The Most Hated Man in the Southern States

Chapter 9

With the connection of Huntsville to Atlanta in March of 1855 our railroad was substantially completed. Further expansion would require venturing across the Ohio River into competition with the many Northern roads, or extending across the Mississippi into new lands. The great dream, you see, was to complete a railroad to the Pacific, opening up the vast interior to settlement and providing rapid transportation to California.

This maneuver had been used before by Haynes, along with many others. Much of the railroad net that Haynes claimed to have built was in fact pried away from other roads who were chewed up and digested as the Great Southern expanded. In his favor it should be noted that these practices were common in that day, and Haynes had a reputation for scrupulous honesty, for always keeping his word, and for utter ruthlessness when crossed.

For the moment, other needs had to be met. I was insistent on pushing ahead with our industrialization program, though I found the Board more intransigent with the apparent failure of our rifle factory. Their caution was in some sense warranted; the overheated economy was cooling and the prospecting trips of 1855 returned empty-handed. Though we continued to set up 'special' trains for passengers and mail, now on the Mobile-Montgomery-Atlanta and New Orleans-Mobile-Jackson and Mobile-Memphis routes, our profits and revenue declined, and left the Board much less willing to let me have a free hand.

On a personal note, in 1855 I employed the esteemed architect James Gallier of New Orleans to draw up plans for a grand new home, the one in which we now sit. My wife and I had been comfortable in our old home, but I felt my wife deserved as magnificent a home as any in Charleston, and so no expense was spared in its construction and furnishing.

Also, our Mobile shop produced a luxurious railway car for my personal use when I had need to travel. This private coach attracted so much attention that we were soon busy with orders for more. In particular I remember the opulent elegance of the car constructed for the governor of Georgia, the most beautiful I ever witnessed.

We live in an age of iron: iron tools, screws, nails, track, pots, implements of all kinds, railroad engines and track and even bridge trusses, all made of iron. And yet the Southern states were almost entirely deficient in the production of iron; it has been estimated that the state of Pennsylvania alone produced more iron than the entirety of the South, border states included. If we were to industrialize the South and equip it for the storms I believed were coming, this condition could not be permitted to endure. And so I committed our railroad to the single biggest gamble of its existence.

Throughout the early years of the decade we had searched for deposits of iron ore and seams of coal, and had found them in southern Tennessee and central Alabama. The only other ingredient needed for smelting was limestone, which abounds in Alabama. This concentration of materials - fine iron ore, coal for coke and abundant limestone - determined the location of our new industrial complex.

Until now, small local furnaces had produced pigs of iron that were shipped down the rivers to Mobile, where we converted small quantities into cast and wrought iron and even produced some steel. This small supply had grown inadequate for our present needs, and no further industrial expansion could be contemplated without a vast expansion our supply of iron. So it came to pass that we purchased enormous quantities of apparatus and equipment from Northern mills, assembling them on a river bluff just outside Montgomery, Alabama. The local people called it a steel mill, but of course it was not.

A wartime photograph of the Montgomery ironworks

Turning iron ore into usable iron is a long and complicated process, as I found to my expense and sorrow. This process requires large amounts of raw materials, regiments of specially-trained laborers and industrial equipment on a gigantic scale, and from mining to hammering and casting it is a dirty, dangerous business.

Iron ore is rarely usable when it comes out of the ground; too many other elements are admixed with it. The iron ore must be placed in a smelter or blast furnace, along with coke (partially-burned coal) and limestone for flux. A draft of air is forced through the mass from below, heating it and driving out some of the impurities. At the right moment, spigots are turned and a mass of liquid iron runs out, down a channel and into small sand pits. When cool, these iron pigs are broken off and transported to the next stage.

Pig iron, so called because the pits along the main channel look like pigs nursing at a sow, is reasonably pure iron but contains far too much carbon (four or five per cent) to be useful. To make the iron less brittle, the carbon content must be reduced. There are three ways to make pig iron useful: as cast iron, wrought iron, and as steel. All three involve reheating the pig iron and using various materials to draw out the carbon.

Cast iron - poured hot from the furnace after almost all the carbon is eliminated - is extremely tough but also brittle and can shatter on impact. Wrought iron contains more carbon, and is hammered out in sheets before being folded on itself and hammered again. Wrought iron is ductile, tough and can be worked into shape, but is too soft to take or keep an edge. Steel can only be made in small quantities, though there are reports that England is now economically producing steel in quantity. To give a brief example, locomotive frames were cast iron, warship armor was wrought iron and fine knives and scissors were steel.

The expense was so staggering that our company defaulted on its stock dividend in September. Our revenues were falling as the economy continued to contract, and our profits were plunging lower than we had seen in a decade.

Despite this financial strain, the Great Southern continued to be profitable where other companies failed. Planters defaulted on loans despite high cotton prices, banks closed, shops were shuttered; as each business failed, the ripples spread outward and cooled the economy still more. Adding to the national unease was the news from Kansas - Bleeding Kansas - of Border Ruffians, Beecher Bibles, towns burned, lawlessness rampant and mob rule enthroned. It seemed the country would literally fly apart at any moment, and none of us knew what to expect from one day to the next.

Game notes: I contributed money to flood victims in February and saw the economy slow down even more. Built a steel mill in Montgomery in July. Revenue declined to $7.1 million, profits collapsed to $2.7 million.