Trains Come to the Coast

Plans for the 140-mile Mobile to New Orleans route of the Louisville & Nashville Railroad were laid in the early 1850’s.  The first surveyor of the route, Colonel A. A. Dexter, died after completing plans for the first 120 miles.  Subsequently, Lewis Troost replaced Dexter, and he recommended a route going southwest from Mobile to Pascagoula.

As a result of this route change, the first marine obstacle was encountered:  the split of the Pascagoula River into twin streams that enter the Gulf of Mexico about three miles apart. Along the rail route, the area between the forks consisted of sea marsh terrain, requiring extensive fill work as well as drawbridges.

Fourteen miles west, the route presented another challenge:  the 6500-foot wide Biloxi Bay, which would require a long trestle and draw span.  Similarly, the next major Gulf inlet was the two-mile wide Bay of Saint Louis, calling for a drawbridge with trestle.

Moving westward the new rail route crossed into Louisiana near the point where the Pearl River empties into the Gulf and then proceeded along the thin tongue of land that appears to separate Lake Pontchartrain from the Gulf.  While the area between the Pearl River and New Orleans has been described as land, it is actually a thirty-mile strip of saltwater marsh barely above sea level.  The freshwater lakes north of this strip drain into the Gulf via two meandering rivers, both deep compared to the inlets at Biloxi and Bay Saint Louis.  Six miles into Louisiana, the proposed route crossed the Rigolets Pass about three-fourths of a mile wide.

Before the final route was selected, Troost considered an inland alignment skirting the three major Gulf inlets in Mississippi.  This route did not pass through the thriving coastal towns and would have required heavier grades and more curvature than the coastal route.  Although the chosen route went where the people were and had virtually no grades or curvature, Troost knew it was far more vulnerable to the nemeses of shipworm and storms. 

In the book, Memories of the Route, Troost warned future builders about the teredo navalis, the shipworm notorious for its destruction of pilings.  Troost noted that the only exception to failed attempts to treat timber against the worms was a new process whereby bituminous material containing creosote was injected into the timber.  This process coagulated the sap, protecting the fibers from moisture.  The treated wood was stronger and waterproof, unaffected by exposure to alternating wet and dry conditions.

While the original route was chosen under the authority of the Mobile & New Orleans Railroad, construction of the line was undertaken by a new corporate entity, the New Orleans, Mobile & Chattanooga Railroad.

Ceremonial groundbreaking took place at Mobile in 1867, but construction did not begin until February 3, 1869, under the direction of Chief Engineer Henry Van Vleck.  Among the original construction contracts were those for 400,000 crossties, 2.6 million cubic yards of earthwork, 4500 feet of truss bridge, and 25,000 feet of pile and trestle bridging.  Also, there were four iron pivot bridges for the  Pascagoula River, Biloxi Bay, Bay of St. Louis, and Rigolets Pass with motive power supplied by Rogers Locomotive Works of Paterson, N. J.  By the end of 1869, eighty miles of track had been finished,  the entire line from Mobile to New Orleans being completed in twenty months.

Ceremonial groundbreaking took place at Mobile in 1867, but construction did not begin until February 3, 1869, under the direction of Chief Engineer Henry Van Vleck.  Among the original construction contracts were those for 400,000 crossties, 2.6 million cubic yards of earthwork, 4500 feet of truss bridge, and 25,000 feet of pile and trestle bridging.  Also, there were four iron pivot bridges for the  Pascagoula River, Biloxi Bay, Bay of St. Louis, and Rigolets Pass with motive power supplied by Rogers Locomotive Works of Paterson, N. J.  By the end of 1869, eighty miles of track had been finished,  the entire line from Mobile to New Orleans being completed in twenty months.

In April 1871, the Mobile & New Orleans name was changed to the New Orleans, Mobile, & Texas Railway Company, reflecting plans to continue to Houston.

As foreshadowed by Troost, the primitive pilings which supported the railroad in the marshy areas were soon attacked by shipworms.  Thus, a  massive rebuilding was necessary, and this work pushed the construction to twice the original estimate of $3.5 million before the line was opened in late 1870.

Because of the excessive costs combined with other problems, the New Orleans, Mobile, & Texas rail line defaulted on its interest payment for construction bonds in January 1873.  Cutback remedies failed, and the company was compelled to do pioneer work in timber preservation.  In 1869 the railroad constructed the nation’s first plant, at Gautier, to repel the teredo by soaking or boiling timbers in oil.  Unfortunately, however, the treated pilings driven into the Bays of Biloxi and St. Louis were destroyed by the teredo within nine months!  As a result, the company sent J. W. Putnam to England to study the new creosoting process.

After Putnam’s return in 1874, he rebuilt the Gautier plant for the treatment of timber by forcing the oil under pressure into heated wood.  Piles treated in this manner lasted for many decades.  Hence, by the 1900’s, this  creosoting technique was used to prevent any kind of decay to crossties and pilings as well as bridge supports.

In conclusion, bringing railroads to the Gulf Coast was not an easy task.  Miles of marshy terrain, rivers with divergent paths, and the ever-present shipworm presented challenges to these nineteenth century engineers.  Nonetheless, they were equal to the task, and a dependable railroad line, which follows the same basic path today, was at last in place.

 

SOURCE:
Lachaussee, J. G. and J. Parker Lamb.  “The Railroad That Walks on Water—How the Old Reliable Reached Canal Street,” Trains, January 1987.

 

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