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Minden and railroading, part two

by Minden Press-Herald

In last week’s Echo of Our Past, we began looking at Minden’s attempt to be placed on the main railroad line across North Louisiana. When that effort was unsuccessful, at the conclusion of last week’s column, local community leaders had negotiated a very good deal for the construction of a “Tap” railroad to connect Minden to the mainline at present-day Sibley. The key point of that compromise was the agreement that the Webster Parish Police Jury, with the approval of the state legislature, would close Bayou Dorcheat to navigation at the point of the Vicksburg, Shreveport and Pacific Railroad Bridge. 

The closing of navigation was vital to the railroad’s acceptance of the bargain. Closing navigation at that point gave two great economic advantages to the new railroad. First, with the end of riverboat traffic north of the railroad line, the company would almost be guaranteed a monopoly on the freight and passenger traffic from large areas of Bossier, Claiborne and Webster Parish. The second, and most important advantage was the type of bridge that would have to be constructed across Bayou Dorcheat. The progress of railroad construction across North Louisiana had been greatly impeded and delayed for months because of the complications of bridging the Ouachita River at Monroe and the Red River at Shreveport. Both of these streams were navigable, and the company had been forced to contract with an outside contractor that specialized in building drawbridges, capable of opening to allow river traffic to pass. Bayou Dorcheat was the only other navigable stream between Monroe and Shreveport. If navigation were closed above the rail line on Dorcheat, the V, S, & P would be spared the extra cost of building a drawbridge over the Bayou. A much cheaper fixed bridge could be built and the additional funds left over, were earmarked to aid Minden in construction of the Minden “Tap.”

As the Louisiana Legislature sat in session in June 1882, State Senator John D. Watkins’ bill calling for closing navigation on Bayou Dorcheat above the railroad bridge was approved by a unanimous vote by both houses of the Louisiana Legislature in late June. The support of the Claiborne Parish delegation was vital, as there had been rumblings from the business community in Homer that indicated opposition to the bill, arising from the absence of the opportunity for Homer, landlocked and 25 miles from the main line, to also tap into the V, S, & P.

Things seemed to be moving along for Minden to build its “tap.” Unfortunately, a provision in the authorization bill required the approval of the Police Juries of Bossier, Webster, and Claiborne Parish before it became effective. The Bossier and Webster juries gave their stamp of approval, but those rumbles of discontent in Homer emerged as full- blown tremors when the Claiborne Parish Police Jury took up the issue in July 1882. It soon became clear that the Claiborne Parish body was hoping to extract a promise from the V, S, & P for construction of a “Homer Tap,” before they would sign off on the deal. Without that tap, they indicated that Homer was satisfied with the current service by riverboat, which was only available for at best 6 months of the year. Minden residents at first didn’t take the opposition seriously. The editor of the Webster Tribune opined, “Minden is resolved on the tap, even if she has to pay the additional expense of building the drawbridge. We know that the railroad will soon wipe out the navigation of Lake Bistineau, and the expense of keeping up the drawbridge will then cease. Homer, for the sake of a little spite, will hardly store her cotton at our landings awaiting a precarious navigation, when a better, cheaper, and quicker mode of transportation presents itself.”

However, the editor was too optimistic, the Claiborne Parish Police Jury refused to approve the closing of navigation on upper Dorcheat, and the Watkins’ bill died. The Minden committee received a telegram from Col. John Scott of the railroad on July 18, 1882; Scott stated, “Owing to the inordinate and unreasonable demands of Homer and the press for time, I am compelled to cancel the contract entered into between the town of Minden and the V, S, & P, and we will proceed to build a drawbridge over Dorcheat.”  The move, while a setback, did not destroy the goals of the local community. The Railroad committee met and began to look at a back-up plan. While not prepared to announce the details of their plan, the committee informed the citizens of Minden that, “within sixty days of the completion of the road to Lanes Station, the tap will be in full operation to Minden; even if it requires the building, stocking and operating the tap by Minden alone.”  

Within Minden, a small feud broke out between the two local newspapers, the Minden Democrat and the Webster Tribune. The editor of the Democrat was in sympathy with the ideas of the Homer citizens. He attacked the articles written by Moses Fort of the Webster Tribune criticizing Homer. Fort, who would later go on to have a career of more than 50 years in editorial positions with the Louisville Courier-Journal, was an enthusiastic supporter of Minden’s original plan. The editorial war continued for a few weeks while the new plan was hatched. 

On August 22, 1882, another mass meeting was held by the Minden Railroad Committee.

Captain Alfred Goodwill and Senator Watkins explained their new plan to those in attendance, and a new company was chartered, the Minden Railroad and Compress Company. Stock in the amount of $14,725 was subscribed at that initial meeting. The original investors were: Alfred Goodwill, $5000; T. B. Neal, $3500; Hervey Drake, $1500; John Chaffe, $1,000; J. C. Loye, $1000; W. A. Drake, $1000; J. D. Watkins, $500; W. A. Crawford, $250; J. D. McIntyre, $200; J. W. Reagan, $200; S. W. Culpepper, $150; George W. Bowles, $125; G. W. Warren, $125; C. Constable, $100; P. W. Paul, $100; J. W. Berry, $50; T. M. Fort, $50; William Life, $50; and F. H. Tompkins, $25. Of particular interest on that list is the name of George Bowles, a Black Town Councilman for 4 terms during the 1870s and 1880s.  In addition to these funds, it was agreed that the citizens of Minden would be asked to levy a five-mill tax on property in Minden, to be in force until $10,000 had been raised as a donation to the company. That idea gained unanimous support and town officials began exploring the legal steps necessary to create such a donation to a private company. 

The addition of the cotton compress to the company was intended as retribution to Homer and Claiborne Parish for their part in negating the original contract. John Chaffe, a former Minden resident who now was a prosperous New Orleans businessman, purchased the old cotton compress at Arizona in Claiborne Parish for the Minden company. This compress was to be located at the junction of the Minden tap and the mainline of the V, S & P. It was intended to offer better rates to the cotton farmers in Claiborne Parish, than those being offered by the Homer compress company. Eventually the local enterprise did have an impact on the profits of the cotton processors in Homer. 

By September 1882, Minden had created a connection to the V, S, & P Railroad, through the initiative of the local business community. Construction on the rail tap to Lanesville from Minden was scheduled to begin as soon as the town could pass the necessary property tax.  In April 1883, Overton & Magill, the bridge contractors for the V, S, & P established their North Louisiana offices in Minden and began work on the roundtable drawbridge that still spans Dorcheat today, just south of Highway 164 between Sibley and Doyline. On May 7, 1883, the Board of Directors of the Minden Railroad and Compress Company, composed of Alfred Goodwill, Thomas B. Neal, Hervey Drake, Simon B. Miller, and J. Charles T. Chaffe announced their intentions to advertise for bids to begin the survey and grading of the tap road to the V, S, & P. A petition was submitted to the Board of Aldermen of the town of Minden, and a property tax election was scheduled for June 16, 1883 to approve the required 5-mill tax. 

On June 16, the voters of Minden unanimously approved the new 5-mill property tax to fund construction of the tap. The vote totaled 92 residents representing $196,457 worth of property in favor, none opposed. Detailed plans for the Minden Railroad began and the advertisements for bids were issued. Three possible sites were considered for location of the Minden depot. One just to the west of Judge Drew’s residence, one to the rear of the jail, and a third on the Long Springs road. Eventually the site to the west of the Drew residence at the bottom of what came to be called “Depot Hill” was selected. The local company wanted to get started on work as soon as possible, as by June 26, dynamiting had started for placing the pilings on the iron drawbridge across the Dorcheat on the V, S & P. line. On August 8, 1883, six bids for the construction of the Minden Tap Railroad were opened. The low bidder was Mr. J. C. Hutchins, who had been working on a portion of the main V, S & P line. The contract specified that work would begin within 10 days and the grading would be completed by December 1, 1883. Actual construction began on August 17, 1883.  The project got off to a fast start as many workers were actually hired from the work on the main V, S & P line. These workers were attracted by the opportunity to spend each night in Minden, while at that time the V, S, & P was being constructed through largely rural areas. The promise of a hotel bed over sleeping on the ground helped provide an ample and skilled labor supply for the Hutchins Company. Three miles of grade were cut in about one month and the entire roadbed was prepared by December. The laying of track began in the spring of 1884 and the Minden tap was completed on October 27, 1885, securing Minden’s connection to the east-west rail line across North Louisiana. Thus Minden escaped the fate of the near-by Parish seats, Vienna and Sparta, and actually became more prosperous after being bypassed by the V, S & P.  The Minden Tap Railroad was eventually extended into Southern Arkansas, and in 1898, after being purchased by F. H. Drake of Minden, the Minden Railroad and Compress Company was sold to William Buchanan, who used the Minden Tap Railroad as the Louisiana foundation of his Louisiana and Arkansas Railroad. The L & A would become a vital part of the Minden economy for the next 50 years. In 1930, more than 20% of the residents of Minden were either employees of the L & A or family members of an employee. 

So, Minden residents, through local initiative, were able to take a seeming disaster, the bypassing of our town by the V, S, & P, and turn it into a positive event. The industry they began in Minden would be a dominant economic force in our town for many years and many of our citizens, including myself, come from “railroad families.” These descendants who are part of our community today can thank the story in today’s Echo of Our Past for beginning the railroad era in Minden and bringing their family to our town.

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

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