Today’s Longleaf Trace spans a former Illinois Central line that was originally part of a rather large logging operation known as the Mississippi Central Railroad (MCRR). The history of this company dates back to the very early 20th century, although an even earlier predecessor was formed in the late 1890s to serve sawmills located in the Hattiesburg area. The MCRR, which long-operated as a common-carrier, grew to reach more than 150 miles and stretched across much of its home state. As traffic declined and debts increased, it was sold to the Illinois Central (IC) in the late 1960s. The large IC, itself having financial difficulty by the 1980s, elected to greatly reduce its scope, abandoning or selling off thousands of miles of trackage it deemed redundant, including much of the former Mississippi Central. The tracks between Prentiss and Hattiesburg were removed in the early 1990s to form today’s trail.
Many years ago, before better roadways, newer heavy equipment technology, and trucks improved the efficiency of timber operations, transporting logs was carried out largely by rail. While some type of primitive tramway system, predominantly horse-drawn, had been in place since the mid-19th century, it was not until the development of specialized steam locomotives did rail become a dominant means of moving timber. The efficiency trains provided, of course, far surpassed traditional horsepower or log drives that used rivers, creeks, or streams. The first such design was the Shay, conceived by Ephraim Shay in 1872 after he realized the logging industry needed a unique locomotive for its operations. It used gears for propulsion instead of common rods, providing it with far greater adhesion. This meant the Shay could navigate steep grades, greater than 5%, which was nearly unheard of on traditional railroads but often found in logging operations. Additionally, its small frame and relatively light weight meant the locomotive could handle sharp curves while using poor, hastily built track without derailing, both of which were also found on logging lines.
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The first Shays entered production in 1884 and were soon followed by the Heisler and Climax, which had their own geared designs. The current Longleaf Trace travels the right-of-way originally constructed by the Pearl & Leaf Rivers Railroad (P&LR), incorporated on November 20, 1897, as a division of the J. J. Newman Lumber Company. Its intention was to build west from the company’s sawmill at Hattiesburg. By 1901, service was expanded as far as Sumrall, 19 miles, where Newman soon opened mills at that location as well. The P&LR continued focusing its effort westward, where a new goal was hatched to reach Natchez, along the banks of the Mississippi River and more than 100 miles west of Sumrall. As a result, the system’s name was changed in early 1904 to the Mississippi Central Railroad, better reflecting its new intentions.
Its western terminus soon became Brookhaven, where it connected with the Natchez & Eastern (N&E)—a system that opened to Natchez (66 miles) in 1908. A year later, the Mississippi Central absorbed the N&E. As the railroad was extending west, company officials began focusing their efforts on a new extension toward the east along the Gulf Coast. In 1906, work began on the Pascagoula Extension, but it had only reached Pines, 14 miles southeast of Hattiesburg, before construction ceased. The short branch was later abandoned after World War II. Another short spur began service in the early 1920s, running northwest from Hattiesburg about 12 miles to the small hamlet of Tallahala, serving a mill there until it closed in early 1929.
At its peak size, the Mississippi Central owned about 175 miles, and during the 1920s, acquired the moniker “The Natchez Route.” During the height of service (outside of the busy World War II years), it witnessed a pair of through-freights, a local, and four passenger trains daily. Its freight was once highly diversified, including such products as paper, pulpwood, lumber, other forest products, agricultural products, cotton, and fertilizer. The last through-passenger trains made their runs February 27–28, 1941, and as early as the 1930s, sawmills began closing once timber tracts became exhausted. By the mid-1960s, the railroad was in financial difficulty and in negotiations with the Illinois Central to take over the property, a move that took place officially on March 29, 1967. As the years passed, the route saw decreasing use; the section now part of the Longleaf Trace last saw service in 1983. After several years of disuse, it was formally abandoned during the early 1990s.
There are only three railroad-related attractions to visit in Mississippi: the McComb City Railroad Depot Museum in McComb, located inside the town’s former Illinois Central depot; the Mississippi Agriculture & Forestry Museum in Jackson, featuring impressive HO-, N-, and G-gauge model train layouts; and the Water Valley Casey Jones Railroad Museum in Water Valley.