Like many large railroad systems, the Southern Railway System grew by acquiring other railroads. Its components continued to exist with their old names and corporate structures much longer than the subsidiaries of most other railroads. The Southern could trace its history back to the South Carolina Canal & Rail Road Co., chartered in 1828 and by 1857 part of the longest connected system of railroads in the world, reaching from Charleston, South Carolina, to Memphis, Tennessee.
The nucleus of the Southern Railway, however, was the Richmond & Danville Railroad, which opened in 1856 between Richmond and Danville, Virginia, 141 miles. The Richmond & Danville's charter permitted it to control and acquire railroads with which it connected directly. R&D interests established the Richmond & West Point Terminal Railway & Warehouse Co. (the Richmond Terminal) in 1880 to acquire railroads that did not connect with the R&D. Later, in a series of transactions that crowded the dictionary definition of "shenanigan," the R&D's charter was amended, the R&D leased the subsidiary railroads directly, and the Richmond Terminal acquired the Richmond & Danville. In the following paragraphs, "R&D" means either Richmond & Danville or Richmond Terminal, whichever was in charge at the time.
In 1863, the R&D purchased control of the Piedmont Railroad, which was under construction between Danville and Greensboro, North Carolina. In 1871, the R&D extended its reach by leasing the North Carolina Railroad, which had a line from Goldsboro, North Carolina, through Raleigh and Greensboro to Charlotte. The R&D assisted with the construction of the Atlanta & Richmond Air-Line Railroad from Charlotte to Atlanta. In 1881, the R&D leased its successor, the Atlanta & Richmond Air-Line Railway.
At its north end, in 1881 the R&D purchased the Virginia Midland Railway to obtain a route to Washington that was shorter than the dogleg through Richmond. It was built between 1854 and 1874, and had been part of the Baltimore & Ohio and later the property of the State of Virginia. It briefly had one of the most resounding names in the history of railroading: the Washington City, Virginia Midland & Great Southern Railroad.
Five years later, in 1886, the R&D extended itself west from Salisbury, North Carolina, to the Tennessee state line and a connection with the East Tennessee, Virginia & Georgia by leasing the Western North Carolina Railroad. The R&D reached west from Atlanta by leasing the Georgia Pacific Railway in 1889. The Georgia Pacific was intended to connect Atlanta with the Texas & Pacific Railway at Texarkana. It got as far as the Mississippi River at Greenville, Mississippi. The State of Mississippi required that the portion of the line from Columbus, Mississippi, to Greenville remain a separate entity (it received independence as the Columbus & Greenville in 1920).
The East Tennessee, Virginia & Georgia Railroad (ETV&G) was formed in 1869 by the consolidation of two railroads out of Knoxville, Tennessee. The company’s main line ran from Bristol, Virginia, through Knoxville to Dalton, Georgia, and Chattanooga, Tennessee. Within a few years lines were built from Dalton southeast through Atlanta to Brunswick, Georgia, and from Dalton southwest to Meridian, Mississippi. The company forged alliances with several other routes—Chattanooga to Memphis, Selma, Alabama, to Mobile, and Lexington, Kentucky, to Louisville— and it came under the control of the Richmond Terminal. By 1890, then, the Richmond Terminal/Richmond & Danville’s influence reached from Washington and Richmond southwest through Charlotte, Atlanta, and Birmingham to the Mississippi River at Memphis, Tennessee, and Greenville, Mississippi, to the Gulf Coast at Mobile, and to the Atlantic Coast at Brunswick, Georgia.
Then hard times struck. The Richmond Terminal and the roads it controlled declared insolvency and entered receivership in 1892. The J. P. Morgan Co., a New York banking and finance company, stepped in and combined and reorganized the Richmond & Danville and the East Tennessee, Virginia & Georgia into the Southern Railway.
The new railroad began operation on July 1, 1894, under the leadership of Samuel Spencer, a close associate of Morgan’s. It continued to grow by acquisition, as its predecessors had. Among its early acquisitions were the Georgia, Southern & Florida Railway, which reached from Macon, Georgia, south to Jacksonville and Palatka, Florida, and the Louisville, Evansville & St. Louis Consolidated Railroad, which extended the Lexington-Louisville line west to St. Louis.
Running from Cincinnati (the Queen City) to New Orleans (the Crescent City) were five railroads that advertised themselves as the Queen & Crescent Route: the Cincinnati, New Orleans & Texas Pacific (which leased and operated the Cincinnati Southern Railway, which was owned by the City of Cincinnati), the Alabama Great Southern, the New Orleans & Northeastern, the Alabama & Vicksburg, and the Vicksburg, Shreveport & Pacific. These railroads were owned by two British-owned holding companies, control of one of which was acquired by the R&D and the ETV&G in 1890. Ownership and control of these companies was particularly convoluted. The two Vicksburg companies became part of the Illinois Central system in 1927. The other three were firmly in the Southern Railway family by the end of the nineteenth century, and the corporate existence of the Alabama Great Southern and Cincinnati, New Orleans & Texas Pacific continued through most of the twentieth century.
The Georgia Southern & Florida Railway was incorporated in 1895 under Southern Railway control as a reorganization of the Georgia Southern & Florida Railroad, which had been opened in 1890 from Macon, Georgia, through Valdosta, Georgia, to Palatka, Florida. It was intended to be part of a route from Birmingham, Alabama, to Florida that would bypass Atlanta. In 1902, it purchased the Atlantic, Valdosta & Western Railway line from Valdosta, Georgia, to a point near Jacksonville, Florida. Southern acquired control in 1895.
The Mobile & Ohio was part of the Southern Railway System from 1901 to 1938. It was never especially prosperous, but Southern went so far as to propose merger (it wanted M&O’s Gulf-to-St. Louis route). The merger was vetoed by the governor of Mississippi. During the Depression the Southern had sufficient financial difficulty of its own that it was unable to aid the M&O. The expanding Gulf, Mobile & Northern acquired the M&O to form the Gulf, Mobile & Ohio Railroad.
The Southern and the Louisville & Nashville jointly acquired control of the Chicago, Indianapolis & Louisville in 1902 as a route to Chicago. However, Southern and L&N both had faster connections to Chicago on other railroads and were of no help to the CI&L during its hard times in the 1930s and 1940s. Both large roads lost their financial interests in the CI&L’s 1946 reorganization.
Despite its coverage of the state of Georgia, the Central of Georgia Railway was for much of its existence part of the Illinois Central system. From 1956 to 1961 it was under the control of the St. Louis-San Francisco, with which it connected at Birmingham. The Interstate Commerce Commission rejected SLSF’s proposal to merge with the CofG and approved control by the Southern. That took effect in 1963. A few months later in the same year, a 56-mile portion of the Tennessee Railroad was incorporated into the Southern system.
In 1925, the Southern joined with several other railroads to launch the all-Pullman Crescent Limited, a train that became the pride of the system. The train traveled from New York City to New Orleans on a schedule of 37 hours and 50 minutes. North of Washington it was operated by the Pennsylvania Railroad; the West Point Route and the Louisville & Nashville operated it between Atlanta and New Orleans. It was reequipped in 1929 with cars painted two-tone green to echo the green-painted specifically assigned locomotives that pulled the train. The Southern entered the streamliner era in 1941 with two diesel-powered streamliners, the Southerner between New York and New Orleans and the Tennessean between Washington and Memphis.
In the 1970s, the Southern was notable for staying out of Amtrak, continuing to run its remaining few passenger trains and gradually trimming its service to just the Washington-Atlanta—New Orleans Southern Crescent. Often the train’s primary purpose seemed to be moving company employees between the Southern’s offices in Atlanta and Washington. Amtrak took over the operation of the Southern Crescent on February 1, 1979.
For 12 years, the Southern Railway System was guided by Samuel Spencer, a close associate of J.P. Morgan. In 1906, Spencer was killed in a collision when the car he was riding was struck in the rear by another train. The Southern entered a period of slow growth over the next decade and a half. Some of the leased railroads were returned to independent operation. In 1915, the Southern began using an advertising slogan that it would use for decades. Vice President L. E. Jeffries drew a circle, tracing around a half dollar. Inside it, he drew a second circle, using a quarter. Inside the smaller circle, he placed a simple “SR,” and in the space between the two circles, he wrote “The Southern Serves the South."
Just before World War I, Southern president Fairfax Harrison established a foreign freight traffic department. Agents were assigned to Mobile and New Orleans in hopes of capitalizing on Southern’s strategic location on the Gulf, yet with quick access to Atlantic ports as well. The war postponed the implementation of the foreign freight department, but involved the Southern Railway System in a much broader future development.
In 1937, Ernest Norris took over as CEO from Fairfax Harrison and began a 14-year “turnaround” term; he was the first non-Southerner to hold the position. During Norris’s tenure, the Southern weathered the Depression, ushered in the diesel era for passenger service, and persevered through World War II. Forbes magazine reported the achievements of Norris when it stated, “Ernest Norris, energetic, capable and articulate, president of the Southern Railway System, has made both himself and his road a potent factor in the upbuilding of the South.”
In the 1960s, under the guidance of mercurial D. W. Brosnan, the Southern entered into a period of unprecedented growth. Brosnan’s research team developed a large covered hopper car for grain and numerous other specialized freight cars. Brosnan increased yard capacities and built new yards in Birmingham and New Orleans. He traveled extensively around the Southern system in a pair of business cars. As ideas came to his mind, he would sketch them on a cocktail napkin, often stopping at the next yard or station to telephone the idea to the mechanical department.
Brosnan could get his designers to focus on solutions rather than excuses. In researching the problem of returning coal-service cars to revenue service more quickly, Brosnan isolated his research team at a resort until they came up with a solution: the world’s first unit trains in which aluminum hoppers were dedicated to year-round delivery of one product, coal. An order was placed for 200 of the new cars, and the railroad soon discovered that they did the work of 740 smaller hopper cars.
Southern’s best-known and best-loved president was W. Graham Claytor, Jr., who in 1967 succeeded D. W. Brosnan. Claytor was an unabashed railroad enthusiast and a collector of antique toy trains. Under his direction, the Southern developed a steam locomotive program that included nine locomotives pulling excursion trains almost every weekend during nine months of the year. The steam program proved to be enormously successful public relations and had the effect of acquainting the public with the railroad and showing how modern railroading had evolved.
Claytor retired from the Southern in 1977 at the mandatory retirement age of 65, and served the federal government as secretary of the navy, acting secretary of transportation, and deputy secretary of defense. In 1982, Claytor returned to railroading as president and chairman of the board of Amtrak.
The Southern built a reputation for innovation. In an attempt to lure grain traffic back to the rails from barges, Southern’s research team developed a 5,000-cubic-foot covered hopper car (grain had traditionally moved in boxcars, which were difficult to unload). The Big John cars shocked the transportation industry, largely because the Southern proposed cutting rates by 60 percent—the new rates would save farmers and consumers approximately $40 million a year. Howls arose from barge companies and from the Tennessee Valley Authority, which felt that it would lose barge business to the railroads. The Interstate Commerce Commission intervened. Southern’s president D. W. Brosnan was the first witness in a hearing that lasted 30 weeks and produced 16,000 pages of testimony and 765 exhibits. The Southern prevailed, and the new rates went into effect. The victory gave the Southern the confidence it needed to handle the ICC in the future, and the perceived invincibility of regulators was forever gone.
The Southern was the first railroad to employ a computer system to relay information from the field to a central processing computer, and, in June 1965, the railroad was the first railroad entity to conduct any phase of its operations with computers. The railroad installed a microwave communication system between Atlanta and Washington. Within a decade, the system had been expanded to 4,500 path-miles, giving the Southern the most extensive private communication system in the world at the time.
The Southern was also noted for quickly implementing innovations that other railroads had originated, but were slow to implement. The Southern waited until other railroads had perfected the product, and it benefited because it did not have to outlay the research and design costs. The railroad pioneered the use of crosstie-removal and replacing equipment. It installed hotbox detectors along its routes and replaced most of its jointed rail with rail welded into quarter-mile lengths.
To combat the near encirclement of the Southern by the newly formed CSX system, the Southern entered into merger negotiations with the Norfolk & Western Railway. On June 1,1982, the Norfolk Southern Corp., a new holding company, acquired the Southern and the Norfolk & Western railways. At the end of 1990, the N&W became a subsidiary of the Southern Railway, and the Southern changed its name to Norfolk Southern Railway.
In 1988, shortly before the creation of the new Norfolk Southern Railway, the Southern Railway operated 9,757 route-miles, with 1,416 locomotives, 58,929 freight cars, 2,678 company service cars, and 16,496 employees. Freight traffic totaled 50,627 million ton-miles in 1988, and paper (19.9 percent), chemicals (17.6 percent), and coal (17.3 percent) were its principal traffic sources. Southern operating revenues totaled $1,756.6 million in 1988, and the railroad achieved a 75.7 percent operating ratio.
Davis, Burke. The Southern Railway: Road of the Innovators. Chapel Hill: Univ, of North Carolina Press, 1985.
Prince, Richard E. Southern Railway System: Steam Locomotives and boats. Salt Lake City: K/P Graphics, 1970.
The East Tennessee and Virginia and the East Tennessee and Georgia Railroads connect in Knoxville in 1859 after the completion of the Tennessee River Bridge in Loudon, Tennessee. The ET&G also opened its connection from Cleveland, Tennessee, to Chattanooga at this time, when the Missionary Ridge Tunnel was completed.
Southern's first diesel powered passenger train begins service between Columbus, Mississippi, and Mobile, Alabama, as the Goldenrod. Followed later by the Joe Wheeler from Oakdale, Tennessee to Tuscumbia, Alabama, via Chattanooga, the Cracker from Atlanta to Brunswick, Georgia, and the Vulcan from Chattanooga, Tennessee, to Birmingham, Alabama.
President Roosevelt’s funeral train departs Warm Springs, GA at 11:13 a.m, April 18, 1945. He died on April 12, 1945 of a cerebral hemorrhage. The train arrived at Washington’s Union Station at 9:50 a.m on April 19. The train was pulled by double-headed sets of Southern’s famous green Ps-4 Paciﬁcs, including 1401, which is currently housed at the Smithsonian.