toward the Tennessee line as it has for most of its history.