The Railroad Rolls In To Collierville!

The Need For a Railroad


By the early 1800’s, the area that is now Collierville was quickly becoming settled by ambitious pioneers drawn to the fertile land and convenient location along both the Wolf River and Nonconnah Creek. The fledgling settlement was also a major stop along the stagecoach route. Being a vital part of both water and stage travel created a thriving atmosphere for the young town and allowed for easy accommodation of supplies for the many travelers and growing population of settlers. However, traveling by the stage was very slow and uncomfortable with trips of a short distance taking a long time, and water transportation was limited to locations that could be accessed by boat. The whole country was beginning to desire a more efficient mode of transportation and the railroad was the desired solution. The railroad “offered better opportunities for shipping goods, year round transportation, and enabled people to travel longer distances more quickly and comfortably.”[1] By the 1830’s, railroad fever was sweeping over the entire nation and Collierville caught the epidemic.


La Grange and Memphis Railroad Company


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Figure 1: An original stock certificate of the La Grange and Memphis Railroad Company

The ambitious young settlement naturally wanted a part in the booming rage sweeping across the nation. On December 14, 1835, the Tennessee General Assembly passed a charter for a railroad to run from La Grange to Memphis, a distance of about 50 miles.[2] The line for this railroad was to run through Collierville. According to the charter, the project would start no later than January 1, 1838 and would be completed within five years.[3] By 1842, construction of the road bed for the La Grange and Memphis Railroad had reached Collierville. The line was being laid in a northeast direction in the current area of College and Rowlett streets until it crossed Walnut Street.[4] The line then crossed Poplar near the Main Street intersection and headed northeast toward Fayette County.[5] Despite great enthusiasm for the railroad, the La Grange and Memphis Railroad Company was not faring well financially. The entire nation suffered an economic panic in 1837, heavily denting the monetary conditions of the La Grange and Memphis Railroad Company. As a result of the panic, the price of labor skyrocketed. Individuals who had pledged to purchase stock with the company were no longer able to pay for their subscription. Due to these financial setbacks the Company could not reach its original five-year deadline and asked for additional time. The deadline was extended to 1848, however the La Grange and Memphis Railroad Company officially went bankrupt in 1846. Although the roadbed had been completed into Fayette County, only six miles of track had been laid from Memphis. [6]

Memphis Charleston Railroad


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Figure 2: A locomotive used on the Memphis and Charleston Railroad.
Collierville and her citizens were undoubtedly disappointed by the failure of the La Grange and Memphis Railroad Company, but it was not long before an even grander Railroad project came to Collierville. In 1850, the Memphis and Charleston Railroad Company purchased the charter of the Lagrange and Memphis Railroad Company .[7]

The Memphis and Charleston Railroad Company planned to connect the Mississippi River with the Atlantic Ocean.[8] The new company used the embankments and the materials left by the La Grange and Memphis Railroad which meant that Collierville would be an important link in the connection of these two major bodies of water[9] .
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Figure 3: A train entering Pennsylvania for the first time in 1852. A similar scene to what may have occurred in Collierville.

In October 1852, the first train ran in Collierville.[10] The first view of the train was an incredible sight for many Collierville citizens who had never seen an actual train. In her book, The History or Collierville, Elizabeth Parr recounts a letter from Mr. J.K. Waddy, a Collierville citizen who witnessed the very first train. The letter stated:

“The people from all directions living in the county came into see the first train come by. More people had not seen a train than had…long before the time, the train was scheduled to arrive the citizens lined the area along the tracks, hitching their horses to tree limbs and fences. Finally, the train, with much huffing and blowing and smoke boiling out of a funnel-shaped smoke stack, came into sight through the cut near Mrs. B.M. Cowan’s home*. Most of the people were literally scared out their wits. Children ran into the woods and many people ran too; some actually fell down on the ground and covered their faces.” (Parr 8-9)

*The Cowan home was likely located at the current Cowan Road near Byhalia and South Rowlett intersection.[11]






The Wedding of the Waters

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Figure 4: The Wedding of the Waters

The Memphis and Charleston Railroad’s goal of linking the Atlantic Ocean and the Mississippi River became a reality on March 27, 1857 when the line was completed near Iuka, Mississippi.[12] The railroad had finally united two of the United States most important bodies of water. On May 1st and 2nd, Memphis hosted an incredible gala known as the “Wedding of the Waters” to celebrate. People came from Tennessee, Georgia, Alabama, Mississippi, Arkansas, North and South Carolina, Missouri and Louisiana.[13] Many honorable citizens were in attendance, such as, William P. Miller, the Mayor of Charleston; A.H. Douglas, the Mayor of Memphis; and Samuel Tate, Esq., the president of the Memphis and Charleston Railroad. A parade was held to showcase the mayors, governors, alderman, orators, military companies, and the war of 1812 veterans. Fire engines from cities between Charleston and Memphis were proudly brought to display. An estimated 30,000 people viewed the enormous parade. [14]

The ceremony began with many speeches from the important dignitaries in attendance. The main event occurred when a fire engine sent by The Phoenix Fire Company of Charleston, sprayed water from the Atlantic Ocean into the Mississippi River to symbolize the two bodies of water joining together. Afterward, more than 10,000 guests attended a picnic dinner where they were seated at a table three quarters of a mile long. The menu for the picnic included “2,000 pounds of beef and mutton, ten barrels of potatoes, 400 chickens, 18 large baskets of salad, 75 hams, 125 turkeys, 60 pigs, 400 to 500 pounds of cake, 180 beef tongues, and raisins, almonds and oranges in proportion.”[15] The event ended with a grand ball and fire works display. The celebration was so grand and left such an impact upon the citizens and guests, that another celebration was held in Charleston one month later, when the Memphis fire engine, Invincible Number Five, sprayed water from the Mississippi River into the Atlantic Ocean. [16]


Collierville Thrives

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Figure 5: The home of Donald and Nancy Bassett, built in the 1870's, on North Rowlett is on the National Register of Historic Places.
The arrival of the railroad was an exciting event for Collierville. Though the settlement had been a growing community early on, being a part of the railroad ensured Collierville would have a thriving future with abundant jobs, income, and tourists. In the mid-1850’s, an early railroad guidebook described Collierville as “contain[ing] about 250 inhabitants and sustain[ing] a number of stores and produce houses; and several mechanical shops. There were also male and female high schools and a mixed school for juveniles. The Methodist, Baptist, Campsettlers and U.S. Presbyterian congregations comprised the religious denominations.”[17]

By 1860, Collierville’s population had doubled to 500 people. In addition to several stores and shops, the Town now had a flouring mill and hotel.[18] Indeed, in 1848, before the railroad entered Collierville, the town was documented as having only two stores, no church, and only one school.[19] When comparing these descriptions, the growth the railroad brought to Collierville is increasingly clear. Even today in Collierville, we can see evidence of the prosperity the railroad brought to the town. North Rowlett Street, also known as “Victorian Avenue,” lies parallel to the railroad tracks and is home to some of the towns oldest and most beautiful homes. In the bustling years after the railroad’s arrival, it was quite desirable to live near the railroad tracks. The lovely homes on North Rowlett were built by some of Collierville’s early prominent citizens. Today many of these homes are on the National Register of Historic Places. [20]


The Somerville Accommodation Collierville was an important junction along the railroad, but there is one train that is still fondly remembered by many of the town’s older citizens. The Somerville Accommodation connected with the Memphis and Charleston Railroad at Moscow. The commuter train was fondly considered “the best known passenger train in the south.” The Accommodation’s engineer was Michael “Mike” J. Brady and the conductor was George G. Higgins. Both men worked together on the Accommodation for several decades, and were adored by Collierville’s citizens. Mr. Higgins conducted the Accommodation for so long that he saw many of his early passengers return with their grandchildren.[21]

Conductor Higgins and Engineer Brady are the source of many train related anecdotes. Reportedly, when a small girl lost her hat out the train window, Brady backed the train up a mile until the hat was found. It is also said that Brady stopped the train one morning when he saw one of his regular passengers running to catch up.[22] Mike once stopped the train so that passengers could enjoy cutting watermelons in a patch near White Station.[23] Conductor Higgins was also relaxed with the train schedule and had the Accommodation stopped anywhere his passengers desired. [24] In a personal interview with Ms. Elizabeth Parr, she fondly recalled Captain Higgins and Mike Brady. Ms. Parr stated the train was the “best looking thing I saw,” but she “hated to hear the train because Momma would send me to bed” when the train whistle blew.[25] Local lore states that the Accommodation may have even played a part in the 1878 Yellow Fever epidemic when it carried a shipment of ladies hats originally from New Orleans. It is said that this is how the virus arrived in Somerville.[26]

The Somerville Accommodation took its last trip in 1930. The train had run every Monday through Saturday since 1857. Michael Brady passed away in 1934 after 50 years of railroad service. George Higgins was one of the oldest men working on the railroad until he died in 1937.[27]






A Tragic Train Wreck

Despite the joy and prosperity the railroad brought to Collierville, it also brought a new kind of catastrophe. Train wrecks! Collierville’s first train wreck occurred in October 1852, when a locomotive derailed. Fortunately there were no injuries.[28] However, the next train wreck had much more tragic results. The disaster occurred on April 27, 1857 when the commuter train known as the Somerville Accommodation and a freight train collided between Moscow and the Wolf River Bridge. The accident occurred when the Accommodation's chief locomotive engineer disobeyed his orders to remain at Lafayette (now Rossville) until the freight train had passed. He continued on, thinking he had time to make the connection at Moscow. His error in judgment caused the collision. Tragically, the engineer’s twenty-one-year-old brother, D. Lynch was killed in the crash. Lynch was thrown from the train, crushing his right leg between the tender and the wheels. The boiler water was pouring down upon him. He used his knife to severe his own leg in order to free himself from the agony. Lynch died from the severity of his injuries. His brother, the engineer who had caused the crash, fled from the scene.[29]








Collierville's Depots

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Figure 6: Collierville's depot c. 1890.
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Figure 7: Collierville's depot in the early 1900's.
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Figure 8: The depot after being moved to Collierville.
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Figure 9: The depot as the Main Street Collierville office.











A town must have a depot to be an important railroad stop and Collierville has had several depots. The first depot was built in 1852. The location of this depot is unknown, however Mrs. Clarene Russell, author of Collierville Tennessee Her People and Neighbors, has located several land deeds specifiying the lot is a gift to the railroad to be used for a depot.[30]
It is also known that Collierville's depot was burned during the Battle of Collierville fought during the Civil War. William Kelsey, a local Civil War historian, believes this depot may have been located between Center and Walnut streets on the north side of the railroad tracks. [31] It is known that the battle was fought in the vicinity of these two streets, and the depot was a very important part of the action. The battle was fought on Sunday, October 11, 1863 when General Sherman’s train happened to stop over in Collierville.[32]

Several temporary structures were used as a depot until a new brick building was built in 1886 where Center Street intersects the railroad tracks. This new depot had two large rooms that served as both a passenger and freight station and was painted mustard yellow.[33] The cost of constructing and furnishing the depot was $4,299 ($101,751.90 today) [34] Collierville’s citizens were very proud of their depot and many businesses donated landscaping items such as shrubs, flowers, and an attractive fence. It was considered to be one of the most attractive depots in the south [35] Yet, the depot had to be demolished in the 1940’s, when Center Street was extended to connect the town square with Highway 72. [36]

Because building materials were scarce due to shortages caused by World War II, it was decided that the new depot would be moved from the nearby town of La Grange. The La Grange depot was cut in two and brought to Collierville on two flat cars. It was placed about 400 feet east of the previous depot because of safety concerns for passengers crossing Center Street to the popular McGinnis Hotel. This was Collierville’s last depot, and still serves the community today as the office of the Main Street Collierville organization. When the war ended in 1945, the returning soldiers were pleasantly surprised by the changes made to Center Street and downtown Collierville.[37]

In 1976, the Southern Railroad officially gave the depot to the town of Collierville on the condition that it would be moved due to liability issues. The depot was moved one last time to its current location on the platform where cotton had been sold.[38]




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Figure 10: A map displaying the known locations of each of Collierville's depots. The years represent the time frame that each building served the community.

When it arrived in 1852, the railroad brought Collierville much prosperity. But eleven years later a train arrived carrying a passenger who nearly destroyed the town. On October 11, 1863 General Williams Tecumseh Sherman arrived in Collierville, changing the course of the town with the Battle of Collierville.[39]





Next Chapter: The Battle of Collierville: Sherman at the Depot!flags.gif




A special thank you to Mrs. Clarene Russell and Ms. Elizabeth Parr for their assistance in this project, and the wealth of research and knowledge they have shared.


Compiled by Kimberly Liles Ison


Figure Sources:
1 "La Grange and Memphis Rail Raod Company Stock Certificate," <http://www.lagrangetn.com/railroad.htm>,
11/23/2009.
2 "Locomotive 201," <http://images.google.com/imgres?imgurl=http:upload.wikimedia.org/wikipedia/en/thumb/b/bb/Locomotive201_on_the_Memphis_and_Charleston.jpg/180px-Locomotive201_on_the_Memphis_and_Charleston.jpg&imgrefurl=http:en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Memphis_and_Charleston_Railroad&usg>, 11/19/2009.
3 Historical Society of Western Pennsylvania Collection, Historic Pittsburgh, http://digital.library.pitt.edu/chronology/img/1852hc01.jpg, 11/19/2009.
4 "Wedding of the Waters," Perre Magness, Past Times Stories Of Early Memphis, Parkway Press LLC, Memphis, Tennessee, 1994, p.216.
5 "Norfleet-Bassett Home," Steve Davis, Collierville: A Place Called Home, The Contemporary Club, Collierville, Tennessee, 1999, p. 59.
6 "Collierville's depot C. 1890," Images of America Collierville, Arcadia Publishing, Charleston, South Carolina, 2006, p. 126.
7 "Collierville's depot in the early 1900's," Images of America Collierville, Arcadia Publishing, Charleston, South Carolina, 2006, p. 15.
8 "The depot after being moved to Collierville," Images of America Collierville, Arcadia Publishing, Charleston, South Carolina, 2006, p. 115.
9 "The depot as the Main Street Collierville office," Steve Davis, Collierville: A Place Called Home, The Contemporary Club, Collierville, Tennessee, 1999, p. 13
10 "Union/Confederate," http://www.wisegorilla.com/images/civilwar/flags.gif, 1/13/2010
  1. ^ Main Street Collierville, Heritage Education Program Teaching Children Our Tennessee Heritage,The Center for Historic Preservation, Middle Tennessee State University,1996, p. 3
  2. ^ "First Railroad." http://www.lagrangetn.com/railroad.htm, November 23, 2009.
  3. ^ Russell, Clarene Pinkston, Collierville, Tennessee Her People and Neighbors, The Collierville Chamber of Commerce, Collierville, Tennessee, 1995, p. 67-68
  4. ^ Ibid p. 68
  5. ^ Parr, Elizabeth B. The History of Collierville, Self-published, p. 5
  6. ^ "First Railroad," Town of La Grange, Tennessee, 2001, http://www.lagrangetn.com/railraod.htm, 11/29/2009
  7. ^
    Parr, Elizabeth B., The History of Collierville, Self-published, p.7
  8. ^
    Russell, Clarene Pinkston, Collierville, Tennessee Her People and Neighbors, The Collierville Chamber of Commerce, Collierville, Tennessee, 1995, p.68
  9. ^ Ibid, p. 69
  10. ^
    Ibid, p. 70
  11. ^
    Ibid, p. 172
  12. ^
    Magness, Perre, Past Times Stories Of Early Memphis, Parkway Press LLC, Memphis, Tennessee, P. 215
  13. ^ Ibid, p. 216
  14. ^ Ibid
  15. ^
    Ibid, p. 218
  16. ^ Ibid
  17. ^
    Parr, Elizabeth B., The History of Collierville, Self-published, p. 8
  18. ^
    Russell, Clarene Pinkston, Collierville, Tennessee Her People and Neighbors, The Collierville Chamber of Commerce, Collierville, Tennessee, 1995, p.66
  19. ^ The Goodspeed Publishing Company,Goodspeed's History of Hamilton, Knox and Shelby Counties of Tennessee,Charles and Randy Elder Booksellers, Nashville, Tennessee, 1974, p.913
  20. ^ Davis, Steve, Collierville: A Place Called Home, The Contemporary Club, Collierville, Tennessee, 1999, p.72
  21. ^
    Russell, Clarene Pinkston, Collierville, Tennessee Her People and Neighbors, The Collierville Chamber of Commerce, Collierville, Tennessee, 1995, p. 74
  22. ^
    Ibid
  23. ^ Parr, Elizabeth, The History of Collierville, Self-published, p. 35
  24. ^ Ibid, p. 75
  25. ^ Elizabeth B. Parr, personal interview. February 11, 2009
  26. ^ "First Railroad," Town of La Grange, Tennessee, 2001, http://www.lagrangetn.com/railraod.htm, 11/29/2009
  27. ^
    Russell, Clarene Pinkston, Collierville, Tennessee Her People and Neighbors, The Collierville Chamber of Commerce, Collierville, Tennessee, 1995, p.75
  28. ^
    Ibid
  29. ^
    Ibid, p.75-76
  30. ^
    Russell, Clarene, personal interview. February 25, 2010
  31. ^
    Kelsey, William, personal interview, February 16, 2010
  32. ^ Kelsey, William and Nancy Bassett Battle At the Collierville Depot, Main Street Collierville, Collierville, Tennessee
  33. ^
    Russell, Clarene Pinkston, Collierville, Tennessee Her People and Neighbors, The Collierville Chamber of Commerce, Collierville, Tennessee, 1995, p.71
  34. ^ "The Inflation Calculator," http://www.westegg.com/inflation/infl.cgi
    12/1/09
  35. ^ Russell, Clarene Pinkston, Collierville, Tennessee Her People and Neighbors, The Collierville Chamber of Commerce, Collierville, Tennessee, 1995, p. 71
  36. ^ Main Street Collierville, Heritage Education Program Teaching Children Our Tennessee Heritage,The Center for Historic Preservation, Middle Tennessee State University,1996 p.7
  37. ^
    Russell, Clarene Pinkston, Collierville, Tennessee Her People and Neighbors, The Collierville Chamber of Commerce, Collierville, Tennessee, 1995, p. 72
  38. ^
    Ibid
  39. ^
    Kelsey, William and Nancy BassettBattle At the Collierville Depot, Main Street Collierville, Collierville, Tennessee