Chapter 5


Once we were well underway, stewards brought out a cold collation for each car and we attempted to master the art of dining on a moving train. Thomas Strouth inquired as to whether such luxury as this 'club car' and meals would become a part of our ordinary service, and I had to say that I did not believe such could be provided at any reasonable price. The more fool I, as within a decade fine dining and smoking lounges were part of the equipage of every great railroad, not to mention sleeping coaches and private cars.

As darkness fell, the lamps were lit and some of the men got up a card game. I made my way across the linkage to the reporters' car, finding them well fed and partaking somewhat freely of their hip flasks. They cheered me even though I told them I had as yet no statement, and I passed on up the train. I found John Rose the Trainmaster in the first car, and joined him over his paperwork.

The whole key to the race, you see, was not how fast the locomotive could go but rather how high our average speed would be, counting stops for wood and water and for any mechanical problems. We assumed the 'Sultana' would run as fast as she had four years before when she set a record of 19 hours from New Orleans to Natchez. As the river was 268 miles at that time, that put her average speed at 14 miles per hour or so. Although the rails were straighter than the river and Mobile a trifle north of New Orleans, we would also have to angle westward to Memphis... and the steamboat had a four hour head start.

Lightly laden as she was, the General Scott could easily make thirty or even thirty-five miles per hour on straight and level track, easily faster than the Sultana. But a riverboat, properly crewed, can refuel from barges almost without stopping, and never needs water as there is an entire river to slake her engines. The real tests of this race would be how quickly we could refill and refuel, and how high our average speed would be. To calculate that, we needed to know the mileage of track between the two cities, which we did at least to a good approximation, and we needed accurate records of our travel times.

At last satisfied that we had done all that we could, I grew restless. I wanted to go up into the engine cab, but Rose assured me the tender was stacked with cordwood, no place for my good blue suit. We did take a lantern and step to the flat bed of the work car, watching the trees whipping by and speculating on our speed. Reassured, I returned to the club car and smoked a cigar with Daniel Willard.

South of Meridian, Mississippi is the little town of Grand Junction. It was not even a hamlet in those days, only a collection of shanty houses around a complicated interchange, for this was where the Jackson to Montgomery east-west line met the Mobile to Memphis north-south line. We were blazing along in fine style, not quite to the Junction, when I heard the locomotive's puffing lessen, followed by the rattling of brakemen's shoes and the squeal of brakes being set. I immediately hurried forward, warning McFee as I went by that any newsmen who got off risked being left.

I found John Rose just ahead of the now-stationary locomotive, speaking in low tones to a grease-smeared man in filthy work clothes. He was, as it turned out, the brakeman for a construction train that was stalled ahead of us, blocking the rails through the Junction. I arrived in time to hear Rose say, "... or my men will tip it off the tracks!" For a moment I thought the other man would swing at Rose, so I introduced myself and inquired as to the nature of the problem. The train ahead of us, it seemed, was four cars of construction materials pulled by a Norris that had blown out a valve. Rose's suggestion was to push the train along with ours, switching it out of the way at the Junction. Although this would entail some risk of damage to the Norris - the reason for the other man's refusal - I endorsed the plan and we set about it immediately.

It was well done, I must say. Though the General Scott could not manage more than quarter-speed with such a load, we did get it moving and, falling back as we approached the Junction, allowed the switchmen to divert it onto the new west-bound spur. Despite our haste, however, we had lost the better part of an hour and steamed into Meridian in low spirits indeed.

The wooding and watering in Meridian did not go well, for we were too impatient and hasty. Rose formed the men up in a human chain to pass cordwood while another gang saw to the hose from the water tank, but the dark multiplied our difficulties and slowed our efforts. The engine crew checked the locomotive, prowling about with lanterns and oil cans, while the second crew checked the bearings on each car. Taking advantage of the delay, we switched the order of cars, placing the club car behind the forge and the press car last. Should further trouble develop, I did not want to have to walk through that inquisitive gauntlet! At last, Rose reported the tender full and McComber agreed the locomotive and cars were ready to roll, so we passed the word and started off.

I had no sooner passed back into the reporter's car than I was approached by a florid man in a cheap suit who demanded to know why we had not sent a conductor around to check that all passengers were aboard. "Sir," I responded, "this is not an ordinary passenger train, this is a race. My orders are that the train is to roll on schedule, whether you are aboard or not - and whether I am aboard or not, either!" This sally was roundly cheered by the gentlemen of the press, most of whom were in a fine state of merriment indeed.

And with that, I repaired to the club car and the pallet our stewards had prepared for each of us, intending only to lay down for a moment. Instead the motion and rumble of the train sent me straight off to sleep, deep but filled with terrible dreams.

In fact I was asleep only a few hours when I was awakened by my manservant, Oscar. Bleary and unshaven, I went forward and found John Rose, ordinarily so quiet and imperturbable, was roused to a foot-stamping rage. After a few moments I quieted him enough to gain some sense of the problem, after which it was his turn to try to calm me! It seemed the engineer had taken such a caution from our encounter with the work train south of Grand junction that he had reduced his speed to little more than a man could run. Instead of the twenty or thirty miles per hour I had counted upon, we were idling along little faster than ten!

Rose went to awaken the second crew and I went with him over the tender, good suit be damned. Rose relieved the engineer upon the spot and took the throttle himself. When the fellow protested, I handed him some money and told him to get off at Tupelo; he was no longer needed upon the Great Southern! The fireman needed no prompting, but laid to with a will, and as the sun stretched up above the eastern trees the General Scott seemed to throw itself into the work with renewed vigor.

Nonetheless, the damage had been done; we had covered less than thirty miles in the time I had hoped to spend on sixty. Twelve hours after leaving Mobile we had covered perhaps 180 miles. It was not yet disaster, but it was close upon it: by now, the 'Sultana' would be speeding toward Natchez and the long straightaways that lie above that port. Worse for us, this was a hilly and winding stretch, and until we descended to the West Tombigbee plain we would have slow going indeed.

There was nothing for it but to put up a good face and make the best of a difficult situation, which I did. My morning ablutions were of course primitive, but Oscar had managed a bowl of warm water and a fresh shirt. Miraculously, the cooks had contrived to make coffee from the hot water tank beside the stove, and bake some biscuits upon it, so our spirits were much revived by the dawn and the provender.

Having put the relief engineer on task, John Rose came back to confer with me. The water level in the tender was a little lower than expected, so instead of pushing straight on to Tupelo he proposed a stop. There was no station on that stretch in those days, but we had made arrangements for a few emergency woodpiles and water tanks, and there was one such an hour or so ahead. So we toiled on as the sun rose and grew hot, not the blistering heat of high summer but warm enough to open the windows and savor the breeze.

Water we found without trouble, provided we extended our hose to the well and used the billy-pump, but of cord-wood there was nothing save a set of wagon tracks, deeply pressed as if heavily laden. Rose made furious notes, for we could not allow such theft to go unpunished, but it was McComber who led the men out with axes in hand. Logs there were in plenty, and of sawn logs there were enough to see us through, but those logs needed to be split in quarters, and that would take labor... and time.

What was to have been a quick stop took three hours. The reporters were quickly bored and openly deprecated our chances, but the photographers were kept busy catching shots of the train and the work crews. At last, after what seemed an eternity, we rolled away, whistle echoing back from the red clay hills and looming pines.

Fortunately the ground began to level and settle as we rolled down into the wide, flat floodplain of the Tombigbee, or of its western branch, I should say. At Rose's urging, the engineer increased speed and maintained it even through a brisk afternoon rain shower. During this time we saw no other train, and indeed I was beginning to be concerned. Fortunately we would learn that the line superintendent had simply opened the track for us and diverted all traffic to sidings until we were reported past, no matter how long it might take. That man became the chief of the western division during the War, so I will speak more of him later.

More hard luck dogged our steps. We rolled into Tupelo on our last gallons of water, leaking liquid and steam alike. It was at that point 7:30 PM, and we had been traveling a little over twenty-five hours. I was at my lowest point, exhausted and harassed, but the sight of the crowd at Tupelo station quite revived our spirits. Our wood and water men threw themselves into their work and the mechanics did likewise while the press stampeded off to the telegraph office and saloon.

There was a telegram waiting for me, courtesy of Dermott Gillmore. The 'Sultana' had passed Natchez thirty minutes ahead of her old record and vanished upriver. Ahead of us lay the shortest leg of our journey but the steepest grades and most difficult bends. And there was McComber, to say the repairs could be effected but would require most of the night.

There was nothing for it but to press the work as fast as possible, and I knew McComber did not need my urging for that. For myself I played up and allowed the local men to host me to dinner at a home nearby, and followed that with an exhausted sleep.


Chapter 6

Back to Cover Page

Top