Tanglefoot Trail

Mississippi

At a Glance

Name: Tanglefoot Trail
Length: 43.6 Miles
Trail activities: Bike, Inline Skating, Wheelchair Accessible, Walking
Counties: Chickasaw, Pontotoc, Union
Surfaces: Asphalt
State: Mississippi

A Brief History

While the Tanglefoot Trail was only recently opened as a recreational corridor, the right-of-way dates back to the early 20th century when a small Mississippi railroad intended to connect the Gulf of Mexico with important northern cities. Eventually, the route was acquired by the Gulf, Mobile & Northern, which later became part of the classic Gulf, Mobile & Ohio, a major railroad that reached all of the way to Chicago. What is now the Tanglefoot Trail was once part of the GM&O’s primary line serving Mobile, and it hosted important freight and passenger trains. Following the creation of the Illinois Central Gulf in 1972, through the merger of the Illinois Central and GM&O, the route carried on until the late 1990s when it was sold to a shortline and was later abandoned between Houston and New Albany, Mississippi, in the mid-2000s.

The history of the Gulf, Mobile & Ohio is an interesting, albeit confusing, affair involving numerous mergers and name changes throughout the years. The GM&O was formed in 1938 to acquire the Gulf, Mobile & Northern and Mobil & Ohio. The right-of-way that the Tanglefoot Trail now follows, as mentioned above, fell under the direction of the GM&N; however, its history and construction goes back to the late 19th and early 20th centuries and railroads of another name. Originally, the route was under the direction of the Mobile, Jackson & Kansas City Railroad (MJ&KC), incorporated in 1890 to connect the port of Mobile, Alabama, to Merrill, Mississippi, situated along the banks of the Pascagoula River about 50 miles away. The investors in the project, headed by F. B. Merrill, hoped to tap into the region’s vast deposits of virgin pine. Eventually, hopes for the MJ&KC envisioned a railroad that would reach Jackson, Mississippi, and even Kansas City (this was later revised to Chicago).

The line to Merrill was opened in 1898, and to continue farther north, the MJ&KC began acquiring smaller roads. First it purchased the Kingston & Central Mississippi Railway in June 1902, running 25 miles between Laurel and Bay Springs. In 1903, it leased the Gulf & Chicago Railroad that operated 62 miles between Middleton, Tennessee, and Pontotoc, Mississippi. Both systems were originally built to a three-foot, narrow-gauge (3 feet between the rails) alignment but were soon upgraded to standard-gauge (4 feet, 8 ½ inches) following MJ&KC ownership. The rest of the route required building brand new railroad; all of the properties were connected by 1906, opening a continuous 369-mile line from Mobile to Middleton. On December 1, 1909, the G&C and MJ&KC merged to form the New Orleans, Mobile & Chicago Railroad (NOM&C).

The Gulf & Chicago contained its own interesting background (it built the section from Pontotoc and New Albany, now part of the trail). The railroad was originally the concept of Colonel William Clark Falkner, a Confederate war hero, who chartered the Ripley Railroad Company in 1871 to serve his plantation interests based near Ripley, Mississippi. His intention for the route was to eventually reach Middleton to connect with the Memphis & Charleston Railroad (later part of the vast Southern Railway system). After opening the 24 miles between these two points, Falkner soon changed the name of his railroad to the Ship Island, Ripley & Kentucky, with a new endeavor of opening a rail route to Ship Island, Mississippi, and points farther north. He was able to complete a 62-mile system in all, reaching Pontotoc to the south before his grand dreams fell apart and the railroad entered receivership. It was subsequently split, and the southern section between Ripley and Pontotoc (38 miles) became the Gulf & Ship Island Railroad; both were later purchased by the Gulf & Chicago at foreclosure in 1889.

When the railroad became the New Orleans, Mobile & Chicago in 1909, it was short-lived; another bankruptcy followed in 1913, and the property was reorganized as the Gulf, Mobile & Northern on January 1, 1917. The GM&N saw steady growth under a competent and visionary president, Isaac b. Tigrett, who guided it into prosperity during the 1920s. He saw the road extended to Jackson and Dyersburg, Tennessee; New Orleans; and Paduch, Kentucky via trackage rights over the Nashville, Chattanooga & St. Louis. The Gulf, Mobile & Ohio was formed as a new holding company in 1938 to acquire the GM&N and Mobile & Ohio (M&O), which officially occurred in 1940. The M&O gave the new GM&O access to St. Louis via Cairo, Illinois. It also offered another main line into Mobile via a route that ran along the extreme eastern edge of Mississippi, connecting Tupelo and Meridian as well as reaching into Alabama at Montgomery.

In 1947, the GM&O was able to finally serve Chicago when it acquired the Chicago & Alton Railroad (a.k.a., the Alton Railroad) on May 31 of that year, which they purchased from the Baltimore & Ohio. The Alton not only gave the GM&O access to Chicago (via Bloomington and Springfield) but also reached Kansas City. Despite the many bankruptcies and reorganizations by its predecessors, the complete GM&O system did relatively well. It operated an unconventional north-to-south main line serving the Gulf Coast and Chicago when most other major railroads ran east-to-west. The only similar railroad like the GM&O was the Illinois Central, which was the “Gee-Mo’s” biggest competitor and served much of the same territory. The GM&O moved a wide variety of freight thanks to the regions it served and the many interchange connections it held. Its freight included such commodities as chemical, agriculture, lumber and related products, and coal. It also operated a number of famous passenger trains, including the “Gulf Coast Rebel” (St. Louis-Mobile/Montgomery) and “The Rebel,” its most famous train serving the South that connected St. Louis with Mobile.

The Rebel was one of the earliest streamliners, entering service in 1935 under the GM&N as a three-car trainset built by the American Car & Foundry with the power car provided by the American Locomotive Company (Alco). As an independent company the Gulf, Mobile & Ohio operated for barely 30 years; on August 10, 1972, it merged with the Illinois Central to form the new Illinois Central Gulf. The success of the ICG was questioned by many both inside and outside the industry because it was created by two railroads that served virtually the same areas (bringing up thoughts of the failed Penn Central, which collapsed for similar reasons, in 1970).

During the 1980s and under new management, the ICG began widespread cutbacks and abandonments to improve its financial positions. One of these sales involved more than 700 miles of former GM&O lines, most of which included the former GM&N and M&O lines south of Jackson, Tennessee, forming the first regional railroad in 1985 (the Gulf & Mississippi Railroad). The property later became MidSouth Rail during the late 1980s and ironically, it was once more operated by a Class I railroad when the Kansas City Southern acquired MidSouth in 1994. The KCS later sold sections to shortline conglomerate North American Railnet, Inc. in 1998, including the section between New Albany and Houston, which was operated as Mississippi Tennessee Railnet. In 2003, following another sale to Ironhorse Resources, Inc., it became known as the Mississippi Tennessee Railroad. They abandoned the New Albany-Houston section in 2004, although it remained in use for a few years to store rail cars. This led to the creation of the Tanglefoot Trail that opened in the fall of 2013.

Railroad attractions in Mississippi include the McComb City Railroad Depot Museum in McComb, located in the restored Illinois Central depot and housing a small collection of railroad equipment and interior displays, and the Water Valley Casey Jones Railroad Museum in Water Valley, also housed in that town’s restored Illinois Central depot.

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