Minden and railroading, part one

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In many ways railroads and the railroading industry have brought more change to the Minden area than nearly any other factor in the 183 years of her existence. The next two Echoes of Our Past will deal with one element of the railroad story in Minden, the coming of the first rail line to Minden in 1884. How Minden came to gain its first railroad link is a very interesting story, involving local initiative, some political bad luck, and stories of cooperation between local leaders in negotiating a deal some other towns in this area were unable to achieve. The importance of this story can best be examined in light of the fate that befell those communities that didn’t work as hard as our town did to assure its continued prosperity.

Although the railroad industry became an important factor in American life in the antebellum era, our part of the country was not involved in the boom in railroading of the 1850s. Most of the future Confederacy shared our fate, as the absence of railroad connections combined with the failure to construct tracks of a standard gauge, was a important factor in many of the military setbacks suffered by the Confederate army. During the Civil War, there was only one small section of railroad track in Northwest Louisiana. This was the Vicksburg, Shreveport, and Texas line that had been constructed from Shreveport to Waskom, Texas in the mid 1850s. During the war, General John B. Magruder had another portion of track built from Marshall to Waskom, providing a rail connection between Shreveport and Marshall, the two military centers of the Trans-Mississippi Department of the Confederacy. In the eastern half of North Louisiana, the railroad bed for the V, S & T had been graded from Vicksburg to Monroe, but no tracks had been laid when the war began. The absence of tracks between Vicksburg and Monroe probably saved the city on the Ouachita from capture after the fall of Vicksburg in 1863.

After the war, the Southern economy was too devastated to offer much incentive for constructing railroads. The link between Vicksburg and Monroe was completed, as were additional tracks going west from Shreveport. However, it would not be until 1880, over 11 years after the completion of the Transcontinental Railroad at Promontory Point, Utah, that plans were finally made to link Monroe and Shreveport by rail. In 1880, the Vicksburg, Shreveport and Pacific Railroad, successor to the old V, S & T announced plans to construct a rail line between Shreveport and Monroe. In Minden anticipation was high. At that time Minden relied on riverboats for most of its commercial connections to the outside world. Dorcheat Bayou was only navigable to the Minden Upper Landing at Murrell’s Point for about six months a year, during times of high water. The Middle Landing and the Lower Landing at Overton had approximately the same window of activity while Noles Landing on Lake Bistineau was the only point near Minden that could be reached by boat for the majority of the year. The railroad would present the chance to have regular shipments of goods to and from Minden twelve months of the year. 

Soon after the announcement of the plans of the V, S & P, local merchants began making plans to take advantage of this new service they expected to reach Minden. During the first week of September 1880, Captain Alfred Goodwill (great-grandfather of former Governor Mike Foster) opened his new store. With 18,000 square feet of retail space his store was not only the largest in Louisiana at the time, but added many modern innovations. It featured large glass display windows at the front of the store, and advertisements boasted that the light coming through these windows made it possible for the customers to clearly see the merchandise even in the rear section of the store. For nighttime shopping, fifty gaslights were installed in the building making it as easy to shop after dark as in the daytime. The store was the superstore of its day, stocking all types of merchandise from food to hardware. It also sold caskets, and as such provided embalming and many of the services of the modern funeral home for its customers. The pharmacy at Goodwill’s Store eventually was sold and became City Drug Store that operated in Minden for nearly a century. Although this was the most obvious example, many merchants such as Neal and Murrell and Leary and Crichton expanded their store buildings in anticipation of boom times from the railroad.

All of these plans were dashed in late 1881, when the proposed route for the new railroad was announced. Because of the cost involved in routing the railroad through existing communities, the V, S & P decided to take a rural route across North Louisiana. Among the towns bypassed were four parish seats, Vienna in Lincoln Parish, Sparta in Bienville Parish, Minden in Webster Parish and Bellevue in Bossier Parish.  In addition, the line ran far south of the Claiborne Parish seat of Homer, which had held out hope that perhaps they too would be included on the line. Residents of these communities were disappointed by the announcement, but of the four communities that had never considered the possibility of being bypassed – Vienna, Sparta, Minden and Bellevue – only our town made immediate plans to overcome being omitted from the route. The loss of the railroad proved fatal to Vienna, Sparta and Bellevue, as the newly formed town of Ruston, on the railroad line, soon became the Lincoln parish seat and in Bienville Parish, the parish seat found residence in Arcadia, also on the V, S & P, Bellevue lost the seat of government to Benton. Today, Vienna is a small community along Highway 167,  Sparta has vanished, leaving only the white sands of the Sparta Aquifer and a cemetery as its legacy and Bellevue is a collection of homes.

Things were different in Minden. Soon after it was announced that the railroad would pass several miles south of Minden, through the settlement of Lanesville or Lane’s Station (today known as Sibley), business leaders of our town developed a new strategy. They proposed the construction of a short rail line, or a tap, to connect Minden to the tracks of the V, S & P at Lanesville. A committee was formed in a public meeting held at the Minden Courthouse on Monday night, April 17, 1882. Mayor P. W. Paul presided over the meeting and T. B. Neal, Alfred Goodwill and J. W. McDonald addressed the citizens on the necessity of constructing the tap railroad. At its April meeting, the Minden Town Council had approved the creation of a committee to bring about the construction of the tap, and had also agreed to fund whatever expenses the committee deemed necessary in their work. Goodwill discussed the idea of closing navigation on Dorcheat above the railroad line, as a measure of good faith to the railroad, in the hopes that the V, S & P would perhaps offer to fund the tap, if they could be assured of a monopoly on Minden’s outgoing freight. The meeting adjourned without creating a committee or deciding on Goodwill’s proposition, but did agree to notify the railroad company of the town’s interest in constructing a tap line.

On Tuesday, May 16, 1882, Mayor Paul received a telegram regarding the proposed Minden Tap Railroad from John Scott, General Manager of the V, S & P. That night another town meeting was held, with a large number of citizens present, and a committee was appointed to work on the project and meet with Scott. The members of that committee were:  Alfred Goodwill, T. B. Neal and W. A. Drake. These three men left Minden the next morning for Cincinnati to meet with Scott. Within days Goodwill and Neal both sent telegrams back home stating that the negotiations had proved fruitful and the Goodwill would be returning to Minden on May 26 to deliver the details of the plan. An even larger town meeting was held on the night of Monday, May 29, 1882, at the courthouse. T. M. Fort, local attorney and former headmaster of the Minden Male Academy served as chairman of the meeting. Goodwill and Neal were present and reported the details of their negotiations with the V, S & P.  They had in their possession a proposed contract that called for the following:  1) the town of Minden was to grade the route of the proposed tap by October 31, 1883; 2) all expenses involved in the cutting and grading of the path would be paid by the town or its representatives; 3) the V, S & P would cross tie the bed, lay the track and put on the rolling stock within 60 days after October 31, 1883; 4) the Louisiana Legislature would close navigation on Bayou Dorcheat above the line of the railroad.  The report was enthusiastically received by the crowd, even though Mayor Paul pointed out it would be necessary to pass a new property tax to cover the cost of creating the route for the tap. Colonel J. F. Taylor moved that the Mayor and Aldermen of Minden be instructed to sign the proposed contract without delay. The motion was seconded and then approved unanimously by a voice vote. In addition, a resolution was drawn up asking State Senator John D. Watkins to submit a bill in the legislature to carry out the necessary closing of navigation on Bayou Dorcheat.

Thus it appeared that Minden had solved her problem in being bypassed by the main line of the railroad. Goodwill, Neal and Drake had been able to negotiate a favorable contract with the railroad absorbing part of the cost of construction. Once again, prosperous times seemed to be in Minden’s future. Unfortunately, as we will see in next week’s Echo of Our Past, then, as now, any plan involving politics in Louisiana is never simple. Within a short time roadblocks emerged in the path of railroad construction. How those problems were solved is a part of the Echo of Our Past that still has physical reminders in our area today. So I leave you with the old “hook” from the television and radio serials, tune in next week. 

Webster Parish Historian John Agan’s column appears Tuesdays in the Minden Press-Herald.

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