The Most Hated Man in the Southern States
I summoned Beauregard with a gesture, and we made our way toward the steamboat landing behind a screen of railroad bravos, but we had gone no more than a few steps when another messenger arrived, this one directing us to Jackson Park. As we approached I felt my heart sink even further, for a dais had been erected; currently it was in use by a speaker with others waiting their turn. There on the near end of the stage was Judah Benjamin, and his immaculate dress made me conscious of my rumpled clothes. I would have given a great deal not to have to face my opponent in public, but I had made the wager and must accept defeat. Man proposes but the Almighty disposes, and if a bitter cup was served to me, why, I had helped fill the draught and must drink it, and that was all. Still, I cannot say I went gladly.
As I mounted the steps to the platform, feeling as a condemned man going to the scaffold, Benjamin and the other men began huzzahing for quiet, and remarkably enough they got some semblance of it. Pulling me to the edge by my coatsleeve, Benjamin announced, "My friends! The Great Race is concluded! The winner, with a time of forty-two hours and twenty-seven minutes, is the General Winfield Scott of the Great Southern Railroad!"
The crowd went absolutely wild, a torrent of sound washing over us and prohibiting any reply I might have made, which was fortunate, as I was incapable of speech. Numbly, I allowed my arm to be lifted into the air, blankly I accepted the thunderous ovation, beseechingly I turned to Beauregard, who shouted something in Benjamin's ear. At last we descended from the platform and were paraded along to the Gayoso Hotel, where Judah Benjamin had retained rooms for himself and a suite for the winner. I was assisted by his valet and my own - how Oscar had found me, I never did know - and washed, dressed, groomed and ushered into a parlor for refreshments.
I was greeted by a dozen men, of which I knew not a soul. Beauregard and Benjamin congratulated me and ushered me to a magnificent upholstered wing chair. I accepted a tall, cold mint julep and declined a truly heroic cigar, sank into the chair and could only think to ask, "Where is the 'Sultana'?" There was no ready answer, it seemed, for there was no telegraph in the smaller river ports. Without a telegraph, no communication could come faster than the boat herself, and the sighting in Natchez was the last anyone had heard.
I listened to Beauregard extol the virtues of our club car and the swiftness of our journey, and I gathered my wits - slowly, I admit, for they were much scattered by the events of the past few moments. At last, Benjamin brought out a leather-bound book and extracted from it an envelope. "Enclosed is a cheque in the agreed amount," he said, "drawn on my bank in New Orleans and negotiable in this city. If you prefer specie, I am told that can be arranged this very afternoon."
I made no move to take the proffered envelope. "If you would be so kind, sir, pray tell me how came you here if the 'Sultana' is not yet arrived?"
Benjamin smiled, a broad sunny smile that was natural to his face. "I left New Orleans one day later than yourself, sir, traveling aboard the 'Fontana' and the 'Juliet' and arriving in this city yesterday evening." His gaze flicked to the envelope and held a hint of a question as it rose to my face.
"Sir, rather than accept your cheque - which is as good as specie to me, for I know you are a man of probity and honor - rather than accept your cheque, I say, I would prefer that you and your associates use those funds to buy stock in the Great Southern. That will assist us in opening our line to New Orleans." I paused for the gentlemen to huzzah in a genteel sort of way. "That will assist us in opening that line, I say, and your presence as stock holders and investors would be infinitely of greater value than any cheque or specie."
This sentiment was very well received, and Benjamin vowed it would be so. He kept his word, too, and profited no little from the bargain. As for the rest, we did lay our line through New Orleans to Baton Rouge, and through Jackson, Mississippi to Vicksburg. Mobilians might call the railroad 'the Crescent City Cut-off', and it is true that Mobile and Memphis benefited more from the Great Southern than New Orleans ever did. But we soon began to run trains direct to Memphis from our new station on Rampart Street, and New Orleans really lost very little.
The 'Sultana' made excellent time for a steamboat, but her arrival fourteen hours later was in sharp contrast to our time. The true loser of the Great Race was the river steamer, for it was passenger fares that paid for all the gilt and velvet, mirrors and silver that made the boats so luxurious. Once the public found you could travel more swiftly if less comfortably by rail, the river steamers lost more bookings every year. And I have no doubt that the same fate would befall the railroad, if ever a faster form of transport should be invented, unlikely though that may sound.
The economy began to falter in the last quarter of 1848, declining steadily until the crash of March of '49. Tight money and poor sales closed businesses and burst banks all over the nation. The jubilation of our victory in the Great Race was much tempered by another awful wreck in October of 1848. Despite evidence to the contrary, the newspapers were full of sensationalist guff, claiming we were operating all our locomotives at an unsafe speed. It was untrue, and I cannot say it did us no harm, but as the allegations were entirely born of fantasy they were almost impossible to refute.
Despite this, we improved in 1848, recording gross income of $4.6 millions and profits of $2.1 millions. I knew, however, that the real effects of the Crash of '49 were not yet apparent, and moderated our building program.
In 1849 we built west from Meridian, through Jackson, Mississippi and halted on the river bluffs at Vicksburg. To the north, the Memphis line was extended to Jackson, Tennessee, linking to our new paper mill. From there the rails were pushed into western Kentucky, coming to a halt atop the Mississippi river bank in Columbus, Kentucky.
1850 was a watershed year for the nation and for the Great Southern. From the Mexican War the United States had extracted a vast new territory, and there was much debate as to whether those states-to-be should be slave or free. As details of Henry Clay's great compromise emerged from Senatorial debate, there was also much heated public discussion of the proposed fugitive slave act, and of the South's place in the federal union. More important to Southerners was the passing of John C. Calhoun in March of that year. The old Carolina senator had long been a champion of Southern rights, and his dramatic but unsuccessful fight against the Clay compromise gave a voice to Southern disaffection.
The Great Southern had three goals for 1850, as I saw them. First, to rapidly replace our Norris types with modern Baldwin-type locomotives. During the early months of 1850 we suffered almost an accident per month, invariably resulting in total loss of the locomotive but - thankfully - no casualties to passengers or crew. Secondly, I desired to amass a fund for future expansion of the railroad, and thirdly, to expand our industrial and commercial activities.
Our largest single project for that year was the construction of a distillery in New Orleans. The abundant sugar cane of the region was boiled down to molasses and converted into an excellent rum. This fiery liquor found a ready market in the Gulf Coast ports and across the Caribbean, and the business thrived. Of less immediate profit, I began quietly buying up land leases with proven deposits of iron ore and coal, principally in central Alabama and southern Tennessee. These regions had abundant mineral resources but were little tapped by the crude smelters used by the local people. I knew our Providence shops needed pig iron by the ton rather than by the pound, and if iron could be had cheaply and in quantity we might expand our machine shops into all sorts of wrought and cast iron manufactures.
The most speculative of our many projects was the construction or purchase of hotels in Richmond, Raleigh, Charleston, Savannah, Atlanta, Mobile, New Orleans and Memphis. The example of the Gayoso Hotel in Memphis had deeply impressed me, and I determined that the qualities that drew steamboatmen and commercial travelers could also benefit passengers of the railroad. Close proximity to the train station was essential, as were cleanliness and courteous service. Heavily promoted by the railroad, these hotels entirely paid for themselves in less than four years and were consistently profitable thereafter. The Southern Hotel of Mobile often returned its entire construction cost in a single year! At that time you must remember that freight cargo was limited and the Great Southern depended heavily on passenger traffic. Pleasant lodgings at moderate expense encouraged travelers, and that alone would have made the hotels worthwhile.
I received no encouragement for my advocacy of industrial and commercial development, and encountered stiff opposition when I suggested surveying the mineral resources of the region. A large node of iron ore was found in central Alabama in 1851 and promptly purchased. Another contentious decision was my gift to the flood victims of North Carolina, but I knew it was the right thing to do and never wavered. Lastly, we resumed construction in 1851, building a fine new station in Nashville, Tennessee and inaugurating service to Memphis.
The distillery in New Orleans was so successful we followed it up with a business in Raleigh, North Carolina devoted to fruit brandies and cordials. With interests in beverages, liquors, textiles, paper and other products - not to mention our locomotive works - the Great Southern was seriously in need of a new organization.
Game notes: Revenue for 1850 was $4.9 million, profits $2.4 million. The decline in revenue and flat profits from the previous year are attributable to the depression.
For 1851, revenue increased to $5.38 million and profits increased slightly to $2.8 million.
Copyright © 2006 - E. Porter Hopson - All Rights Reserved.