By the mid-nineteenth century, the locomotive, known as the “iron horse,” had become a national obsession and a massive machine of stamina, speed, noise, fire, iron, and smoke. Finally, travel conquered the obstacles of forests, water, hills and valleys.
Stories about railroad projects, railroad accidents, railroad profits and momentum saturated the press and became the subject of speeches, articles, stories, and songs. The railroad engine, a symbol of human energy and strength in the time of the horse and carriage, became godlike and in the distance resembled a long monstrous snake-like machine chugging down its track, puffing white smoke, like Native American ceremonial signals above a wilderness landscape.
Edward McGehee, a planter from Woodville, Mississippi , had a dream of a railway system extending the twenty-seven-miles stretch of railroad from Woodville to St. Francisville on the Mississippi River below the Louisiana line. In 1830, a company was organized; on December 20, 1831 a charter was obtained, and the West Feliciana became the first railroad in the United States to cross a state line as well as the first to use the standard gauge of four feet, eight and on-half inches.
After staking his claim to seven-hundred acres in 1834, Virginian Richard McLemore, “The Father of Meridian,” built his log house close to current downtown Meridian. His nearest neighbor being about eight-miles away, he recruited his neighbors-to-be from back east, offering them land and the promise of a future. McLemore played a great part in establishing Baptist churches in Lauderdale County, including Oakey Valley Baptist, predecessor of First Baptist Church. Possibly the greatest part McLemore played in Lauderdale County’s future, though not intentionally, was in the future of the railroad.
The Southern Railroad Company, chartered in Mississippi on February 23, 1846, had plans to build a railroad running eastward from Brandon through Meridian to the Mississippi-Alabama state line. However, before any construction began, the charter lapsed. Reincorporated as a Mississippi corporation on March 9, 1850, the Southern Railroad Company in July, 1852, acquired the Jackson and Brandon Railroad and Bridge Company’s line between Jackson and Brandon, including engines, cars, depots, lands, and slaves. The line would one day make its way toward Lauderdale County, Mississippi.
Before arrival of the Southern Railroad, the 1850’s witnessed the “Iron Horse” pushing its way through Lauderdale County, Attorney Con Rea of Marion predicted the primary beneficiary of the railroad would his town of Marion. In anticipation of the coming M & O Railroad, according to author James Dawson of Paths to the Past, Meridian Founder, Richard McLemore, before moving his family to the Marion area, sold the remainder of his land to Alabama Lawyer, Lewis A. Ragsdale and Kemper County Merchant John T. Ball. On this land purchased from McLemore, Ragsdale started a tavern in McLemore’s first home while John Ball established the first store in the village not yet named. These two guys would prove Con Rea wrong!