1848 was of course the year of the Great Race, and it came about in this way. I had made several trips to New Orleans in 1847 and 48, scouting for freight orders, credit, workmen - the food and drink of any railroad. Caroline accompanied me, for her mother had relations in that city and there was no doing business in New Orleans without social contacts. I was unable to secure any lower interest rates as the bankers of New Orleans shared the common Southern prejudice for land and slaves over mechanic and industry. Instead I repaid $500,000 of bonds from our ready cash, and in this way the Great Southern forever changed its way of business from funding expansion on bonds to operating solely upon its profits. Because of this our quarterly dividend for March declined from 50 to 33 cents but our stock price did not suffer and we soon resumed the old premium.
That city was immense in those days, one of the largest in the nation with fully a quarter of a million people living behind those levees. All the commerce of the inland waters flowed down to that port - the Cumberland, Tennessee, Ohio, Missouri, Red, Arkansas and Mississippi Rivers all joined into one mighty stream that rolled past New Orleans. So the city was completely dependent on the steamboat trade, connecting itself thus with Natchez and Vicksburg, St Louis and Louisville, even Pittsburg! The men I met showed interest in a detached way, but did not believe a railroad would acquit itself against the workboats and floating palaces that lined their wharves.
It was Judah Benjamin who raised the idea of a race, not I. As no track ran from New Orleans upriver it seemed a moot point, but I did say that my railroad could run a better time from Mobile to Memphis than a steamboat could make from New Orleans to Memphis with a four hour start. This sally was met with amusement from the other men in the conversation, but Benjamin persisted. Would I make such a wager? he inquired. One thousand dollars? The other men fell silent save for the smoking of cigars, but many a thoughtful eye was cast my way. "Alas," I responded, "I am not a wagering man but a man of business who only risks money for a near-certainty of profit." There was a disappointed release of breath from the multitude, a mutter of disparagement. "Say rather ten thousand dollars," I went on, "and I am your man!" Oh, and didn't they play up then!
The terms were swiftly arrived at. The steamboat 'Sultana', notably fast, would have her departure telegraphed to Mobile. For our part I said that our locomotive would make all scheduled stops and would carry a load of normal weight, but would have the right-of-way upon the road. This was agreed; the Sultana would however go direct from New Orleans to Memphis with such freight and passengers as were listed for that port and would likewise have precedence on the river, as racing steamboats always do. I knew of course that the 'Sultana' would carry no freight and make no stops save 'touch and go' for fuel. What the men of New Orleans did not know was my fine new 0-6-0s were coming out of the Providence Works, ready to inaugurate a non-stop service from Mobile to Memphis. I planned to use my fastest machine and take on no cargo or passengers along the way. We agreed to allow five days to prepare, with the race to begin no sooner than the following Saturday at noon, and the deal was struck. By the next morning the subject was in the newspapers and on everyone's lips; the novelty and daring of the idea had quite taken the public imagination.
I hurried home on the morning boat, leaving Caroline to complete her visit. On arrival I went directly to the company and summoned three men to my office: General Superintendent Dermott Gillmore, Trainmaster John Rose and Superintendent Arthur McComber of the Providence Works. I outlined the proposal and asked for their views as to accomplishing it.
Gillmore was taken immediately by the daring of it, and began scribbling figures on a note-pad: so much wood and water for so many miles; men needed for refueling; time required. Rose was phlegmatic but sure. Given a working telegraph, he said, the road could be operated for other traffic and still kept open for our special. McComber shook his head when I asked for the newest engine from his shop. No, he said, New engines would not do, as they needed to be shaken down and run in. What we needed was the General Winfield Scott, the second of our 0-6-0's in service. That machine been at work some months, had made several runs on the route to Meridian, Tupelo and Memphis, and was well settled in. We'll pull the Scott into the shop today, he said, and work men through the night if need be. Plow to tender we'll work that one over!
I voiced my concern that it would be difficult to secure so many men at so many different points for the necessary wood and water, but Rose had the answer. We won't marshal them at different points, he said, we'll take them with us! A passenger coach for bravos who can pitch wood like devils, that's what we'll need!
And a car with a forge and some men who know their way around an engine, McComber said, beard bobbing. We'll no be sitting by the way-side with a cracked pipe! We have a work car that will do - it has a small kitchen and pantry, also - and I will send to Meridian for it within the hour!
We must publicize this! Gillmore said. The public will demand tickets!
"Publicity we need. But tickets we cannot sell to the general public," I said, and on that point I was firm. "One car for members of the press, free passage with our compliments. We can allow one man from each newspaper, and perhaps a photographer, but no more than that. You'll have to verify them, Gillmore, or have someone do that for you. The fourth and last car will have to be for entertaining more prominent men, and that will take some attention."
There was a passenger coach in the shop for repairs, McComber allowed. It could be stripped and refitted inside with something of higher quality than the usual bench seats. He said he thought he had just the man for such a project, if we gave him a free hand and some money.
"Money is no object," I said, which startled them more than a little. "There is much more at stake here than ten thousand dollars. If... When this race is won, gentlemen, we will have all the passengers and freight we can handle. All the quality trade that rides the steamboats will come first to us, if we are the fastest. So spare no expense, gentlemen! Let us win! And let us do so in style!"
Over the next four days we were very busy indeed. The General Scott was refitted, painted and buffed to a fine sheen, coaches were readied, crews assigned. I took on the tiresome task of dealing with the members of the press, and spent too much time answering the same questions over and over. One man who impressed me, though, was Charley McFee - the same man who is your editor now, William. We named him the dean of the newspaper corps, took his opinion as to who should fill the other thirty seats, and depended on him absolutely to make their arrangements. I took reports from my superintendents, of course, but in the main gave them what they requested and did not supervise them too closely. Also I was in constant contact with New Orleans by telegraph, finalizing the arrangements.
One tangible piece of evidence of these arrangements was the arrival, by packet boat from New Orleans, of a slim, elegant man impeccably dressed in the latest cut of civilian clothes, yet with the unmistakable carriage of a military man. I knew him immediately, as would anyone in the Southern states that might have seen a newspaper of the Mexican war. He was Brevet Major Pierre Gustave Toutant Beauregard, twice wounded at Mexico City the year before and sent home to convalesce, and he was here to represent the interests of the New Orleans consortium.
I liked him at once, and I think the appreciation was mutual. His was an open, manly character, refreshingly free of the disdain and condescension so unfortunately typical of the better men of the South, plain-spoken but courteous, inquisitive but not intrusive. In return I treated him with deference and made sure that everyone in my organization knew that all our preparations were open to him. We toured the Providence Works and the marshalling yards in the afternoon, discussed the schedule for the Race, and repaired to my home for the evening.
"As you have been so forthright with me," he said over brandy and soda, "I must tell you the talk in New Orleans is that the 'Sultana' is not accepting any freight or passengers for any destination short of Memphis." I confirmed that I had expected as much. "You did say that your railroad would make all scheduled stops?" he asked delicately. I smiled. "Our scheduled stop for that run is in Memphis, sir. We are inaugurating a non-stop service on this run, the same as we already have from Atlanta to Charleston, and from Richmond to Charleston. This was planned months ago; I can provide documents in support if you desire. I have of course no objection to your conveying that information to Mr Benjamin." He smiled, a small curve above his goatee. "I shall do so, sir, and I must say I admire your candor, and your confidence."
With that the talk turned to military matters, Mexico and the West as I remember. He was intensely interested in the costs of building and running a line, and with speed and carrying capacity. I think my cost estimates gave him pause but I am certain he was intrigued at how many troops and equipment a railroad could transport, and the rapidity with which it could do so. "I cannot guarantee a railroad could be run into the mountains from Vera Cruz," I said. "I have never surveyed the terrain. But I think it very likely that where a man or a mule can go, the railroad may also. Certainly over less difficult terrain, a set of trains could move the entire corps of General Scott's army, horses and artillery and equipment and all, hundreds of miles in only a few days, and sustain them in all their needs besides."
"Surely special cars would be needed," he said. "And no enemy would consent to leave such a valuable transport in operation; I know that I would not allow my enemy to possess such an advantage."
"Special cars, perhaps," I replied. "That is something the War Department should be planning for, in my opinion. I think however a railroad would be no more difficult to protect from cavalry raids than any road or river communication. Bridges, or tunnels, would be vulnerable. But properly trained and equipped, a track crew could repair casual damage to the rails with little interruption of service." He nodded, and smoked his cigar, and said no more. But I could see my words had given him a great deal to think upon.
The following day, Sunday, was the day we expected the 'Sultana' to sail from New Orleans. For racing steamboats, the preferred time to leave was between three and five o'clock of the afternoon, and once we received the telegram that the boat had sailed we would have another four hours to complete our preparations. Nonetheless, I awoke that morning in a profound state of anxiety and, unable to sit through church services, went directly to the station.
The newspapers had written of nothing else for days, and people had been crowding into Mobile from all the country around to see us off. Even before church services were over there was an excited and growing throng in the street before the station, and every arriving and departing locomotive was lustily cheered. Mobile, you see, suffered - and suffers today - from envy of her sister city, New Orleans, and it was a matter of civic pride that we succeed. Too, every person of that day was enraptured with speed, and races of all kinds were immensely popular. More than one young fool was hurt while racing his favorite horse against our locomotives, or while leaping for a moving rail car.
I had thought the crowd would eventually disperse when it was obvious that nothing would soon happen, but instead it grew as the wealthy and prominent arrived after luncheon. The city officials, bank men and our stock holders were entertained in the station itself while brass bands paraded on the platform and in the street. The celebration soon took on every semblance of a Mardi Gras, and mounted policemen were posted in the street to maintain order.
Some time around half past two the station manager came out and waved a telegram. A pool of silence spread over the street as the bands fell silent and he began to read. "Two oh five o'clock PM 'Sultana' departs New Orleans..." He got no farther. A roar swelled up that would have drowned any orator ever born; men were leaping in the air and tossing their hats and women waved bouquets, shawls, hats... it was pandemonium, and no mistake!
The main track was cleared and the General Scott rumbled in with her tender and cars in tow. The first car behind the tender was a passenger coach refitted for the workmen and crews, with half the seats removed and hammock hooks installed. The second housed the forge, workroom and a small kitchen and pantry. The third was a standard passenger coach for the reporters and photographers.
The fourth was like nothing I had ever seen. From the outside it appeared to be an ordinary passenger coach but with most of the windows smoked, curtained or otherwise obscured. I made no objection when McComber led me out to examine it. Once we had mounted the steps to the rear platform the true magnitude of his work became apparent. The seats had been removed to create a large open room, carpeted throughout. Various facilities were empanelled at the front, including a bar with attendant. The interior was lit by lamps in sconces, picking up the rich color of the wallpaper. Wallpaper! In a passenger coach! Carpets! And sitting on those carpets were plush upholstered wing chairs, side tables, cuspidors! It was the most bizarre and ridiculous sight I had ever seen, and I turned to make my expostulations, but McComber forestalled me. "You see, sir, the chairs and tables are affixed to the floor, here and here... and the tables have edging to contain plates, and recesses for drink glasses..."
A gasp from behind made me turn: it was Beauregard. "It is a veritable gentleman's club on wheels!" Behind him were four of the prominent men who would be traveling in this luxurious car, investors all: Willard of the Bank, Langdon the Mayor, Strouth of the Cotton Exchange and Gossett, an alderman. "As fine as the saloon of the Alhambra!" Willard exclaimed. I could see there was no avoiding including the ridiculous thing; they were all enraptured of the coach, and I would have to put the best face on it I could manage.
"How much of this is going to come loose on a bump? Or a curve? What about the lamps, man! Have you lost your mind!" I hissed, softly enough none but McComber could hear. "It is all secure, sir. I have tested every fitting personally. Even the picture frames are screwed to the paneling, and the lamps will be fine, my word on it," he replied, cool as ice, and perforce I had to accept it.
We made no great show of loading, as we had plenty of time. Langdon the Mayor addressed the crowd from the little platform of the club car, and the bands played, and everyone had a fine time. Gillmore broke out some barrels of cider, which was much appreciated by the throng. Then the last tool was checked, the final log was stowed, the tender topped up from the station tank, all fond good-byes said, and - at last - it was time to depart.
Major Beauregard had charged a brace of pistols with wadding - two, in case one misfired - and was standing by with a magnificent watch in his hand. Time had not been standardized in those days, of course, but we had determined to abide by New Orleans time and the Major had come equipped with several clocks and watches for the purpose. The roar of the crowd diminished as he raised the watch to his face, fell utterly silent as he lifted the pistol muzzle into the air. We held our breath...
Crack! A locomotive whistle screamed, the crowd thundered, the massed bands struck up a martial air. I was looking over my shoulder, for I knew the whistle had not come from the General Scott! Trainmaster Rose, ever thoughtful, had brought up one of our old Norrises and it was whistling away fit to burst while the Scott kept her steam for the task ahead.
Slowly, then more and more quickly, we drew away from the station, away from the deafening roar, away at last from the boys and men who raced after us, leaping in the air in sheer exuberance. Away, away at last, away from the city and into the piney woods and the gathering twilight. Away... and the Great Race had begun.